Public Libraries = 'Other Organisations'?
On Day-one, I heard a teacher use a chart to explain his school's workflow for identifying, selecting, partnering and evaluating community partners.
His chart had boxes that represented various organisations, classified by type, e.g. Welfare organisations; Tourism Industry; Seniors-related...
There wasn't a box for "Public Libraries".
I went up to the teacher after his talk. Introduced myself. Said I worked for the Public Library Service. I said, "I noticed Public Libraries are not on your school's radar screen."
The teacher replied, "Oh... [laughs], public libraries are in the box labeled 'Other Organisations'."
Why aren't Public libraries seen as potential community partners?
His response drove home the stark point that some teachers (or maybe many of them) don't see our public libraries as possible community partners.
It wasn't just that one teacher.
When I chatted with teachers at the conference and said I worked for the Public Library Service, a few of them asked why I was attending the conference. They'd assumed I was a teacher, and that only teachers would be interested in a conference on Education.
This isn't a criticism of teachers. I'd already mentioned here that initially, I felt little could be done to truly involve public libraries as part of the schools curriculum.
At the end of Day-one, I'd changed my mind. I sensed possibilities, but there weren't very concrete.
And then there the realisation that public libraries weren't on the schools' radar screen as potential community partners.
I sought to understand why.
A possible reason revealed on Day-two
That the morning, I asked a teacher if their school would consider the working with the public library for community-based learning initiatives.
That teacher said, "But what do you offer? We're looking for more than just our students shelving books at the library for six hours".
Public libraries = Volunteer-stint = Shelving?
I'm guessing that most teachers tend to associate "volunteer opportunities" in public libraries with "shelving of books". In reality, our public libraries offer many types of volunteer opportunities.
But that wasn't the point.
Community-based Learning, as I understood it, was more than the volunteerism angle.
I learned there are usually two aims:
- Academic: To reinforce school lesson plans, e.g. students taking Biology are attached to labs where they get to handle actual plant or animal specimens
- Social: To reinforce social values in students or to let them understand social issues, e.g. working with aged or children
For public libraries to go in as partners in Community-based Learning initiatives, we're essentially involving ourselves in the education of a student. Which requires learning goals to be clearly defined as outcomes from that partnership.
Predictions in Community-Partnership Learning initiatives
I predict that School and community partnership initiatives will only increase. They must, since more and more teachers (as I was told) recognise the need for Education to be more than just 'Passing Exams'.
More schools are likely to implement their own brand of Community-based Learning initiatives, i.e. there's no one best way.
Also, more organisations (including public libraries) will recognise the value of participating in such initiatives. The typical resources offered by partner organisations would be funding, or resources like venues/ physical infrastructure, and staff expertise (administered via mentoring students).
In that light, schools will be spoilt for choice in their selection of community partners.
Which means public libraries will have to "compete" with other organisations in that sense.
But can or should we?
Why and How should our public libraries respond?
To me, the Why is simple -- if public libraries are partners in Education, then we're making ourselves more relevant.
As for the How, this may sound simplistic, but I think public libraries (and librarians) must first believe that they can be partners -- not merely service providers -- in the Education system.
Speaking for myself, I had to shake off the notion that public libraries have nothing to offer. Or that what we can offer isn't as "attractive" compared to other organisations.
To paraphrase Ranganathan's "Every reader his/ her book", we must also believe that "Every student his/ her Cause".
Somewhere out there, a school and/ or students might be interested in "working with the public library as a partner" (i.e. more than just being a volunteer).
What are public libraries and librarians good at?
During the conference, I heard examples of community-based learning projects that had to do with overseas trips, or projects with grand and noble aims like "Saving The Environment".
My first thought was that compared to those examples, the public library's business of promoting reading (e.g. writing book reviews, or *gasp* shelving) isn't appealing at all.
But I realised we do not have to apologise for what we're good at.
And we should see the business of public libraries as more than just promoting reading. In a larger sense, we are about promoting information and media literacy.
This could be what we're good at.
If we're not there yet, then we can aim to be.
I'd also argue public libraries should promote "Social Literacy" or even "Global Literacy". [Note: I'm still reading up on this concept, for instance blog posts like this and this; this website; this PDF article. Currently, I define "social/ global literacy" as one's competency in relating to society/ the rest of the world, and being a productive member in it -- online and offline].
Practical steps for public libraries
Logically speaking, public libraries should be able to approach a school and explain the "What" and "How" in being their partners in Community-based Learning initiatives.
But no, I don't think that approach will work without an understanding of what schools need.
We should start by asking what are the school's community-based learning objectives, i.e. the Academic and/ or Social aspects.
Then ask schools what their students are good at. What's been the school's focus for community-based learning? Look at the school's past community projects, which ought to be on the school's website.
Only then do we think and re-think how public libraries fit into the picture. Particularly the learning outcomes that a public library and school partner will result.
Learning outcomes from public library + school community-based learning partnership
I can't elaborate much on this yet. I'm still thinking about it. [UPDATE, 30 Mar 2008: Some concrete ideas].
But I do know it's not about "reading" or "books".
As I learned from RICE 2008, it's outcomes like "self-awareness", "teamwork", "civic responsibilities", "cultural competencies", "authentic problem solving", "a sense of community", "deeper understanding of social issues", and "diversity in learning".
Start with basics?
While drafting this post, I was thinking about ideas like students working with librarians to set up a library for charity organisations.
Or starting tuition/ homework help club that utilises public library materials to make lessons more interesting. Or buddy-reading programmes to younger children.
But my mind went back to the teacher who thought that public libraries only required students to shelve books.
Shelving, by itself, cannot be called "Community-based Learning". Neither do we want to turn a simple task like shelving (that some volunteers are happy to do) into something complicated.
Maybe we can expand the idea of shelving to include academic and social outcomes. Learning about the DDC, about it's origin and limitations, and then to the way the world of knowledge is classified, and extending that to an understanding about the world...
Perhaps it's not so much What is done in a Community-based Learning project, but How it's being structured and managed, so that desired learning objectives are achieved.
Maybe we can start with shelving after all.
[Next: PART 6 - "Ideas for School & Public Library community-based learning partnerships"]