Libraries for Learning

Remarks prepared for “Biblioteche per Apprendere” Rome, Italy

I have taken to trying to summarize my talks in the form of a single tweet, just in case a certain US President is paying attention. So here it is:

“Believing that a collection alone will improve learning is like believing that a bag of groceries can magically turn itself into a soufflé.”

Let me begin my remarks by thanking the organizers of this event. Let me also apologize for reading a speech. I rarely restrict myself to a script, but I see my topic today as too important to leave it to the inevitable ramblings of jetlag.

To be clear I don’t think that even a script will prevent me from my true nature as an excitable American. What I would like to talk to you about today is nothing less than using your libraries as a mechanism to dramatically advance your educational system, and thereby improve scholarship, innovation, economic development, and citizen participation. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Let me start with two seemingly simple propositions.

Proposition 1: The core of librarianship is knowledge – specifically facilitating knowledge creation. That is to say that the reason we have libraries is to help a community get smarter, to create knowledge – to learn. That community may be a school, a town, a business, a ministry, or even a whole country.

Proposition 2: Knowledge is a uniquely human thing. Books are not knowledge – they are the result of knowledge. Knowledge can’t be shelved, or printed, or downloaded. Being uniquely human, it is not cold or merely a set of objective facts. Knowledge is passion and belief and the insatiable curiosity that drives us all.

Now let us put these two propositions together.

First, we see that libraries are not collections of books or databases or documents. Those are tools to a much larger end. Why do libraries collect books? To help a community learn. Why do libraries lease databases? To expand the knowledge of the community. The knowledge of the community – not the information of the community, or the holdings of the community, but the passionate, intimately human, finding one’s place in the universe, knowledge.

Secondly, we must understand that the true power of the library is not in those collections – what good is a book to a student that can’t read? The true power of the library is engaging in knowledge, and that requires people. The true power of a library is the librarian – the professionals and scholars who staff the library.

Thirdly, we see that the ultimate collection of the library is not in those tools, but the community itself. The true collection of a library is not made up of documents or manuscripts, but in the innovation, experience, and brilliance of the community served. It is the same with universities. The value of a university is not buildings or titles, or degrees, but the faculty, students, and staff engaged in a quest for truth and understanding. So too is it with a library.

And now, with the propositions of libraries and knowledge, and the realization that libraries are centered in communities, curated by librarians, and ultimately consist of the knowledge of the community members we can, in typical excitable American style, talk about the amazing opportunity before you today.

I believe that by Italy joining a growing global renaissance in librarianship you can transform the Italian educational system into the envy of the world, and an engine for expanded innovation, economic development, and an engaged citizenry.

I know that sounds grand, but if we don’t believe ourselves capable of the extraordinary, we too often settle for the ordinary. In these days where technology has obliterated space and time in how we access information, where the Vatican Library is as much about liquid cooled petabyte computing as ancient manuscripts, where our communities face the largest human migration since World War II, where our global politics redefine the very map and nature of Europe, how can we afford to be anything other than bold?

It begins with our primary schools. You have already begun investing in school libraries. This is great and it should be expanded, but it should also be targeted. The overwhelming evidence demonstrates that school libraries improve student outcomes and performance. However, that same research shows that the performance gains do not come from a room, or a collection, but the presence of a trained teacher-librarian. Let me just say that again. School libraries improve student performance, but when there is a dedicated teacher-librarian.

Teacher-librarians are not clerks or burnt out teachers. An effective teacher-librarian is a trained educator. They are trained in pedagogy, they work directly with teachers to enrich curriculum, and most importantly, they have their own curriculum in information problem solving. In primary schools, teacher-librarians should be in every school teamed with language arts teachers to increase literacy. They should be teamed with history teachers to expand the resources used to critically analyze historical events. Teacher librarians should be at the center of inquiry driven instruction where even at the age of 8 and 9 students merge math and science and literature to explore topics they are passionate about.

At the secondary level, professional teacher-librarians should not only support the other subjects, but should own and engage students around information literacy and problem solving. Teacher-librarians at the secondary level offer the best place to help Italian citizens critically analyze and engage in the media world around them. What good is a literate student that reads fake news? What good is a stand out science student who is easily deceived on the Internet? What value to society is a well-trained citizen unable to tell truth from conspiracy or legitimate news from propaganda?

I don’t think it is a coincidence that in the US and the UK-where school library programs are being cut and professional teacher-librarians are being replaced with volunteers-there is a growing crisis in falsified news and a growing distrust of the media and science. I am literally begging you to learn from our mistakes.

In every school in every town in every region of this country you need a dedicated corps of teacher-librarians preparing the leaders of tomorrow. Why so much emphasis on librarians in this process? After all you, as has nearly every country on earth, invested in improving classroom teaching. Why librarians then? Because there is no other profession better to situated to work across the curriculum. Advances in the classroom will never provide the improvement you seek until you have an effective way to connect those improving classes together. Teacher-librarians, when properly trained, act as a bridge that binds together physics and philosophy, language and linear equations, chemistry and civics.

And this is where our grand vision begins to get realized. Because not only will we connect course to course, but classroom to community. An investment in teacher-librarians matched with a reinvigoration of libraries in the public and academic sphere means we put in place a proactive knowledge infrastructure for the whole country. A person learns in a classroom, and at home, and with their friends. From a book, and a YouTube video, and a 3d printer.

When we all made huge investments in the internet we were told of the great potential. Bringing fiber to the countryside, wireless to our schools, and mobile broadband in our cities was supposed to spark a wave of invention, democratization, and economic growth. When anyone could download the latest discovery to their phone or share their newest song with the world, things were supposed to change. A vision of data and information talked of a new global community.

Instead, all too often we have built new monopolies streaming content to consumers who are asked to trade privacy for access. In too many cases our students and our citizens have become products.

Why, because our investments in an information infrastructure was not matched with an investment in a knowledge infrastructure. We provided access where those with knowledge of computing, marketing, and data analysis were able to prosper. What we need now is a matching knowledge infrastructure that empowers all of our citizens to master and manipulate these technologies.

Why librarians? Once again what part of society today spans from birth to old age? What other part of society links the scholar to the farmer? By linking our public libraries in Pistoia, with our teacher-librarians in Perugia, to our academic librarians in Florence, to our medical librarians in Calabria; Italians-you-have the power to ignite the potential of the people. With the infrastructure already in place, with the investments already made, education becomes a tightly coupled platform for innovation.

Don’t think, however, this will be easy, or the result of a simple declaration. First, we need to prepare the librarians and teacher-librarians in this new knowledge-centered thinking. Gone are the days when library education could be solely about cataloging. Gone are the days when scholars could wrestle with theories in their ivory tower while practitioners focused only on the stacks before them.

It is time to throw open the doors and windows on the libraries. It is time for the buildings to become community hubs, the new piazza, and the librarians a missionary force going into the community.

I apologize if this comes across as a visitor lecturing to his hosts. I am, once again, an excitable American. But I ask you – isn’t that what Italian libraries and Italian schools need? Excitement? I talked before of a library renaissance. It harkens back to a time in Italian history where humanism took firm footing. Where passionate polymaths literally changed how man saw his relationship to the universe. Where a cosmos of perfect celestial spheres was shattered for a universe so much grander and more complex. Let us, you and I, here and now, dare to think bigger and create a society once again at the forefront of the world.

Thank you.

YouTUBE Record of the Event: