Wonderings and Musings

Smile Because It Happened: An Ethnographic Project Looking at Institutional Culture Change and Transforming Communities (And Why Librarians Should Pay Attention)

As many of you have followed my work for some time know, I have been and continue to be a fan of the work of Michael Wesch, a cultural anthropologist, and his students.  This year’s cohort of Digital Ethnography students created a moving and powerful documentary, “Smile Because It Happened”,  of their exploration of community at the Meadowlark Hills retirement community.  You can read more of the backstory of the project in this blog post, but after watching the video this morning, I could not help but think about what libraries (academic, public, school) might glean from this work:

  • Ethnography as a powerful research methodology for libraries (an ongoing interest for me rooted in my Language and Literacy studies from my days at The University of Georgia)
  • The value and power of intergenerational learning
  • Narrative and real world stories from our community members and what we can learn we when really listen.
  • Deep and meaningful engagement with community—this work clearly goes beyond surface levels surveys and town hall meetings
  • Real conversations for learning and understanding
  • Thinking about what we as libraries and librarians have to learn from our communities, not just what we have to teach them
  • What are catalysts for institutional change that can be transformative and help communities thrive?  How do communities transform libraries?  What if libraries embedded themselves in the heart of a community in the way these students did, and what powerful insights might we learn from that as an ongoing experience?

These initial reactions resonate with the tremendous and intense amount of observing, thinking, reflecting, and questioning I’ve engaged in the last seven months.   While I’ve been fairly reticent on the blog this year, I’ll be saying more about that process and experience in the next few weeks and how that is informing my current conceptualizations of libraries, learning, and life, but for now, I’d encourage you to take time to watch the documentary and consider your own responses.  Given the tremendous amount of interest and initiatives in libraries and communities in librarianship right now, I think work like this of Wesch and his students provide us an alternate lens for thinking about the possibilities of this work.

On Butterflies, Discovery, and Magic

Today I set out to photograph some wildflowers that I’ve seen on my run on the road where I live.  It is a little country road—barely enough room for two cars to pass—so there aren’t many places to park.  I decided to park in the grass near a neighbor’s house that was about 1/8 of a mile from the flowers I planned to photograph.  Just as I started to walk to the spot where the flowers were growing on a bank, I glanced over to my right and was startled to notice hundreds of butterflies in the wildflowers and weeds growing between the road and the woods.  I spent an hour glued in that one spot taking over 200 photographs, soaking up the gorgeous weather (70 degrees and low humidity–we live for fall here in Georgia!),  and reveling in the magic and beauty of the butterflies drunk on nectar and sunshine.  To suddenly be in such close proximity to these butterflies, whom I have always considered ethereal, elusive envoys of nature—it was an unexpected and unplanned experience of pure unadulterated joy.

As I left the spot to get in my car and return home, it occurred to me that sometimes we find joy and magic where we least expect it or in a place we didn’t think to look.  As librarians and teachers, we are all about laying out strategic plans, goals, and projects with specific details.  However, this golden hour today reminded me that while having a plan or specific goal is a positive thing, being open to discovery and dwelling in “other” spaces can often lead us to insights and new focal points for our work that relate to our overarching mission.  I set out to do one specific task looking to photograph one aspect of nature, but instead, I wandered into something else that while different, was equally beautiful and in some ways, more meaningful.  As I continue my work as a librarian, I hope I’ll keep this memory close and remember to keep my eyes open to all possibilities, not just the ones I originally envisioned for myself.

I’ve included a few photos in the slideshow below of today’s experience–enjoy!

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Makerspaces, Participatory Learning, and Libraries

The concept of libraries as makerspaces first hit my radar last November when I read about the Fayetteville Free Library’s FabLab.  As I began hearing more buzz about libraries and makerspaces the first few months of this year, I decided that learning more about this concept and exploring how I might apply the elements of makerspaces to my library program would be a personal learning project for the summer.

So what is a makerspace?  Makerspace defines it as:

Modeled after hackerspaces, a makerspace is a place where young people have an opportunity to explore their own interests, learn to use tools and materials, and develop creative projects. It could be embedded inside an existing organization or standalone on its own. It could be a simple room in a building or an outbuilding that’s closer to a shed. The key is that it can adapt to a wide variety of uses and can be shaped by educational purposes as well as the students’ creative goals.

The Library as Incubator Project describes makerspaces as:

Makerspaces are collaborative learning environments where people come together to share materials and learn new skills… makerspaces are not necessarily born out of a specific set of materials or spaces, but rather a mindset of community partnership, collaboration, and creation.

In late spring, I was even more intrigued by the concept as my friend and colleague Kristin Fontichiaro began sharing some of her thoughts on makerspaces and the possibilities for school libraries.  While immersing myself into researching makerspaces last week, I discovered friend and fellow librarian Heather Braum is also fascinated by the possibilities, and she shared her current list of resources with me including photos and video from her visit this past weekend to the Kansas City Maker Faire.  You can learn more about Heather’s MakerFaire experience in her new blog post here.

While I am having fun soaking up ideas and brainstorming ways we could cultivate makerspaces in The Unquiet Library, I can’t help but notice that makerspaces provide opportunities for participatory learning.  As regular readers of the blog know, participatory learning is the guiding framework for my library program and services.  Project New Media Literacies identifies these principles of participatory learning:

  • Heightened motivation and new forms of engagement through meaningful play and experimentation
  • Learning that feels relevant to students’ identities and interests
  • Opportunities for creating using a variety media, tools and practices
  • Co-configured expertise where educators and students pool their skills and knowledge and share in the tasks of teaching and learning
  • An integrated system of learning where connections between home, school, community and world are enabled and encouraged
I believe that makerspaces can provide students AND teachers opportunities to exercise these elements of participatory learning and to form what James Gee calls affinity spaces, communities formed around passions and shared interests. Tinkering, collaborative learning, play, conversations for learning, intergenerational learning,experimentation, inquiry, the act of creation, and problem solving–these are just some of the qualities that can happen in makerspaces and encourage participatory learning.

Buffy swooning over her new School’s Out Issue of MAKE

My excitement about the possibilities of makerspaces was fueled today by an unexpected trip to a local Barnes andNoble store and stumbling upon the “School’s Out!  Summer Fun Guide” issue of MAKE magazine which includes a set of 3D glasses to interact with the magazine features!  While some of the makerspace ventures do involve some startup costs and others might involve equipment and materials that wouldn’t fit the typical school library budget, this issue is brimming with ideas to help librarians easily craft makerspace culture on a dime.

So what are some additional resources if you’re in the initial thinking/planning/wondering stages for how to create a makerspace as an essential learning space in your library?

Are you thinking about incorporating makerspaces (as well as hackerspaces) into your library during 2012-2013?  If so, please help the education and library communities crowdsource this concept by sharing your resources and ideas!

Why no, B&N, MAKE is not just for men or boys–girls like makerspaces, too!

Interestingly enough, the magazine issue was on display in the freestanding “men’s interests” display rack—I did complain to a salesperson that the placement of the magazine was not only sexist but age inappropriate as a magazine geared toward children should probably not be displayed prominently to magazines featuring covers featuring excessive cleavage of women–she promised to share my concerns with the magazine section manager, and I’ll follow up to see what happens.

Time to Reboot the Universal Symbol for Library?

Original photo by Buffy J. Hamilton; CC license at http://bit.ly/AabHQ1

I was tooling around my former hometown of Alpharetta, Georgia last weekend and could not resist the opportunity to photograph a sign at the corner of Main Street and Mayfield Road with the beloved universal symbol for library.  The image you see is the one currently recognized and approved by the United States Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration as the official symbol for libraries on road signage.   As I thought about how libraries are not only about books and reading, but also places to learn, create, and share, I couldn’t help but wonder if it is time to either update or create additional new universal symbols for libraries?  What would you as a librarian choose for a symbol?  More importantly, your patrons?

Why I Am Not Signing The “Save Libraries” Petition

A steady barrage of listserv messages, tweets, Facebook postings, and blog entries have been making the rounds in recent weeks urging people to sign a petition that states the following:

“Any school receiving Federal funds should be required to have a credentialed School Librarian on staff full time with a library that contains a minimum of 18 books per student. Failure to have a school library open to all students and/or failure to have a credentialed School Librarian to run that library should be punishable by a immediate withdrawal of all Federal monies.

Study after study has shown that well-stocked, well-funded, well-organized school libraries staffed by a “highly qualified” School Librarian, or other similarly qualified credentialed individual, improve student reading scores, test scores, and literacy rates. All children have the right to read and to have access to materials that will help them grow as learners and as people. No Library = No Freedom to Learn.”

While I know the intent was noble and well-intended in creating this petition, petitions like these are often a slippery slope, so I’m going to be politically incorrect and offer a dissenting perspective.  We need to advocate for more than  being “properly staffed, open, and available for children every day” because truly effective school librarians and programs go beyond staffing, accessibility, and materials.  I assert that a “credentialed” school librarian and 18 books won’t guarantee an effective or relevant library program.  These criteria are a gross and superficial oversimplification of the complexity of cultivating meaningful library programs and the possibilities for school libraries in a learning community.  Plenty of schools have “credentialed” school librarians who are ineffective on many levels—pinning language to such a narrow term that unfortunately can’t equate “credentialed” with highly qualified is problematic.

It’s also a false premise  that either of those requirements will guarantee or help deliver an effective library program that is worth a public school losing federal monies/funding.  Here in Georgia, we have a state requirement that calls for every school library to be staffed by a certified school library media specialist [see specific rules requiring media center staffing here and here as well as state of Georgia code], but some school districts participating in the state IE Squared program (which among other things, gives districts more spending flexibility), like our neighboring Forsyth County District, have received waivers from the state that gave them permission to eliminate school librarians from a number of their elementary schools.  This example illustrates how districts will find ways to circumvent mandates when it serves their economic challenges or educational philosophy.  I hate to sound cynical, but in these economically-challenged times, I think it’s realistic to expect many states or school districts would seek waivers to such mandates or even worse, lower the bar for what it takes to be “credentialed” as a school library media specialist in that state.

I’d also rather have seen language in the petition that emphasized tools and mediums for learning, not just books—by privileging a requirement of 18 books, we continue to perpetuate and privilege the stereotype (or what grains of truth are in that stereotype, I wonder?) of the library as a book warehouse rather than the library as a place of learning.  As many of you know from your own state and regional accreditation agency mandates, requiring a certain number of books rarely results in funding for a rich, current collection (which should be more than just print for learners of all ages).  At my last high school, we met the now-defunct requirement for 10 books on paper, but guess what?  Because previous library staff was afraid to weed the collection regularly due to insufficient funding to purchase new and timely materials to replace the weeded materials, we had a collection with an average copyright date in the 1970s; this  phenomenon is sadly commonplace across the country.

Additionally, studies referenced in the language of the petition don’t actually show a definitive cause and effect between a “well-stocked, well-funded, well-organized school libraries staffed by a ‘highly qualified’ school librarian or other similarly qualified credentialed individual”  [what does “other similarly qualified credentialed individual” mean?], and the  improvement of “student reading scores, test scores, and literacy rates”.  While these popular and oft-referenced studies show correlation between the two, they do not show an direct actual cause and effect; to actually prove such would be exceedingly difficult as there are many variables in what contributes to academic achievement, and defining what counts as excellence  in these areas can even be debated.   While the reference of many of the popular studies has proven effective as a form of library advocacy in some states and districts, on the whole they have failed to convincingly sway stakeholders on a national scale.  Perhaps the time has come to concede that while these studies do yield useful data with important implications, they don’t have the definitive data decision makers are seeking.  As a profession, I hope we will  point to more data (qualitative) in addition to standardized test scores as a measure of the impact of school libraries on teaching and learning.  If there are quantitative or qualitative studies that show direct, unequivocal cause and effect of school library programs and student achievement, I would appreciate any links or publication information for such studies.

I do not mean any disrespect to those who think this petition will make a difference, but I would encourage us a profession to unpack the language and assumptions laden in the wording of this petition before we write off lack of participation in this petition as apathy or indifference.  I’d encourage each of us to contemplate what exactly this petition actually means and the values about school libraries implied before we market this petition as something that will actually ensure the highest quality of school library services because it most certainly doesn’t guarantee that.   We would all love a simple fix to the challenges our profession is facing, but the reality is that it’s going to take more than being federally mandated on paper for us to gain real and meaningful traction in being regarded as a relevant and necessary component of a successful school–that is the real elephant in the little red schoolhouse.  The challenge of changing perceptions about the role and value of school librarians and school library programs is not an easy endeavor as we try to position ourselves as learning specialists and teachers who are as valuable as any content area teacher–I think our time may be better spent engaging in some honest dialogue and open, candid critique about what is working and what is not as a profession in taking on this challenge rather than counting on a federal mandate to “save” us or our programs.  The mandate that will yield the most powerful and authentic impact we need to grow and sustain effective school library programs that contribute to school learning communities must ultimately come from the administrators, school board members, teachers, students, and parents we serve as that is where the true power of “buy in” lies, not in a federal mandate forced upon schools.