Thoughts on Schools and Libraries

Picture by Atelier Teee/Flickr Since I thought about this observation while getting into my car to go to dinner the other evening, I haven’t been able to shake it out of my system. I’m hoping that this blog entry will be read by individuals who can shed some light on the subject and perhaps nudge me as to whether I am actually onto something. And so, without further ado, here is the observation that came to me.

While both schools and libraries are seen as institutions of education, there is a radical difference between the two. Specifically, schools represent a structured form of academic learning and inquiry based around lesson plans, schedules, and specific practices and theories of education, whereas the library is an unstructured marketplace of intellectual exploration for the self motivated curious individual. It is the institutionalization of the learning process through the public school that makes the unfettered academic freedom of the library so foreign to most people that they become non-users. In other words, I believe the structured learning process of schools tends usurps the ability of people to engage in the independent pursuit of their own erudite curiosity. 

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to make sense. As a graduate of the public education system, as far as I can recall in my schooling years, I can remember the existence of structure in my studies. From Pre-K to 12, my academic thoughts and curiosities were managed by a series of very well meaning teachers and instructors who told me the subjects I was going to learn, explore, and consider at different parts of the day. It may not have mattered that I wasn’t much for considering Shakespeare at 8:30 in the morning or math functions right after lunch at 1:45 or tackling a foreign language at the end of the day when I was tired of being at school; there was a schedule and I was beholden to it.

During those years (especially high school), I did as I was expected by my parents and teachers in order to do well on my report cards. But it was not a labor of love; it was a means to an end to get to the looser structure of college with its liberal schedule and hours that better matched my learning habits. Even when I went to the library, it was because I had an assignment or report that needed research and support. (i.e. I was indirectly told to go the library because the requirements of research for the report were necessary to gain a passing grade.)  Throughout the length of my academic career, I never went to the library on my own whims.

To this end, I think this is where the lacuna between schools and libraries exist; people either do not or cannot make the step from a structured learning environment of school to the free form inquiry of the library. When you have spent the new sum total of your formative years being told what you are going to think about and learn, how foreign would it be to given a learning environment that comes without such directions or constructs? Obviously some people can make the transition while others use us for the services that we offer (e.g. free internet, free newspapers), lest we would have been gone many years ago. Nor would I say that everyone is completely brainwashed into thinking only through direct prompting. But, I suggest that for greater numbers the library has less appeal without the instilled structure or guidance that has been carried hand in hand with their prior learning experiences.

One might look at this notion and ask, “Well, where does the Internet fall into this? It’s unstructured and people use it everyday.” I’m really not completely sure at the time of writing this post. I would surmise that the internet is more convenient for (what I would call) “surface curiosities”; that is, basic inquiries such as what today’s weather will be, the local or national news, what the family is up to, and so forth. I think the point of inflexion on the internet exists when there is a deeper understanding sought. Here, you can easily get into the invisible web, a point where the library can step in through databases and subject specific materials on a topic. The gap that exists here is one of perception. It is very easy to think that the web has everything with the ease of search engines; however, it is another thing when it comes to the merit of the results. The “all knowing” reputation of the internet supersedes the possiblity of asking for aid from the library. And as a result, people to not pass through our doors, call us on the phone, or even email us with their inquiry.

I’m not indifferent to the fact that there has to be some organization and structure when you are dealing with that many students at those ages with the variety of learning styles. Public education is a ‘one size fits most’ solution to providing knowledge to the greatest number of students with the least amount of variation in practice. But, if we are as serious as we proclaim to be about the education of our children, there certainly has to be a better way of doing it that balances maintaining an orderly school and allows exploration and inquiry that better matches a child’s natural inclinations.  A fostering of natural curiosity blurs the line between schools and libraries and makes the interchange between them more natural. (The left and right hands of education, if you will.)

To be fair, I only have my own educational experience to draw upon for these observations and I am certainly no expert in the fields of public education. However, I simply cannot shake this notion that my presumptions hold some greater validity. I would be delighted with either a correction or validation, for both would provide me with a more definitive answer.

Such is the price of my curiosity. :D

10 thoughts on “Thoughts on Schools and Libraries

  1. I think this is very right on and highlights a significant problem in education as a whole, not just public school. I’ve been around both and for the most part, the way the students are taught are fairly similair.

  2. Interesting point. I think in a lot of ways schools are designed to teach us how to be cogs in the machine. Arts programs are the first to be cut because they’re not considered practical (read: job-oriented). Most schools crush intellectual curiosity and creativity in favor of order, discipline, and conformity, IMO. Hence the development of “library phobia.” :0(

    • I don’t see it as a phobia, per se, but as an aversion. That is, if it doesn’t fit into the model of the learning process we have become accustomed to, then we avoid it.

      And while life is full of unstructured learning experiences, I think the library is enough of an educational institution to remind people of their school days. I’m not talking that people have PTSD when it comes to schooling, but that they have similar approach when it comes to the library.

  3. Very interesting…. I think our education system not only hinders natural curiosity, but also prevents truly gifted teachers from doing what they do best, authentic teaching.

    One of my favorite professors includes this quote at the beginning of the syllabus for each class he teaches:

    I feel sorry for teachers who are required to spell out precise “learning objectives” long before a class begins so that they can measure their own “effectiveness.” I feel sorry for their students, too. Education dominated by preconceived images of what must be learned can hardly be educational. Authentic teaching and learning requires a live encounter with the unexpected, an element of suspense and surprise, an evocation of that which we did not know until it happened. If these elements are not present, we may be training or
    indoctrinating students, but we are not educating them.
    Parker J. Palmer, The Active Life, 74-75

    • That’s a great quote. I think the more memorable of teachers that we remember later on are the ones who did something that stood out from all of the educators that we had before. The ones that made you get up and move around, to look at the world differently, or shook things up.

  4. Hi there!

    I like this idea. I really do. I had never thought of it that, but it makes perfect sense.

    but juuuust to play Devil’s Advocate …

    Do you think that this says more about our peculiar “learning style” than that of most people? If you think of the way that most librarians process information, we seem to absolutely THRIVE on chaos. Most librarians are almost painfully geeky, have a natural curiosity, and enjoy stocking the meatspace in our brains with every useless bit of knowledge from the Schwarzchild radius of V4641 Sagittarii to the unladen air speed of the European swallow.

    I know damn well that when *I* was going to grade school, I couldn’t bear the structured, regimented system of learning. When I went to a library, I could just turn myself loose and absorb all the information I could find. This is what started me on the long, hard road of library science. Oh sure, there were plenty of people at my school who probably LOVED the comfortable predictability of the modern United States School System, but I couldn’t stand it.

    Who knows how many of my fellow students would have made wonderful librarians if they just knew how absolutely liberating library science could be! :D

    • For myself, my love of information is what brings me to the library. It’s a living organism that grows and contracts, fluid in its movements and structure, and feeds on the curiousity of humanity. I like searching for things as well, figuring out their subject headings, and getting the right piece of data to someone. I’m a people person, so working with the general public is rewarding (…most of the time). For us, we not only get to ask the questions we want to ask, we get to answer them as well.

      I think the better Devil’s advocate argument would be that the library doesn’t provide the support for people to foster their own independent curiousity. What we would regard as being ‘respectful of the customer’s privacy’ by leaving people alone in their browsing, we could take a step towards them to see what they want. In my own experience, walking the floor and saying hello or seeing if people needed anything has resulted in people asking questions that they probably wouldn’t have asked in the past. Whether it is for additional authors, works, subject books, I have actually heard the words “I’m glad you came by” from these smaller encounters.

      If anything, we need to be more proactive in our approach to customer needs rather acting like we are the caretakers of the “bank of knowledge”.

  5. I’ve thought about this a lot lately as I recently went back to graduate school. I love learning and I love reading, but it never fails that once I get back into a classroom, all of that passion gets sucked right out me. It’s a terrible thing that school can take away one’s passion for learning and reading. It should be the opposite, right?

    But is it the structure that does this or the emphasis on fulfilling learning objectives? I don’t know. I wish I could figure out so I could find joy in learning again. I honestly cannot wait until this semester is over so I can pick up a science book or a history book on my own and fall in love with reading again.

    • To me, it sounds like the difference is being told what to read under a specified time period as opposed to reading on your own within your own time periods. Not that you wouldn’t read the same amount or more within the time period, but that you are doing it for yourself.

      This does sound like a good example of structured and unstructured learning.

  6. We are members of society. To fit in to that society, certain basic skills are required. We learn these basic skills through structured training, such as schooling. Hardly anyone wants to be constantly told what to do. It’s a lot more fun to pursue one’s own subjects of interest. Sir Newton said something about standing on the shoulders of giants. We can generally reach farther toward our own subjects of interest because those basic skills pounded into us are the foundation that gets us above the dirt ground. Only if we are permanently tied flat to that foundation will it usurp our curiousity. A simplistic using of libraries is one of those skills we learn. A realization of the possible uses of libraries as a tool is something we must understand for ourselves. If we are truly searching for some specialized knowledge, the path will probably take us through some libraries.

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