Reflection: Infinite Learning and the Library as Classroom

Uniting many of the articles in the “Library as Classroom” track is a vision of collaborative learning in shared, dynamic spaces. Rather than traditional educational models that conceive of the learner as a relatively passive recipient (e.g., knowledge being transmitted from book to reader, from teacher to student), these emerging paradigms prioritize activity on the part of learners. “Learn by doing” became a “mantra” of Stephens’ transformative learning seminar (2016, p. 124), which had students conceptualizing and running learning programs themselves in real libraries. “Messy” is one of the words he uses (positively) to describe the experience. 

“Messy” also figures prominently in Joshua Block’s (2014) moving account of the art and dance classes he runs for high schoolers, in which he establishes parameters and sets high expectations, but allows students great latitude in how they realize their projects. “I structure projects so that students have a choice,” Block writes. Exercising choice, being self-directed, is something that child and teen users especially are often denied. Block recognizes the importance of providing choice in order to stimulate activity and authentic engagement. This resonates with the Collected Learning Alliance’s principle of interest-powered learning — the idea that the personal interests a learner brings to the learning environment can be a powerful driver of the learning experience (Nygren, 2014, p. 5). Other principles of dynamic learning environments emphasized by the Alliance include being production-centered, openly networked, and cross-generational. These ideas are valued both by forward-thinking public libraries (Bookey, 2015), and academic ones (Lippincott, 2015). Public libraries in particular seem well positioned to foster environments in which different generations of users can come together and create learning opportunities that are hard to replicate in commercial or private contexts. 

I especially liked Bookey’s examples of the public libraries that collaborated with local biologists and parks and recreation departments to create outdoor adventures that combined science and storytelling. Librarians don’t need to be subject experts themselves; rather they should become expert at facilitating connections and experiences between their users and other resources. 

“Connecting users to resources” sounds, in a general sense, like what reference librarians have always been tasked with. Brian Kenney’s article in Publisher’s Weekly starts to bring into focus how the reference librarian’s way of assisting users can be transformed into “help doing things, rather than finding things.” Examples in Bookey and Nygren show the way to exactly what “a more immersive and transformative experience” can look like for libraries. It should include both new tech and older, time-honored activities, inside the library and out, and the connections and knowledge built should resemble a web more than the one- or two-way streets.


Block, J. (2014, January 7). Embracing messy learning. Edutopia. Retrieved from:

Bookey, J. L. (2015). 8 Awesome Ways Libraries Are Making Learning Fun. Huffington Post. Retrieved from:

Kenney, B. (2015). Where reference fits in the Modern Library. Publishers Weekly.

Lippincott, J. (2015). The future for teaching and learning. American Libraries. Retrieved from:

Nygren, Å. (2014). The public library as a community hub for connected learning. [Conference paper.] Retrieved from:

Stephens, M. (2016). The heart of librarianship: Attentive, positive, and purposeful change. ALA Editions.

2 replies on “Reflection: Infinite Learning and the Library as Classroom”

I appreciate that you say that [public] librarians don’t need to be subject experts. It takes so much pressure off of us to know everything! I guess what I struggle with (especially in regards to tech programs) is how to provide a quality, challenging program when you aren’t a subject expert.

That does sound like a tough balance to strike–upholding good programming standards despite limited time and resources. We don’t have the time to be experts in everything, yet we want to provide a wide variety of programs. We will probably feel spread even thinner with budgets shrinking in the post-covid recession to come.

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