Learning Community Design 2.0: The library as a communal center of learning

My friend and urban planner, Jen Hurley (Twitter: @JenHurPlanner), forwarded me this piece (April 1, 2011), by Rick Cole, on libraries as learning communities. In response to the declining importance of book lending, Cole points to an Australian library design that dramatically recasts the place of libraries in the community.

Citing Ross Duncan, the manager for Learning Communities for Sunshine Coast Council, a large Australian metropolitan region, Cole explains the new vision for libraries in the Sunshine Coast:

Duncan’s philosophy is to infuse the 10 branches of the Sunshine Coast library system with a focus on “changing the world.” He’s shaped what is essentially an informal family university offering more than 4,500 activities, workshops and events that foster a “learning community.”

Duncan’s vision is of a dynamic learning space that allows individuals of every age to learn, study, interact, and take action together. The model is especially compelling because it seems so much more functional and flexible than the traditional schooling design for learning with its set classes and limited outcome goals. Duncan’s library design is powerfully open-ended–allowing transformative learning to incubate in a variety of safe spaces:

Each Sunshine Coast library is a wireless hotspot. Each offers a kaleidoscope of classes and seminars on everything from worm farming to support groups for parents of autistic children. They collect shoes for children in Africa. They electronically publish local authors — and feature them in display cases and offer their works for sale. The “Circulation Desk” is called “Customer Service” and the Reference Librarian is called an “Information Specialist.”

If Franklin’s library lent out scientific instruments, Duncan goes one better. He pioneered a “book a brain” service that allows members to reserve time with a retired business executive or professor who offers advice for businesses and community groups.

Collaboration, communication, interaction, and mentoring–all essential tools for learning that we rarely make room for outside of elite corporate offices. Duncan’s library redesign is especially compelling because it doesn’t pretend to know what people should learn about and instead it creates dynamic opportunities for people to discover for themselves what they need to learn about.

As a side note, I of course love that Cole’s post discusses library use as a problem of design, focusing first on  the question of purposes. Cole describes the work of redesigning libraries:

This, of course, means honestly asking, What is the core mission of public libraries? The conventional answer is: providing books. But that confuses means and ends. The historic mission of public libraries, pioneered by Benjamin Franklin, was to provide access to learning (his original Philadelphia library allowed members to check out a microscope and telescope as well as books.)

If we are going to make civic institutions that advance our needs in the modern age, we are going to have to have serious conversations in civic communities across the country about the traditional functions we should consider letting go so that our institutions can serve modern purposes.

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