Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Inspiring Learning for All is a new framework that seeks to enhance and develop the learning opportunities offered in UK museums, libraries and archive services. It is a high quality set of tools that allows service managers across the sectors to assess, encourage and embed learning within their organizations. Public libraries are increasingly being challenged on the learning infrastructure that they provide. While few would argue that learning does not take place in public libraries, the question is, how do librarians provide evidence to quantify the learning?
In many libraries formal set-ups, such as the University for Industry’s Learndirect provision, are a highly visible and obvious example of learning. But there is a deeper and more fundamental relationship that can, in many instances, be described as learning. Simply put, it is the interaction between the library user and the resources. Often this is facilitated by the librarian and invariably the language of the reference department is prominent.
Educationists would call such exchanges informal or non-formal learning (there is, I am told, a subtle difference between the two). Either term sufficiently conveys such activity where there is no predetermined route that the learner should follow. Typically the librarian will provide a range of resources or a series of options. Some will be online electronic resources or, to put it somewhat poetically, the librarian will lead the learner into a maze, where decisions and choices provide the scaffolding for learning. The acts of seeking, and indeed browsing, become important ends in themselves as well as a means to retrieving knowledge. I presume that there is a body of research that investigates the whole learning experience of browsing the web as an activity in itself. As we know off line browsing in any library is highly informative as it reveals not only individual pieces of knowledge but reinforces the users understanding of the overall structure or arrangement of knowledge.
The absence from the encounter of the traditional pedagogic framework; enrolment forms, learning goals and, most notably, assessment measures, provides an emancipating approach. While some might argue that such learning is merely incidental, the real proof surely rests with the learner’s (library user’s) motivation. If we are to take the view that many of our library users are self-sufficient in assessing their learning needs then we move from instruction to construction. To take a fairly simple example the person who wishes to construct an understanding of the French property market with a view to investing in a holiday home may begin their investigations at their local library. Quite probably there will be a range of resources that will offer different aspects of the subject. The process of buying and selling would be important as a starting point. This might then be taken further into the legal aspects identifying certain potential snags or pitfalls. Equally, the process might need to be placed in perhaps an historical or social context. Similarly the user may wish to learn about the whole subject not through their own investigation but rather through reading about the experiences of others who have first-hand knowledge and may have completed the process themselves. The librarian offers all these options, the user or learner chooses. Moreover the learner then self-assesses and decides on the next course of action.
This process, to differing degrees of detail, occurs every few minutes in the libraries up and down the UK, across Europe and worldwide. This is learning. One worries that the attempts to encapsulate and ultimately measure this type of learning in fact threatens its inherent strength.
Rónán O’BeirneInternet Editor, Reference Reviews and Principal Libraries Officer-Information, Bradford Libraries, Archives and Information, Bradford, UK