On Learning: A Reprint

This appeared in the June 2008 Cites & Insights, as part of an omnibus Perspective “On Semantics, Reality, Learning and Rockstars.” I’m republishing it because I think it’s still relevant (maybe more so), although I’m not linking it to anything specific…


One unfortunate undercurrent in the various discussions surrounding change and continuity has to do with lifelong learning for library people. Why “unfortunate”? I’ll get to that shortly…

On one hand, you get people saying every librarian needs to learn A and B and C and…well, you know, into the dozens. The answer to that is generally Nonsense, for several reasons:

  • While each library above a certain size may need to have someone familiar with each item in a list, that doesn’t mean every person or every professional in the library needs to be familiar with every item. Very few cataloging gurus assert that every reference librarian and every rural/small library director needs intimate familiarity with RDA. It’s equally reasonable to suggest that some technical services librarians don’t need to be able to install wikis.
  • For many of us, detailed learning substantially before the point of use is mostly wasted. We forget details and maybe even broad strokes. How’s your calculus these days? We need to be able to find out what we need to know when (or ideally, shortly before) we need to know it. Nothing new here either. One new thing, maybe: Some things that we’re told everybody needs to learn almost certainly will disappear or become irrelevant before many of us have the chance to put that learning to use. (How’s your understanding of Gopher navigation techniques? Updated your Orkut and Friendster profiles lately?)
  • Most of us don’t have time to learn everything that might be useful for us, just as most of us don’t have time to keep up with as much formal and informal literature as might serve us well.

But there’s a huge caveat here. A huge caveat:

You don’t have to learn everything—but you do need to keep learning something.

Dorothea Salo objects to the comment “I don’t have time to learn all this!” She’s been writing about difficulties getting librarians to pay attention to issues that do affect them and notes this as one response. (The post is also about different learning styles—the notion that some people learn better in a “steady stream” of daily reading while others prefer the “single spray” method, attending a conference or workshop to pick up a lot of stuff at one point. I think she makes an excellent point—people needing to spread the word in some important areas may need to make more effort to reach those who primarily learn at conferences. All I have to say about the post as a whole is “I agree.” I’m expanding on one comment here.)

I can think of a way to hear that comment charitably, although I suspect it’s being a little too charitable. If a person is saying, “I don’t have time to learn all this,” that may sometimes be right: The person simply may not have room (time, focus, concentration) for a big learning agenda at the moment. But I don’t believe that’s what Salo’s objecting to, and I don’t think that’s what’s usually being said. What I hear, a bit less charitably, is “I don’t have time to learn any of this,” which translates to “I don’t think I need to keep learning.”

And that is simply not acceptable for anyone who calls themselves professional.

You don’t have to learn everything—but you do need to keep learning something.

So why did I say unfortunate? Because it’s easy to conflate two “don’t have time to learn” situations:

  • This is too much for me to take in all at once, and some of it doesn’t apply right now or soon enough for me to retain the learning. That’s frequently valid and leaves room to find a comfort level, where learning appears more directly useful and doesn’t require loads of energy.
  • I’ve learned enough. I don’t want to learn any more. Not acceptable. Not acceptable for professional librarians—and, I believe, not acceptable for anyone working long-term in the library field, professional or otherwise. That attitude wouldn’t be acceptable for doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers or accountants. Why should it be acceptable for library people?

Maybe this does loop back to the first discussion, which was (of course) about “Library 2.0.” Consider the very first paragraph of the very first page of Balanced Libraries: Thoughts on Continuity and Change:

A library system that stands still is unbalanced and headed for trouble. A library staff obsessed with Hot New Things and aiming for new users at the expense of familiar services and existing patrons is unbalanced and headed for trouble. Very few libraries fall into either extreme, but sometimes it seems as though we’re urged toward one extreme.

Maybe I’m naïve here as well. I doubt that there are any significant numbers of libraries that look like the second strawman—but I wonder how many libraries (that is, library staffs) really do, to all intents and purposes, appear to be standing still? Let’s set this out as an opposition as well:

  • I don’t want to sign up for the whole set of stuff called Library 2.0. You get no argument from me. Maybe your library shouldn’t be gaming. Maybe your patrons wouldn’t respond to social networking initiatives. Maybe you don’t have the staff to maintain a blog and don’t have any problem for which a wiki is a solution.
  • I don’t want any of this Library 2.0 stuff. Our library’s fine, just fine. We don’t need to examine our operations, find better ways to stay in touch with our community or consider new technologies to support our routines. Now you get a big argument from me. I’m all for continuity, but continuity without awareness and change isn’t continuity: It’s rigidity—easily confused with rigor mortis. Even the smallest library staff needs to step back from time to time to look at how things are going, whether the library’s serving and effectively involving its community, and whether new tools could improve situations. Think you’re too small? The Wetmore Public Library (Kansas) and Seldovia Public Library (Alaska) serve communities of 362 people and 286 people respectively. Both libraries use blogs to good effect—to create an online presence they almost certainly couldn’t provide otherwise.

You don’t have to do it all (just as you may not be able to have it all). But you do have to do something—or at least make sure that you’re doing the best you can. That involves lifelong learning. That’s one of many things good public libraries support, and it’s an essential aspect of being a good library person.

I’m preaching to the choir—but maybe you can pass this particular sermon along to those who might think that old traditionalist Crawford is saying it’s OK for them to do nothing at all. They’re wrong.

2 Responses to “On Learning: A Reprint”

  1. david lee king Says:

    Walt – most definitely agree with you on all points above – nice thoughts! My question, one I’ve been attempting to wrap my brain around, is this – what do you DO about that?

    So – many libraries seem to have “those people” – staff that have stopped learning. Oh, maybe they’re still learning about their favorite hobby or something … but when it comes to “future of the library” type stuff, they seem to have stopped (my experience, anyway).

    I’d love to see some of us “choir” types you’re preaching to tackle that problem! We know they’re out there – but what can be done about them? How do you, at the least, lead the proverbial horse to the water?

    I think the profession would move forward quite a bit if a majority of libraries could adequately tackle this.

    Hmm… sounds like a blog post… :-)

  2. walt Says:

    David: If I knew the answer, I’d have more than a blog post or C&I essay–I’d become a specialized consultant. But with that blowing-off-a-legitimate-question response out of the way…

    I suspect that one thing the choir needs to do is tone it down a little bit: Back off from “all of you gotta learn a and b and c and … aa and bb and cc, RIGHT NOW, ’cause otherwise YOUR LIBRARY’s GONNA DIE!” (That’s exaggerated, but maybe not much.) Guilt won’t do it. Shame won’t do it. Yelling at people won’t do it.

    The goal is, or should be, to have a community of awareness within each library and to have (most) librarians and library staff engaged at some level–not necessarily “future of the library” but some level of learning.

    How do you get near-universal buy-in? You probably don’t (consider the percentage of so-called professional librarians who don’t belong to any professional organization and don’t read any professional publications, blogs, or websites: I don’t know the number, but I’d bet it’s close to 50%).

    Improving the percentage (or lowering the negative percentage)? No easy answer, no single answer. Worth thought.


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