Home > Librarianship > Creating a Library Culture That Encourages a Love of Learning

Creating a Library Culture That Encourages a Love of Learning

I think most people in my generation who grew up with videogames and computer games know that learning can be fun.  I distinctly remember MathBlaster helping me learn how to multiply but hardly noticing that because I wanted to defeat the aliens.  However, should learning always be fun?  Has learning that isn’t fun flown the coop?  Is there a place for more tedious methods of learning?

I’ve been pondering this lately as libraries are places of learning.  The surrounding culture of the library–whether a town, university, hospital, business, etc…–needs to encourage and embrace learning for the library to get used at all.  Unfortunately, that is often not the case.  In today’s society, learning is often mocked.  It’s where we get the nerd jokes.  Even the First Lady has felt it is a large enough problem that she has spoken out about it.  So libraries are left with a conundrum: the surrounding culture doesn’t encourage learning.  We’re a learning institution.  How the heck do we get people in the doors?

This issue led to the movement to make libraries more fun, largely through the materials held and programming.  Materials now are much more likely to include popular books such as ones written by Heidi Pratt.  Programs include videogaming with games that aren’t educational.  For non-public libraries, some academic libraries have started offering a “fun” reading section with similar, non-educational books.  The movement is pretty universal across types of libraries.  This has led to a backlash though.  Some are stating that sure, people are coming in through the doors, but they aren’t learning anything.  We’re so focused on making patrons happy that we’ve stopped actually helping them improve their mental capacities at all.

I don’t think it’s an easy issue to address because a love of learning is largely something that is instilled in childhood.  Even someone who does love learning doesn’t always find it fun.  I don’t particularly enjoy reading the dense management articles for my graduate research paper, but I value what I learn from them.  I enjoy the fact that I know my knowledge of these management techniques will make me better at my job.

The problem is less a lack of a love of learning and more that a love for being entertained and instant gratification is drowning out the more subtle enjoyment that comes from expanding your mind.  It’s basic psychology.  A famous experiment was done with mice where if they pushed a button, it gave them an orgasm.  The mice repeatedly pushed the button, obsessively, ignoring the needs to eat and drink until they died.  They died from too much pleasure.  Life isn’t all about pleasure; we also need to work to survive.  If all libraries do is provide the pleasure button and not a food button, then we’re not actually helping our patrons are we?

With this in mind, libraries need to be careful to maintain a balance of pleasure and effort.  People attending a Rock Band evening, for instance, could be informed of books and materials the library holds that teach you to play a real guitar or real drums.  Conversely, in special libraries, there is often too little focus on fun learning.  A recent visiting lecturer to one of my classes who works in an engineering library showed us the engineering “toys” she has in her library.  Her library has lego’s and other materials lying around for the engineering students to play with as a study break and inspiration.  I immediately thought how awesome it would be if medical libraries had those anatomically correct dolls or skeletons or jello brain molds lying about.

As with most things, the key to learning as fun or learning as effort is maintaining a balance.  Librarians need to focus on how to naturally connect the two so that patrons on either side of the divide will make the connection and, hopefully, take a leap.

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  1. geekylibrarian
    March 31, 2010 at 11:04 am

    I have to disagree with the assertion that materials whose main value is entertainment lack educational value as well. Every work of fiction, no matter how atrocious they may be is a piece of art and of the culture. They may not always be high art, but it’s not the place of libraries or librarians to make those value judgments on behalf of our patrons (if it was I’d take the Awakening off of every English literature curriculum out there).

    As for events hosted in the library, they have far more value than I think you’re giving them credit for as well, at least in the public library environment. Certainly a big part of them is just getting people in the door, I can’t deny that. But using games is also a means of getting those people to interact once they are here. The library must be a social place as a part of its educational mission, otherwise how could people share the knowledge that they obtain here. And in the case of Rock Band I’d also argue that its less a game about teaching people to play music as one for teaching them to appreciate music. If a patron goes from a rock band event to checking out a Beatles cd, we’ve done our job.

    • April 1, 2010 at 8:12 am

      It hurts my soul that you, an educated man, would ever claim that Heidi Pratt’s “book” *shudders* has educational value. It is evidence of how low our society has sunk, but nothing beyond that. It *is* the place of libraries to make value judgments. It’s called collection development. I would hate to think grade school kids could go into a public library and find a nonfiction book claiming the Earth is flat, for example.

      I find it telling and disturbing that all public librarians (not just you) react so strongly when anyone dares to suggest that the public libraries should have educational materials as well as the stuff purely for fun that gets people in the doors. I’m not trying to suggest that there’s no value in providing free entertainment to the public. Everyone deserves to have some fun, no matter how poor they are. However, libraries need to teach people that learning can also be fun. All I have dared to suggest is to show people who are there for activities that have purely an entertainment value something that is educational that they might have an interest in as it is related.

      As for your assertion that there is no connection between Rock Band/Guitar Hero and people wanting to learn to play the guitar, I’m surprised you didn’t take a second to google that before saying so.
      http://www.joystiq.com/2009/05/11/guitar-teacher-claims-music-games-helping-his-business/
      http://news.cnet.com/Is-tomorrows-Clapton-playing-Guitar-Hero/2100-1043_3-6220398.html?tag=mncol
      Both of those articles show that guitar teachers have seen an increase in lessons where they had been seeing a decrease prior to Guitar Hero. Given the recession, that is even more impressive.

      All I am trying to say is that public libraries should make sure they don’t just become an entertainment hub. They have a responsibility to the democracy to help create a learned culture. Similarly, I am saying to academic and special libraries that just because their patronage is of the educated class doesn’t mean we don’t have a responsibility to make the library a fun place.

  2. geekylibrarian
    April 1, 2010 at 8:26 am

    I do hate defending Heidi Pratt, and agree she has little intrinsic value besides illustrating what poorly written fiction looks like, but that is still some value 🙂

    On the collection development front, I think I just take a slightly different view. In an ideal world, with an infinite budget and storage space a library would own a copy of everything that was out there. Collection development isn’t about creating a list of the deserving books from the ground up to my mind as much as pairing down that list of what’s available to something manageable. And sadly the library must remain unbiased as part of this process. There are reasons a researching would want to see what flat earth theories were like, despite the fact that they’re totally discredited.

    And for a more modern example of something similar let’s look at books on intelligent design and evolution. As much as it may pain me to say so, the library needs to remain impartial and provide materials on both.

    I do definitely agree with you that libraries don’t want to become just an entertainment hub, I’m just of the opinion that we don’t want to swing too far the other way to solely being a place for pure research either. There is some room for both with our mission.

  1. June 4, 2010 at 1:34 pm

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