A Half-Hidden Asset

I’ve just come up with a big, brilliant idea to change the nature of education in America – but I’m going to need a lot of help. Students have moved from learning in school to daylong learning; they consume media anywhere, anytime, and now that is going to happen with education. But unlike 7-Eleven’s, schools do close – and that’s the problem I’ve just solved!

In every community in the country I’m going to put a learning center – open not 24/7, but certainly open during the day, and nights, and weekends too. In each center, I’m going to have computers with broadband connectivity, and lots of other educational resources right at the kids’ fingertips – if they need recent newspapers or magazines – even books, it’ll all be right there on the shelves waiting for them.

Of course, it’s going to take a lot of money to throw up all these buildings, wire them, and install the hardware. And I’ve got to hire about 70,000 people to staff the places –

Say, what?...This infrastructure already exists?

Oh, of course: the public library. There’s thousands of public libraries all over the country, virtually every one with Internet access, and many with a lot more – video conferencing facilities, movie theatres, classrooms, even coffee bars. And yet, typically it’s up to each individual student to figure out how (or even if) to integrate the public library into his or her education.

For most public libraries and most school systems, there is no legal, bureaucratic, or even personal connection between the leaders of the two organizations. Libraries are funded by a hodgepodge of state laws, and they’re run by all sorts of different structures. This terrible complexity makes it nearly impossible for any national mandate to leverage public libraries to help student performance – assuming that the thought even occurred to anyone in Washington.

Even worse, librarians traditionally never thought of themselves as educators, or even education-enablers. Rather, they help you provide access to information. That’s why librarians, unlike teachers, don’t need regular retraining and re-certification (Perhaps the reason why the public has such a high opinion of librarians is that so little has been expected of them.)

One could argue that providing access to information is both no longer relevant when you’ve got companies like Google dedicated to offering users access to all the information in the world. One could also argue that most libraries these days are developing all sorts of additional functions – reading circles for children, poetry classes for seniors and so on – that the traditional role of a librarian has already been superseded by the need to address new issues to support their communities.

Libraries, therefore, don’t need to be officially given a clearly defined set of tasks from the local school system to support student learning. Mere logic, I realize, is a cowardly tactic when talking about redefining the roles of two different organizations with two extremely different power structures.

And yet.

You have all these beautiful public spaces, staffed by professionals, surrounded by resources both on-task for schoolwork and wonderfully off-task – after all, the great pleasure of a library is the staggeringly high rate of serendipity it fosters: You never really know what you need until you start looking for something else.

Maybe the leaders of public libraries and public schools can start looking at what each has to offer. Who knows what they might unintentionally find?

Email:Craig Ullman