Libraries shouldn’t be places to ‘teach’ students

Written by Tamsen Riggs, CNN ABIA Mutamba, CNN Written by Tamsen Riggs, CNN ABIA Mutamba, CNN

Much has been written about the academic relationship between libraries and learning, especially in the centuries before and since the Enlightenment. Education itself has been a subject for scholarly debate as, over time, debates have differed over whether libraries actually teach or teach to students.

These issues, but more importantly, their assumptions, continue to inform our collective interpretation of knowledge.

But if we are to truly question these assumptions, we must question books.


Dr. John Paul Dorian, director of librarianship at the New York Public Library and author of “Understanding Reading: Changing the Way We See, Learn, and Remember,” draws on extensive research on both science and philosophy to argue that libraries should serve as centers of inquiry — not training grounds for student study.

Dr. John Paul Dorian. Credit: Courtesy New York Public Library

“A library shouldn’t be seen as the place where you have to go to fulfill your homework,” Dorian says. “But rather, it’s a place where you can come and find things that interest you, and relate that to your individual interests and practices, all within the context of getting educated. Rather than reading a book, you’re learning something in a conversation with another person.”

He argues that “research, knowledge, culture and literature are not exclusive to books.” Moreover, a library isn’t “a permissive exercise space where you are being trained to become some kind of intellectual tool.” Instead, a library exists to aid in the wider educational experience.

“Culture and literacy don’t have a logical hierarchy and neither should libraries,” Dorian says. “Learning is a constant process and as a community we need to find a way to maximize that process and save those precious hours that are best used for learning.”

Borrowing resources, he explains, is the antithesis of education. And students should look at the resource itself as a medium, rather than a thing: “When you look at the materials that we actually provide for people to use, it’s absolutely critical to look at the books as digital files, rather than siloed organizational objects.”

Libraries are, in essence, an ever-evolving resource, constantly evolving to meet the demands of their users. The role of the library, argues Dorian, can only become more important in the face of technological advancements and technology-mediated distribution models.

“There’s an important responsibility in coming to grips with technology. We’ve never had this technology before and if we don’t be careful and integrate it into our culture then it really becomes a problem for us all.”


While Dorian agrees that the use of texts can help students achieve literacy, he makes the case that the more creative methods of learning remain significantly better — including at a library. “People come in from elementary school because they want to be certain of this knowledge that they have about math, science or history, but who could really teach that? It would be difficult to make it fun and engaging.”

Given how ingrained mobile devices have become in our lives, how do libraries retain that exclusivity? Dorian has one solution: Installing smart devices and smart mirrors in the library and incorporating them into its “connection with its readership” to ensure that “learning is less introverted and more expansive.”

The question that remains, he explains, is what “we do with our reading library and how do we encourage people to see that as a resource that’s open to a wider audience.”

“As an example, a good book has been able to transcend multiple readings for people. We don’t feel that it’s necessary to produce these material for specific audiences, but rather to produce material that is engaging,” Dorian says. “And I think that is a new trend in libraries — to be able to both educate and instruct at the same time, and that’s something that really fosters learning.”

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