Why Libraries Are The Best Places To Learn

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Historian and educator Ken Bain has written a wonderful book called What The Best College Students Do (I’ll be writing about it in my Time.com column later this week). I just came across a particularly insightful interview with Bain, on the website of an organization called Project Information Literacy. Here’s an excerpt on a topic close to my heart—the value of libraries:

Interviewer: There is an interesting thread that runs through many of the remarkable lifelong learners that you profile in your book. Many of them shared a deep curiosity about an issue or a topic, which they nurtured by reading since they were quite young. Why is reading so essential to deep learning? What role do libraries, public and academic libraries, play in shaping lifelong learners?

Ken Bain: Reading is the way to explore other people’s ideas, and through that exploration to make them your own. I think the people I explored understood that through reading they could develop and expand their own minds and become more productive and creative people.

Libraries play a huge role in this process. I think you are right: the lifelong learners I profiled in the new book explored constantly and saw connections between everything they encountered. They did more than just pursue some private taste. They became interested in everything. The most productive people, the most satisfied people, are the best-integrated people who see connections between every subject.

I think libraries and librarians can help with that process. In the new book, Liz Lerman just loved to explore the open shelves of a library. Other people—Tom Springer and Dudley Herschbach, for example, benefitted from the suggestions that librarians made. None of these people could have grown without books and the other resources that libraries offer.

Libraries can also help raise questions. They can help learners see the connection between some problem and some new area of investigation. If we just understand the simple notion that people are most likely to take a deep approach when they are trying to answer questions or solve problems that they regard as important, intriguing, or beautiful, then we can imagine lots of ways in which libraries can play an essential role.

Libraries and librarians often do a better job of fostering deep approaches to learning than does the typical classroom. For many of my subjects, libraries became places where they could explore, get help when they needed it, and grow from the experience. Sometimes through a strange and unexpected process. In the book, Duncan Campbell looked for a thin book to complete a reading assignment and found the world of great literature through John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.” (Read more here.)

Bain’s comments reminded me of the hours and hours I spent wandering the stacks of the public library in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania, the town where I grew up. I think Bain is exactly right that libraries can foster a kind of self-directed open-minded learning, motivated purely by curiosity and interest, that is too often missing in classrooms.

The Gladwyne Free Library, where I spent hours and hours wandering the shelves.

Did a library play an important role in your youth? What subjects did you use the library to explore?

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7 Responses to “Why Libraries Are The Best Places To Learn”

  1. Brian Fox says:

    Most certainly brought back memories of spending time in the Sojurner Truth library at SUNY New Paltz. I worked my way through college and I commuted to school so I tended to have time to kill in between classes. I spent hours picking through the book stacks and periodicals for interesting articles. Some of my fondest memories include just picking a year I was interested in and rolling through the NY Times microfilm of that year. I was a history major and it was like I was a kid in a candy store. One of the other fascinating discoveries I made there was in finding lots of CIA publications on other countries of the world. The publications were a font of information about many different countries. Now you just need to Google what you want to know. I guess for reference sake I should say this was about circa 1984 so it certainly predated any use of the Internet. What a great piece!

  2. Jackie Mullin says:

    As a kid, I spent hours in the Overbrook Park branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia. I checked out as many books as I could on my library card and spent hours and hours reading. The children’s librarian helped me find books that I loved. She introduced me to great books and helped me make the leap to more challenging novels and nonfiction. In the 1970’s the library was the place I loved to be. These days, when I go into the library I feel right at home. I’m doing what I can to instill the love of the library in my own children!

  3. Meg St. Clair says:

    I was tickled to immediately recognize the photo of my hometown library where I spent hours and hours as a child and even into my college years. The Gladwyne Library and Nancy Evoy, it’s wonderful librarian had a profound effect on me as a reader. I can’t say that I would want to give up the Internet and go back to the Reader’s Guide To Periodical Literature and the microfilm machines, though.

  4. Karen says:

    The libraries of my youth in Ames, Iowa were so inspiring, I became a librarian. I can remember my time spent in the public library and my elementary school library like it was yesterday. I aspire to pass on the magic as it was passed on to me.

  5. Mike Thayer says:

    My hometown library growing up in Janesville, Wisconsin, was hugely influential on me. It was the first place my mom would let me ride the bus to by myself, and it was where I discovered my love of science and history. I remember spending hours in the World War II section and in the physics section just browsing. I found authors whose writings affected me forever – Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, and others. Wonderful memories!

  6. In the days after high school, my dad gave me his British Council Membership library card. This was in 1999. Thereafter I had my own membership, where I could check out with as many books as I wished. I loved computer books. I enjoyed reading the computer Magazines. Actually, I got my first job as a self taught computer expert because of this Library. It was so wonderful.

    Very unfortunately, this library was closed. There is no place today’s young people can go to learn most of these interesting stuff to read and master. The Internet can help but without guidance as we used to get from the librarians it’s not very helpful.

  7. Vicky says:

    In the small town where I grew up, the library was a fascinating place for me. I was allowed to wander around and choose what I wanted to read. I vividly remember being so excited to find The Wizard of Oz and then being puzzled why it was not totally like the movie I had already seen. I was appalled (and very naive) that the film producers were allowed to change anything from the book. My rule today is that if the movie is based on a book, I always read the book before going to see the movie.
    It took a lot of years to finally become a children’s librarian and I am thankful that I had a great role model in the librarian in that small Colorado town.

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