Why Libraries Are The Best Places To Learn
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.
Did a library play an important role in your youth? What subjects did you use the library to explore?