Whither the library? And what the heck is a “learning commons”?

The great library at Alexandria was reputed to contain every book known to the ancient Mediterranean. While it very likely did not contain that many books (mainly scrolls, but perhaps some bound volumes as well) it must have been immense. If we can trust Plutarch, it was partially destroyed during Julius Caesar’s occupation of the city in 48 BCE, and utterly destroyed by the 4th century CE.

19th century depiction of the library at Alexandria

We’re not sure of the details, but period accounts note that there was a librarian on site, and that the scrolls were organized and catalogued. Further the building housed a reading room, several meeting rooms, a dining hall, gardens and lecture halls. In short, the ancient library was a place for reading, researching, learning and fellowship. I think I could live there. Contrast the Alexandrian library with the library of the 20th century. The public and school libraries of most of the 20th century were quiet places. Stacks and stacks of books, tables and carrels, and people being very very quiet. It was awesome. When I find such a library today, I stay as long as I can just to enjoy a tranquility that is very hard to find in our (post)modern world, even at home, I’m afraid. As anyone in the school systems for the past few decades has seen, most school libraries are on hard times. As budgets get cut, libraries get cut. First it’s acquisitions, then staff and finally the library itself. (I wickedly wonder what would happen to extracurricular sports if librarians were suddenly dominating the Principalship.) As library infrastructure crumbled, so did the culture of Shhh. School libraries as we knew them are quickly becoming a thing of the past. Rising from the ashes, comes a phoenix bearing a striking resemblance to the great Library at Alexandria. The Learning Commons is entering our schools, promising to be much more than a place to quietly read. A learning commons is part library, part computer infrastructure, part classroom and meeting space and, yes, there is no reason that it couldn’t include a dining hall or garden (but probably only  indirectly). While the library of my youth was a place to access the contents of books, to enjoy the contents of books, and to borrow the books themselves; it was not a place for socialized or active engagement with information. The modern learning commons allows schools to use physical books, the internet, electronic books and more for a variety of purposes and in a variety of ways. This is how, with the use of wireless technology, the learning commons could be realized from within a school garden or dining hall. (Ok, it’s a bit much to call a school cafeteria a dining hall, but you get the point.) Potentially, the learning commons will be as flexible and responsive as the school is willing and able to imagine it. The investment in staff will not increase, and the investment in the collection will be flexible. Overall it’s good for everyone as we reorganize and reimagine the library of the 21st century. In one sense, the learning commons is just a simple evolution of the 20th century library. In another sense, it’s a radical departure. For me, I like to think of the learning commons as a return to the glory of Alexandria.

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