Where we live (Part 5) – A TTW Guest Post by Beth Harper

The pulse and the flow

So what do people want from us? They want help doing things, rather than finding things.

– Brian Kenney, “Where Reference Fits in the Modern Library”

Infinite learning.

Infinite learning.

This is actually a really hard topic for me to write about, because it’s so personal, so close to my heart. I don’t know where to start. It’s like talking about breathing.

Infinite learning is more than lifelong learning. Lifelong learning is where the mainstream core of the profession is now:

….All purposeful learning activity, whether formal or informal, undertaken on an ongoing basis with the aim of improving knowledge, skills and competence.

Definition of the EU Employment and Labour Market Committee, as quoted in the White Paper on Adult Education, Department of Education and Science, 2000

Okay, that’s a start. That’s a market-and-public-policy definition, a skills definition, a prove-your-ROI definition. And that is where we as institutions to some extent have to operate, the language into which we have to translate, but let’s not mistake it for the real world.

Story time.

It is August of 2000, and my new neighborhood library has just opened, half the distance from home of the old branch, which puts it within walking distance of home for my six- and almost-four-year old children. So we walk to the library. We went on opening day too, which was exciting – there were balloon animals and ice cream – but never even got inside. Today it’s quieter. It’s hot – summer in the south hot – and there’s a shaded indoor/outdoor alcove before the entrance where we catch our breath before going in and getting smacked by the air conditioning.

It’s the standard layout of branch libraries everywhere, adult stacks to the right, children’s area to the left, circulation desk straight ahead, which is familiar and therefore comfortable, but it’s also beautiful, full of real wood and stone and natural light and rich color, low open shelves and long lines of sight. We turn to the left to head to the kids’ area, and – I remember this like it is yesterday – there are huge oak wardrobe doors. Twenty-foot-tall oak wardrobe doors. They’re open, and on the walls beyond and around and carved into them there is imagery from The Chronicles of Narnia, and beyond that is an open airy outdoor enclosed garden storytime pavilion. And there is a lamp post. Of course there has to be a lamppost. Because it’s not Narnia without Lantern Waste.

And for just a moment I am seven years old again, I am inside, literally inside my favorite books in all the world, the books that created for me a world of magic and possibility and endless discovery. The books that taught me that opening a door or asking a question or going on a journey may be hard but never has to be scary.

And I am there inside that space with my children, with whom I’ve begun to share these books. And I think, this was made by someone who loves stories. As I love them, as Clive Staples Lewis loved them, as the ancient mythmakers of Ireland and Wales and Greece upon whose visions he built his stories loved them.

The designers of that space could not have known how that particular imagery would hit me, though certainly they knew that there are a lot of people with a lot of love for those books. They created a possibility and then set it loose in the world to take on a life of its own.

I’ve talked over the course of these weeks about libraries as sites and agents of change, as community spaces, as liminal spaces, and as connectors. These are all different ways of saying the same thing: as physical spaces, as cultural institutions beyond the limits of our spaces, and as a deeper philosophical concept, libraries exist at the site of possibility. Simply by existing, libraries activate narrative.

[Y]ou and I leave our fingerprints, and sometimes bite marks, on the messages we pass. We tell people why we’re sending it. We argue with it. We add a joke. We chop off the part we don’t like. We make these messages our own.

– Searls & Weinberger, New Clues, #21

If we think about learning in terms of internalizing, transforming, and enacting narrative, then: the connection between the idea of libraries as sites of narrative possibility, and the infinity of the human capacity for learning manifests. Then the transformational power of libraries becomes apparent, and it’s breathtaking.

 Infinite learning is generative.

If it seems like children typically have more fun in the library than adults do, it’s probably true. Where are all the art supplies in the library? In the Children’s Department, of course! And who’s waiting to get on a public computer to print out tax forms? Adults.

Ally Blumenfeld, Paterson Free Library, New Jersey.

Cognitive psychology has come so far in the last fifty years; we now understand that learning is never just about passively taking in information that we are exposed to, but about engaging with it, interpreting it, and doing something with it. We interrogate. We manipulate and play. We converse. We create. That’s what learning is.

Of course we’ve known this for a long time, if we care to stop and listen to our own stories.

Infinite learning is immersive.

Learning is not separate from life. It’s moving from moment to moment integrating every new challenge. Learning is constant; change is constant. We learn by doing and we’re always doing. People have a need to do stuff, and if we don’t have the capacity to do the thing we need to do, we build capacity, by puzzling it out, or asking for help, or finding the tools, and usually, by doing several of those things, all at once, in a recursive, incremental, complex, messy, dynamic process of just doing the thing.

We don’t always do a good job at describing or understanding or celebrating that process as learning; Western civilization heavily privileges the very narrow and specific kind of learning that takes place in a limited-context and power-dynamic-loaded conversation between a teacher and students in a classroom (and which is absolutely necessary for certain things: see below). But we’re getting better at it.

Infinite learning is ecological.

[T] he old adage “teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime” is limited because this assumes that there will always be unlimited fish and no changes to the concept and mechanisms of fishing.

– Michael Stephens, Learning Everywhere: A Roadmap

Cultivating the environment for learning creates the capacity to cultivate more learningEcology is a useful metaphor for participatory action, research, and educationhuman systems are living systems, in the physical world, constrained and manifested by physical realities. We achieve more by celebrating and exploring that than by working against that. All the fun metaphors for learning are agricultural metaphors: we dig in, we get our hands dirty, we cross-pollinate, we fertilize, we ruminate, we grow.

Infinite learning is transformative.

Because learning is iterative and grounded, because learning creates the capacity for more learning, because learning is happening all the time, because learning is a creative process, transformation is inherent in learning. Definitionally, every single thing we learn changes us,  in large and small and powerful and unexpected ways. Which is hard and scary, which is why I talk about compassion all the time; but it’s also wonderful, and if as information professionals we can help mediate moments to make the wonderful outweigh the scary then we are making the world a better place one interaction at a time.

Infinite learning is self-aware.

From what I’ve said above, it might seem like learning isn’t work; it just happens. That’s not true, of course. I mean, sometimes it does; even the most disengaged and unselfaware person is constantly integrating new experiences, but the more intentionality we bring to the process, the more discovery happens, the more narrative happens, internally and transactionally.

Cultivating a love for formal education, valuing it, making it accessible, making a literate and broadly informed citizenry a cultural priority, is part of cultivating an environment for individual learning. Learning how to learn is a process, and not a solitary one. The Great Conversation cannot exist without places for conversations to happen.

[E]ducation is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes, we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense.

– Sam Seaborn, The West Wing, Six Meetings Before Lunch” (2000)

I often think about how people who spend their lives’ work immersed in a thing have such a profoundly different experience of it than those of us who skim the surface. A professional athlete or dancer has a different understanding of physicality and embodied awareness than I as a very occasional runner and dancer have.

As librarians we’re immersed in information and information transactions all the time. (And this is different from being immersed in instruction as teachers are). That affects how we view information, and discovery, and learning; of course it does, how could it not? That perspective is what we offer. You know where you want to go, but I know this road. Let me help.

Infinite learning is transdisciplinary and intersectional.

If there’s anything we’re trying to do in this library and the library world, it is to build a learning culture. The achievement gaps are getting bigger, the access questions are getting bigger, but the most important thing is…the creation of an imaginative world for children and…adults that opens their minds to the world.

– Crosby Kemper, Kansas City Public Library, via IMLS Focus

Photo credit: Rebecca McCorkindale 
Original source  
Creative Commons Attribute/Share Alike

And again, learning is iterative. The more self-aware we become, the more we interrogate our own experience and bias and perspective; the more we know about varied fields of knowledge and modes of experience, the more we synthesize across them; the more complex our understanding of the world is, the more complex the world seems. Endlessly. We challenge ourselves constantly to do better, while redefining what “better” looks like.

Infinite learning is communal.

Humans have an ability that no other machine or animal cognitive system does: Humans can share their attention with someone else.When humans interact with one another, they do not merely experience the same event; they also know that they are experiencing the same event And this knowledge that they are sharing their attention changes more than the nature of the experience; it also changes what they do and what they’re able to accomplish in conjunction with others.


Sharing attention is a crucial step on the road to being a full collaborator in a group sharing cognitive labor, in a community of knowledge. […] The knowledge is not just distributed; it is shared. Once knowledge is shared in this way, we can share intentionality; we can jointly pursue a common goal. A basic human talent is to share intentions with others so that we accomplish things collaboratively.


– Stephen Sloman and Philip Fernbach, The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (emphasis original) (p. 115)

Sloman and Fernbach (who are both working cognitive psychology researchers; this is not pop science journalism) offer an absolutely lovely, thorough, accessible, fascinating exploration of the idea that what we think we know is in fact a constant dance of mediation, triggered partial memory and stored memory and shared expertise across our bodies, our physical and digital environments, and our social sphere. We have secondary access to so much more knowledge than we have primary recall for: in effect, we are constantly re-learning the same stuff, meeting it anew, interacting with it in new ways. We share, delegate, and exchange cognitive labor and intentionality all the time.

This post isn’t prescriptive. I’m not going to talk about what to do with this idea, this idea of libraries as communal, intersectional, transformational, ecological, immersive engines of creation and learning and dialogue. There are a gazillion examples of what libraries around the world are already doing, in the links in this and previous posts in the series. This is intended to be aspirational, inspirational, and thought-provoking. This is what we can be. How we get there is particular to each library, community, and individual, and it is in doing the thing that we discover what we can do.


Aainsqatsi, K. (2008). Bloom’s taxonomy (cognitive) according to Bloom’s verbs and matching assessment types.

Ballance, C. (2013). Mobilizing knowledge to create convenient learning moments.

Block, J. (2014). Embracing messy learning.

Blumenfeld, A. (2016). Why aren’t adults allowed to be creative?.

Bookey, J. L. (2015). 8 Awesome Ways Libraries Are Making Learning Fun.

Britton, L. (2012). The makings of maker spaces, part 1: Space for creation, not just consumption.

Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2015). How your personality determines how you learn.

DC Public Library. Memory Lab (Currently in transition)

Department of Education and Science, Republic of Ireland (2000). Learning for Life: White Paper on Adult Education.

Greenwalt, R. T. (2013). Embracing the long game.

International City/County Management Association (2010). Seven Steps to Developing an Economic Gardening Implementation Strategy.

Kansas City Public Libraries. (2015).IMLS Focus: Learning in Libraries.

Kenney, B. (2015). Where Reference Fits in the Modern Library.

Mathews, B. (2013). Curating learning experiences: A future role for librarians?

Nashville Public Library: Madison Branch.

Pew Internet & American Life (2016). Adults with tech-access tools are more likely to be lifelong learners and rely on the internet to pursue knowledge.

Rose, Jonathan (2016). The Well-Tempered CityNew York: Harper Wave.

Searls, D. & Weinberger, D. (n.d.) New Clues.

Sloman, S. and Fernbach, P. (2017). The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone. New York: Riverhead Books.

Sorkin, A. (2000). “Six Meetings Before Lunch.” The West Wing. [YouTube excerpt]

Springen, K. (2011). What’s right with this picture?

Stephens, M. (2012). Learning everywhere: A roadmap.

Stephens, M. (2013). Learning to learn.

Storck-Post, H. (2017). Libraries are for everyone: featuring Rebecca McCorkindale.

Williams, M. R. (2014). Kansas teen uses 3-D printer to make hand for boy.

Vangelova, L. (2014). What does the next-generation school library look like?

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Beth HarperBeth Harper is a public services paralibrarian living in historic central Denver and working in the western foothills under the shadow of the Front Range, and an MLIS student at San Jose State University. As Elizabeth Biehl, she writes on SF/F literature and community, art and culture, and occasionally librarianship at www.edgeofcenter.com.