Literacies, Libraries and Collaborative Learning

Libraries have long been places for reading, for information, for literacy. What has changed and continues to change is the concept of what it means to be literate. It is no longer merely centered on the ability to read and write. According to Mirriam-Webster (2020) it also means to be educated, competent and cultured. As the world changes, new literacies are required. For example, the internet changes the way information is shared. Today it is important to be digitally literate and to know how to navigate the plethora of information available at any given moment. It is also important to be civically and culturally literate to navigate the politics and diversity of our world. There are life literacies, such as cooking and self-care, finance, and creating community, to name a few. An important aspect of early pre-literacy is play. In fact, in A New Culture of Learning, authors Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown write, “Where imaginations play, learning happens” (Stephens, 2016, p. 128). Librarianship is the perfect profession for helping people navigate these literacies.

What does learning in the library look like?

Librarians are not teachers in the traditional sense. They are not responsible for a full curriculum arc. However, they are stewards of information and facilitate learning. They provide the space and the freedom and the guidance for learning to happen. One way libraries are making this happen is through collaborative learning programs. Collaborative learning programs offer an exchange of skills, as well as strengthen community ties. When creating a collaborative or connected learning program, it is important to keep the following three instructional design principles in mind: shared purpose, openly networked and production-centered (Nygren, 2014). Shared purpose is the idea that learning happens amongst people who have similar interests and questions. When people have a shared interest, learning and teaching can happen in relationship. This is where intergenerational knowledge and learning can happen. Openly-networked is learning that happens in the context of a whole life, as opposed to an imposed school curriculum. “Learning is most resilient when it is linked and reinforced across settings of home, school, peer culture, and community” (Nygren, 2014, p. 6). Lastly, learning is production-centered, meaning it happens by doing.

What are collaborative learning programs?

Collaborative learning programs centered around doing involve making, hacking and tinkering. These programs can be facilitated by a librarian and involve peer-to-peer collaboration and learning. Zeke Leonard, assistant professor at Syracuse University School of Design says, “Making anything for yourself is a political act. The further we get from the creation of an object, the less we have a connection with the people, resources, and process. This limits how we assign value to objects. If we can all start to make more and consume less, then we can be more thoughtful about the resources used to create the objects and food and garments that we fill our lives with,” (Britton, 2012, p. 11). This sounds a lot like a makerspace!

However, you don’t need a dedicated makerspace to provide collaborative learning programs. For example, the Fayetteville Free Library rolled out it’s Fab Lab makerspace by starting monthly makerspace programs in its community room. You could even do this in an open space in your library. The Fab Lab focused on introducing patrons to 3D printers as well as maker culture and emphasized play over instruction (Britton & Considine, 2012). This takes the pressure off of the librarian to be a 3D design expert. Although libraries certainly can require their librarians to become experts in new technologies, it can be a very time-consuming, staff-intensive endeavor. This takes time away from other public services and responsibilities.

What if libraries created maker kits for their librarians? Successful Fab Lab programs like Take-a-Part, BristleBots, and Make Your Own Book, for example, could be made into a kit. Librarians could become certified in the use of any tools or equipment (just like patrons), but then have a kit that would be pretty much plug and play. The librarian could then act as facilitator instead of expert. There could be occasional programs provided by community experts to fill in the gaps and answer questions for patrons.

What library professionals can do right now!

  1. Look at your community. What are their needs and interests? What experiences can they offer?
  2. Once needs are assessed, explore the concept of mutual aid and how citizens can become involved in direct action.
  3. Network with other library professionals who are doing this already or who want to do it. Share ideas!
  4. Use social media to connect with patrons. Get them excited about the programs, and get feedback.
  5. Throw a Maker Party. This is especially important if you don’t have a dedicated makerspace. You can throw periodic pop-ups that offer a physical space to tinker, play and make things. A good resource is the American Library Association’s Making in Library Toolkit.
  6. Make sure library staff are engaged, trained and supported. In order to be successful, it is important that they have the resources for success.
  7. Find partners in academia, the public sector and industry to enrich your programming and services. They could even be involved in creating the aforementioned plug and play program kits. They don’t have to be running every program.
  8. Create a peer-supported network where everyone can share their interests and passions. This could also involve connecting people with mentors. The Chicago Learning Exchange and The Hive are two great examples!

Collaborative learning programs can involve a wide range of literacies. Sure, libraries can be the source of delight for their patrons, but this doesn’t mean that they need to have all the answers for their patrons. “[L]earning environments, communities, and civic life thrive when all members actively engage and contribute” (Nygren, 2014, p. 5). Providing patrons with a dynamic and supportive learning environment empowers the individuals and strengthens the community.


American Library Association. (2020). Making in the library toolkit. Retrieved from

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

Britton, L. & Considine, S. (2012). The makings of maker spaces, part 3: A fabulous home for cocreation. Retrieved from

Chicago Learning Exchange. (2020). Home. Retrieved from

Hive. (2020). About. Retrieved from

Mirriam-Webster. (2020). Literate. Retrieved from

Nygren, A. (2014). The public library as a community hub for connected learning. Retrieved from

Stephens, M. T. (2016). The Heart of Librarianship?: Attentive, Positive, and Purposeful Change. ALA Editions.

A selfie of the authorJenell Heimbach is a Library Assistant at the Central Branch of the Sacramento Public Library. She co-leads their Makerspace and I Street Press. Jenell is passionate about libraries as community places that provide democratic access to information, as well as places that facilitate the creation of content. She will graduate from San Jose State University with a Master’s in Library and Information Sciences in December 2020.