Libraries: Creative and Intellectual Learning

An iPub Perspective Editorial

By Kathleen Leaf

A recent Publisher’s Weekly article spoke of author Professor R. David Lankes’ recent conference trip. Community libraries in Korea and their services were recounted. Here, I discuss the future of libraries as both creative and intellectual learning centers.

A Publisher’s Weekly article titled “Exploring the Innovative Community Libraries of Korea” was recently shared with me. The author, Professor R. David Lankes, recounts a recent trip to Korea, touring community libraries and speaking about the future of libraries. Below is the abstract of his presentation:

There is no future for libraries. There are, instead, as many futures as there are libraries. And that means we need to rethink everything from networks to certification to who we call librarians.

Lankes, R. David. “Future of Libraries.” National Library of Korea 77th Anniversary Conference. Seoul, Korea.

And, indeed, the article for PW outlining his experiences with different Korean libraries emphasizes rethinking what libraries are, what they do, and what resources they provide for their communities.

No two libraries are alike. They are wholly dependent on the communities – the people – they serve. One library may offer one set of services, but the library in the next town, city, even neighborhood, may offer a complementary or even entirely different set of services. This is because the communities and people each library serves is different. Their communities have different needs, and the library adapts to fill those needs.

I am, admittedly, a fairly new librarian. I’ve been one for less than 10 years in both public and university libraries. However, I’m blown away with each new idea I see libraries come up with, each to fill a unique need that their community has. Professor Lankes’ article astounded me.

The tT Island, a “living laboratory” of makerspace equipment just for tweens and teens? Droolworthy for this teen librarian. Equipment such as sewing machines, Cricuts, 3D printers, VHS to DVD converters, green screens, microphones, Raspberry Pis, circuit boards, and many more are becoming more common in libraries. Some have spaces dedicated to this equipment called makerspaces.

Two children sitting at a table. One has a laptop open in front of them. Both are watching a 3D printer.
Children working with a laptop and 3D printer. Image by Syba Productions from Canva.

Chicago Public Library’s Maker Lab started as a 6-month trial, but was in such high demand that they have continued the space and events around it. The report after the trial period details overwhelmingly positive responses to the space, equipment, and classes provided. Many patrons (library customers) who participated in classes and open labs during the trial period wanted to try something new (70%, pg. 10) and wanted to learn technology skills (56%, pg. 8). Due to overwhelming demand, plus patrons from all over the city travelling downtown to the Harold Washington Branch for the space (pg. 17), CPL implemented pop-up makerspaces at many other branches. CPL tried something new and gathered feedback. They saw a need and worked to implement it for their community.

Teenagers need spaces to just be themselves: to play, create, share, and gather to cherish the last bit of childhood they’ll be allowed before adulthood. Perhaps the tT Island, a space just for them and just for that purpose, will teach them that growing up does not mean letting go of the curiosity and the creative drive that they had as children.

The Gusan-dong Village Library was founded through petitioning and committee of the citizens, including many single mothers. The large collection of comics and graphic novels, “eschewed by many formal public libraries”, was specifically called out. Graphic novels are hugely popular with readers of all ages. Sales of comics and graphic novels in 2019 totaled $2.075 billion: a 62% increase over 2020 sales. This was 70% higher than 2019, the last sales year before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cover of "The Wonderful Tale of Donkey Skin" featuring a watercolor illustration of a girl wearing a donkey skin walking down a road.
Cover for “The Wonderful Tale of Donkey Skin”

Comics and graphic novels are especially appealing to reluctant readers from grade school through high school. Why? The pictures mean that, most of the time, there isn’t as much text. But research suggests that reading a graphic novel is just as, and in some cases more, engaging and educational as reading a print novel. The illustrations add context and nuance to the words. Readers synthesizing this information use the same parts of their brain as they do reading a print novel. Teachers are aware of this, and add graphic novels to their classroom shelves. An upcoming iPub book, The Wonderful Tale of Donkey Skin by Dr. Fawzia Mai Tung, will be a fabulous addition to middle school shelves.

What struck me most about this article was, perhaps, a cultural difference in the way that creativity and learning came together in the libraries that were visited. Take the Mapo Library in the Seoul suburbs. The top two floors of the building are dedicated to art education for middle school students, who attend classes each day as part of their regular school curriculum. Professor Lankes says of this library:

[It] was created from a powerful vision of libraries being an integral part of education in schools and beyond. In none of my library work had I ever seen such a true and powerful integration of formal and informal learning.

It may seem like a no-brainer to have classes in the library. Many middle schools in the United States have libraries in them, right? However, the school and campus libraries I’ve experienced seem to emphasize the library for research purposes only. American students may be taught to seek out the library for gathering sources for a paper, not as a space for creative freedom.

“Why can we not be both?” Is what the Korean libraries in this article seemed to say to me.

School supplies, including pens, pencils, paintbrushes, watercolor paint, highlighters, and construction paper. All are arranged in a circle according to color, creating a rainbow.
Image by Poison_Ivy from Pixabay

Intellectual and creative learning are not so separate as we might think. Research suggests that positive benefits of reading fiction you enjoy include boosting vocabulary and building empathy. Positive benefits of creating depend on the medium being used. Painting and drawing teach artists color theory, perspective, and lighting. Sculpting teaches motor cognition and dexterity. Photography and videography teach composition and lighting. Programming a robot teaches coding and electronic media. Quite a few libraries mentioned in this article had communal kitchens. There is both science and art to cooking and baking, learned off recipe books, rote from family members, and good old trial and error. Even while having fun, readers and creatives are learning. Libraries – communal places of reading, learning, and creating – can make all this possible.

We must collectively reenvision libraries not solely as revered treasure hoards of books. These are libraries of the past. Print books and spaces for quiet study still have their place. Libraries are these, can still be these, and are still these. They just have not only been these for quite some time now.

Libraries are instead community centers: noisy and chaotic and creative. Libraries connect people to goods, services, and equipment that they may not have access to otherwise. Today, the gap libraries are filling is not necessarily knowledge, but access. Libraries are connection centers rather than knowledge palaces.

Two hands covered in paint splotches with fingers intertwined.
Image by kemalbas from Canva

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