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EdTech Update




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What's in a name?

The Greek word gymnasium means "place to be naked" and was used to designate a locality for the education of young men, including physical education (gymnastics, i.e. exercise) which was customarily performed naked, as well as bathing, and studies. Wikipedia

A couple weeks ago, my friend Scott (Dangerously Irrelevant) McLeod send the following tweet:

@blueskunkblog @joycevalenza At what point does library change so much we no longer should call it a 'library?' #edtech

I am not sure if Joyce replied, but I more or less blew the message off. I was pretty busy when I read the question and had the feeling that Scott, as he is want to do, was baiting me a little. So my knee jerk response was to refer him to a column I'd already written about what "librarians' should be calling themselves - "Names Can Never Hurt Us," LMC Nov 2005. After some rather long-winded (but always self-amusing) exposition, I simply concluded:

My dad used to say, “Call me what you want - just don’t call me late for supper.” I would say, “Call people what they want to be called - just make sure they are doing the right thing by kids.”

Does that apply to the rooms and buildings in which our programs reside as well as the job titles under which we operate? Call a place whatever you want to call it, just so long as what's happening in it is of value to those it serves?

But more than job title, I am beginning to think that the term "library," especially in educational institutions, needs an upgrade. As sentimentally fond as I am of the term and despite the warm and fuzzy feeling that comes over me when I know I am going to a "library," it may well be that the library's function has changed enough to merit considering a name change.

I've never been a big fan of the term "media center" for the same reason I've never much cared for the title "media specialist.' Media is too often equated with "mass media" and too many people think we are the public relations department. I've heard "Information Hub" and "Learning Materials Center" and other attempts to define by name the purpose of the place. Probably the best so far is "Learning Commons," a term begun, I believe in colleges, and popularized and promoted by Dr. Loertscher.

EDUCAUSE's 7 things you should know about the modern learning commonss, 2011 defines the term this way:

The learning commons, sometimes called an “information commons,” has evolved from a combination library and computer lab into a full-service learning, research, and project space. The modern commons is a meeting place, typically offering at least one area where students can rearrange furniture to accommodate impromptu planning sessions or secure a quiet place to work near a window. In response to course assignments, which have taken a creative and often collaborative turn in the past two decades, the learning commons provides areas for group meetings, tools to support creative efforts, and on-staff specialists to provide help as needed. And yet the successful learning commons does not depend solely upon adaptable space configuration or the latest technological gear. Its strength lies in the relationships it supports, whether these are student-to-student, student-to-faculty, student-to-staff, student-to-equipment, or student-to-information. Effective learning commons are alive with the voices of students working together, establishing the kinds of connections that promote active, engaged learning.

Not bad in describing philosophy of new "library spaces," not just their functions. Of course, changing the name of your room without changing your program and policies is not going to do any more good than changing your name to Warren Buffet would be in helping your bank account.

Of course, there is always my favorite replacement term for library: the Intellectual Gymnasium. But judging from its etymology (above), a room full of naked learners may not the image we wish to cultivate.

Other suggestions for the names of reinvisioned libraries?


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Reader Comments (12)

I've worked in "Learning Resource Centers" and "Media Centers" and libraries. In each case, I was a librarian, and when customers dropped by, they universally called it the library. Because of that, my perspective hasn't changed--no matter what services we offer or where we're located, we're the library. We have a new public library in our town which I've never visited. As long as I can renew my library card online, why would I ever need to go there? I do, however, use the databases.

December 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJude not HeyJude

I call our library at Clayton Heights Secondary in Surrey, BC, Canada "The Mall of Knowledge: where you can shop for free".
Great post Doug.

December 7, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterlisa domeier de suarez

Having made the switch to "learning commons" a few years ago I have developed two responses to those who push back about the name change. 1) It is okay if you want to continue to call it a library 2) The library is still here. It is an important part of the learning commons.
Changing the name was instrumental in challenging the long held understanding of "library" and transitioning the way faculty and students utilized our resources and space. It also transformed the nature of collaboration.
Some students declared that I am now obligated to change my title. They suggested Commonista : )

December 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobin Cicchetti

Ours is called the "IC" - Instructional Center. This is an interesting room name, because no real instruction goes on in the room with the books (aka library). We really shouldn't call ours the Information Center because most information gathering happens in the classrooms or in the computer lab. I hesitate to refer to it as a kind of Commons because it's not common to find much going on in there. This is my 2nd school year here; I want to help this room evolve into the "CC" - Collaboration Commons. What say ye?

December 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBob

So sad to lose Media Center as initialing things with mc let people know it was from me and the library. We've been trying to change it for 30 years and no one gets it. Keep the name library and it's warm fuzzies (there's a lot to be said for invoking warm fuzzies) and change what you do in it like we always have. A rose by any other name... :)

December 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMonica Campana

Our new building had "Media Center" stamped on all of the door plates, the school map, and in all of the architectural drawings. Know what it's called? The library. The kids call it this, the teachers call it this, we call it this.

Name changing is fun and easy - changing people's ideas of what the library is, however, is much more of a challenge. While changing the name of a space to something that more closely matches its description (I also like the term "Learning Commons") is certainly laudable, a name change alone will accomplish nothing. We chose to call our space "The Library" and set out to convince our users that the library is more than a collection of books and computers. I think we have been pretty successful in this regard.

I also like the analogies I heard from Joyce Valenza a couple of years ago - the library is a kitchen, not just a pantry. Maybe we should change the name of our space to "The Kitchen". Think about it - it's where everyone gathers, it's loud, it's messy (although we clean it constantly), people create things there, it's the center of "the house".

The kitchen analogy describes our library perfectly!

December 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLen Bryan

Hi Jude,

As you know, I am OK with library as well.

Good point about the public library. I visit mine about every week and do about everything BUT check out books. (Mostly read the newspaper.) I figure it may be a good retirement hangout some day if it still exists - and I may need those books to check out when I can't afford to buy my own on social security.


Hmmm, Mall of Knowledge - that's a new one to me. Whatever floats your boat!


Hi Robin,

Thanks for bringing up this important point that the library (or library services) are but a part of the Learning Commons as it is usually described. I love the concept and its application especially in 7-12 schools.

Better a Comminista than just a Commoner, I suppose.


Hi Bob,

In as much a names are symbolic, the "Collaborative Commons" works for me - if that's what you want to happen. You could call it the "Creative Commons," but I think that name's been taken!


Hi Len,

"Name changing is fun and easy - changing people's ideas of what the library is, however, is much more of a challenge. While changing the name of a space to something that more closely matches its description (I also like the term "Learning Commons") is certainly laudable, a name change alone will accomplish nothing." Amen!

Who decided on the name of the facility in the new building? I wonder if these things are even discussed most places with the architect?


December 11, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Hi Doug,

I have to admit, I'm sort of in the "let's change what people expect from libraries as opposed to changing the library's name" camp, but I love what Robin said about the library being part of the learning commons. That said, we're undergoing a name change in my state - from Media Coordinators to Teacher Librarians (apparently our place of business will still be called a Media Center - go figure) and while I support the change, I know it will be meaningless if our practice doesn't match the expectations being touted in the new title.

As always, thanks for giving me something to chew on.


December 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer

Hi Jennifer,

Appreciate the comment. Good luck with the name change! Personally, I think teacher-librarian is the best out there.


December 12, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Thanks for this follow-up post. I really wasn't trying to bait you. There are a set of functions that most folks associate with 'libraries' and 'librarians.' As those functions change - I've seen everything from community centers to Internet cafes to maker's workshops - at some point the original connotations of what a 'library' or 'librarian' is disappear altogether. At that point it seems like we should be calling them something else, perhaps?

This is not just a philosophical issue. There often is strong community support for 'libraries' and 'librarians.' As the functions of those spaces and people become unbundled (just like in other societal sectors) and/or overlap with other competing entities, the political battle for attention and funding will become more acute. If there is any future for 'libraries' and 'librarians,' it's time for those folks and structures to begin envisioning what they'll be and how to advocate for it. [Same is true for 'schools' and 'universities' and many others too]

December 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterScott McLeod

One more thought...

I ask questions. Lots and lots of questions. I'm trying to make sense of the large and transformative changes that are swirling around us. Often that gets interpreted as being challenging or contentious. But I'm really just asking questions.

December 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterScott McLeod

Hi Scott,

Hey, don't wimp out on me. We both like to "stir the pot" a little with our deliberately provocative questions! It's fun and good for everyone!

I do appreciate your concern about libraries and their changing roles. You are dead on about needing to continuously re-assess who we are, what we do, and, I suppose, what we call ourselves.

You did a good job getting the discussion going on this blog.

Oh, you must have been in Wisconsin speaking lately. Some TIES folks mentioned your talks over there. Keep up the good work.

Thanks so much and I hope and your family have a wonderful holiday.


December 18, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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