Nov 16, 2015 | Hamilton Spectator
“There is not such a cradle of democracy on earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.” Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919)
Our country is still reeling with the aftermath of election frenzy and never have the concepts of inclusion, democracy and a fair society needed more reinforcement. That’s why I’ve decided to write about the public library. What, you may ask, has the public library to do with democracy?
Everything, I will answer. To my mind, it is perhaps the best examples of a democratic institution.Take the Hamilton Public Library (HPL), which has just celebrated its 125th anniversary. With the slogan “Freedom to Discover,” the HPL values include intellectual freedom, and providing access to all expressions of knowledge and creativity. HPL’s other values are inclusiveness (connecting with diverse communities); innovation (anticipating and responding to changing needs); respect (embracing a diversity of opinions and protecting the dignity of individuals); and accountability (ensuring that library services are vital and relevant).
Imagine if countries were run with these values at the fore.
I chatted with Laura Lukasik, who is the outreach co-ordinator and visionary behind much of the HPL’s innovation. “You know that when you walk into the public space of a library, you are welcomed,” Lukasik says. From the chess players, tai-chi practitioners, ukulele learners and newcomers for conversation circles, to parents and young children that story time and teen homework help, no matter your age, your income level, your station in life, your intellectual ability, the public library accepts you.
Here’s what she says about the changing face of the public library: “We’ve changed in tandem with what the community needs. Part of our strategic plan is to be responsive and relevant.” And they are. Lukasik reams of a list of the new developments.
For example, the community needs access to digital technology and so the library responds with a media lab, 3-D printers, adobe suite of products and laser cutters. There is a sound recording studio, a green wall for video, opportunities to do podcasting and storytelling.
Concerts in the round are offered, authors are brought in, “using the fourth floor as a collaborative kind of space.”
When it comes to the education system, I think learning would go a whole lot better if we followed the library model and put learning in the hands of the learner.
At the library, no one is keeping tabs on what you know or don’t know, no one is measuring: intrinsic learning, the desire to seek out new things, as opposed to being made to learn something, is its own reward.
And we need more of this in education. What it does is it puts information in the researcher’s hands. Information technologists are available to help if you want it but you choose what you want to engage with, when you want to learn it, how fast or how slow you want to learn it no curriculum, no one tells you what you ought to learn, no one stops you from researching what you want to research.
Personalized learning should be the cornerstone of education and I think in the years to come, we are going to see more of this as trends in education evolve, due to the influence of open source technology (universities are already offering free online courses, sites like Lynda.com and resources like Vimeo continue to emerge).
Students could be assisted in joining communities of common interest and more.
I think this approach would be useful to kids that do not have the advantages their wealthier peers may have and for kids for whom traditional ways of educating do not work.
The new library-modelled education system would be equipped to serve as a networking hub, contacts and resources would be made available to the learner, face to face and over the Internet. In effect, school like the library would be saying, “Start learning the things you want to learn, in the way you want to learn them and we will help and support you.”
The library is a haven for many people who need a place to escape difficult environments. Some cities like London, Utah, New York and Toronto are experimenting with 24-hour service, Internet café style.
The fact is, the library is a democratic, publicly-funded space that we are being encouraged to view as an innovation hub and even an “urban living room.”
These places need to be supported and valued, especially since there are so few community spaces of such calibre in our daily lives.
Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko is a freelance writer based in Hamilton. @BeatriceEkoko (natural born learners)