What is the value of a library with no content?

This piece was written as an editorial for UKSG, an organisation “connecting the knowledge community and encouraging the exchange of ideas on scholarly communication”.

I don’t work in libraries but I often get invited to speak to groups of library staff about my views on the influence of ‘the digital’ in higher education. My role is teaching and learning focused and I argue that in the digital era academic libraries need to become a home for learning rather than content. Don’t panic, learning necessarily involves content.This is about emphasis, not a dualist polemic on throwing books away and making libraries into wifi flooded barns (those are known as coffee shops).

CC - Scott Library York U - https://www.flickr.com/photos/7883660@N05/466221141
CC – Scott Library York U – https://www.flickr.com/photos/7883660@N05/466221141

Many incoming students are caught in a trap. On the one hand they have been led to believe, sometimes explicitly, that knowledge captured in a physical form such as a book is good quality, or the home of ‘truth’. On the other hand they find much of the information they need for their studies out on the web in a number of different guises. The information they find rarely lets them down but they fear that much of it isn’t academically viable. Often they are right but this commonly has more to do with the strictures of academia than the nature of ‘non-library’ sources.

The trouble stems from our cultural love of certain forms of publishing and expertise over and above the substance of information we discover in any of the many forms it might take. For example, I remember a conversation with a publisher a few years ago in which he got excited about a near future when e-books could include videos, quizzes and be connected to the internet. I didn’t have the heart to point out that what he described was a website because I was pretty sure he wanted to sell ‘books’. . .

The other trap we fall into is confusing academia for learning. For the researcher or the postgrad these territories might naturally flow into one another but for an early-stage undergraduate the mechanisms, rules and culture of academia can often seem strangely abstract and obscure. An early-stage student I interviewed for a research project was struggling with just this when she commented that she had been told not to use Wikipedia because it ‘wasn’t reliable’ even though she had never found that to be the case. Her conclusion was that her institution wanted learning to be ‘difficult’ (but not in a good way).

Access to content ‘beyond’ the library is what’s new here and it’s at the root of these tensions. Unfortunately instead of responding to this new abundance of information by evolving and extending what it means to be a library some prefer to put effort into defending the purity of library content and historic, academic, ways of working as distinct from the web. This isn’t an approach that incoming students readily understand.

Many of our new students have a queasy sense that what Google points them to might not be the ‘best’ sources (without even knowing what ‘best’ means) but don’t yet have the academic tools-of-the-trade to discern or to harness the value of library-based content. Perhaps instead of showing incoming students how to use the library we should first be discussing why they should use the library or any source of information whether we ‘own’ it or not. So this brings me to the title of this editorial because rather than getting caught up in a discussion about the relative merits of digital and physical sources I prefer to ask, “What is the value of a library with no content?”. The simple answer is “expertise”.

In this era of information abundance what students desperately need is guidance not more content. A librarian should be an expert at navigating content, not owning it, and by extension they should be adept at helping students to navigate. This process is fundamentally a form of teaching which positions the library as directly responsible for learning rather than a ‘service’ one step removed from the pedagogical activities of the curriculum.

In addition to supporting what it takes to gain a qualification, a focus on learning, rather than content, is also required to foster digital capabilities which support what Leo Appleton described in an earlier editorial as ‘digital citizenship’. Here there is a clear opportunity to enrich students’ sense of self and empower them to influence the environments they find themselves in rather than simply working at becoming as employable as possible.

There are a number of challenges involved in moving any library towards this emphasis on learning:

  • there is inherently a huge amount of process based work in keeping a library running, leaving little time to help students navigate
  • it’s difficult to form meaningful teaching and learning based partnerships with academic staff are who are often too busy to engage beyond handing over reading lists
  • things have changed rapidly and many people chose to work in libraries because they like to commune with content and prefer strictly defined ways of connecting with users
  • libraries are not always in the habit of making the their staff visible to students as experts (see previous point)
  • current roles and responsibilities don’t necessarily reflect the emerging forms of engagement (off and online) that libraries now need to foster

Forgive me, this is my view from ‘outside’ the library and is somewhat reductionist but possibly not unrecognisable? On the positive side I see academic libraries as having the flexibility to continue to adapt within an expansionist higher education sector. Some of the most vibrant thinking around ‘what it means to learn and to produce knowledge’ in the digital era has been nurtured by libraries.

There is pressure on curriculum to respond to a growing set of policies and external measures which risks dehumanising the core of what students experience. Given this it’s crucial that libraries present opportunities to engage with expertise in a friendly and person-centric manner. In a time where students can Google their way to almost any ‘answer’, access to content has become less important than access to people who understand what that content means and where to head next.

Fighting the Learning Machine

This year’s Designs on eLearning was hosted by the New School in Manhattan. The theme ‘Anxiety and Security’ brought out some challenging thinking, especially in the keynotes which were given by Joel Towers and George Siemens (in the form of a debate) and by Audrey Watters (who posted a full transcript of her talk) on day two. Both keynotes contained much about the role education should play in society and the responsibilities we have as educators to consider ideas of social justice and respect rather than falling into behaviourist modes. This, as Audrey pointed out, is especially important if we work with digital technology because ‘edtech’ emerges  from a behaviourist ideology in which students become dehumanised extensions of a learning machine. This learning machine then becomes complicit in the bolstering of inequalities and a failure to, as George put it, ‘normalise opportunity’. In addition to this a learning machine approach does not equip our students with the ability and resilience to respond to complex problems which should be a central tenet of design education.

A particular angle on some famous complexity
A particular angle on some famous complexity

For me, developing methods of approaching complex problems as networks of practitioners demands creativity but this is then inherently in tension with what can be the ‘learning machine’ drive underpinning our institutions. The easy way to respond to this is with an ironic smile and a quasi-academic shrug. What can we do when our institutions that purport to support creativity and individuality have to run at a scale which makes the learning machine approach look like a neat ‘solution’?

One response beyond a shrug is to respond, as I believe many of the delegates at DeL did, by realising that we won’t solve these problems but that we can push back against them. For me this isn’t an either/or situation. We do need machines and algorithms to work at a scale which helps to ‘normalise opportunity’ but we also need approaches based on becoming and belonging. For example, we need to be able to upload assignments and track feedback but we also need to create moments of human connection, reflection and discourse. The digital can support both these elements of what it means to be a successful and meaningful university. Nevertheless many people want, or think of, the digital to be one or the other – a corporate machine of efficiency or an ecology of connections.

'Order' also has value
‘Order’ also has value – smashing the system is not the aim.

My view is that we do need to fight to provide more than a learning machine as the instrumental aspects of our institutions are hard wired to perpetuate (often in response to external factors) while the more humane side suffers unless we constantly advocate for it. What’s important is that this fight is not seen as an attempt to smash-the-system but rather a desire to enrich and extend what we provide to support an ideology of design and creativity which we all claim to believe in.

My hope is that we can continue to develop DeL as a space where we can facilitate this kind of discourse. The digital is quickly becoming the context where important questions about the value and nature of our work as educators are discussed – questions which perhaps struggle to find a home elsewhere? I got the sense that the delegates at DeL knew they could ‘make the tech do what they wanted’ which has shifted us towards asking: what do we want?  who is this for? and what are our responsibilities?  

Education as Becoming

In the last few talks I’ve given to teaching & learning and library folk I’ve spoken about my views on what I believe education should be at the start. Rather than gently constructing an argument for my ideology and meandering towards a slow reveal (assuming anyone would notice) I’ve opened with a few simple statements to provide a frame for the rest of the talk. This appears to work well as there is an honesty to it that I suspect people appreciate.

My starting point is not new, it does not advocate smashing the system and it’s not a performance of liberal hand-wringing. I simply believe that education is a process of becoming.

This is a principle which then informs everything from curriculum design to the planning of physical spaces and the use of Social Media etc. Our undergrad students want to become one of those people that is hidden in the title of their course.

A business student and a dance student as promoted by Plymouth University using simple identifiers
A business student and a dance student as promoted by Plymouth University on an identity basis

And this is a good thing. Students come out of school looking for simple identity hooks which is why the disciplines are such a powerful way of dividing up the world. However, once we have nurtured their disciplinary sense of self and taught some key intellectual tools we should encourage the questioning of overly neat identity associations. For me this is the bridge between undergraduate and post-graduate approaches. By the time students leave their undergraduate programmes they should be weaning themselves off simplistic, generic forms of identification and using what they have learned to develop their own, more complex, sense of self.

Clearly the Resident Web is an excellent location for this process of becoming and revealing. More than that, the networked, anyone-can-publish, identity-rich side of the Web is in-of-itself amplifying the potential to ‘become’ in ways which are less aligned with specific institutions and disciplines. This is what we need to consider when designing curriculum and pedagogy underpinned by the notion of becoming in a post-digital environment.

We need to ensure that the trajectory of undergraduate programmes is towards the top of the triangle, not just because of the presence of the digital but because it is the direction needed to foster becoming.


Post-digital revisited

In June 2009 the ‘52group’ gathered from across the Higher Education sector to consider the confluence of education and the digital. The result was a position paper entitled ‘Preparing for the postdigital era’. At the time the paper was largely met with a mixture of scepticism and confusion, a common response being “The digital hasn’t been superseded?”. Despite this, over the intervening years the term has slowly gained traction in educational contexts.

To what extent our original paper influenced the recent proliferation of the term is of course not clear but we see the concept being employed in various locations including last year’s SEDA conference: “Opportunities and challenges for academic development in a post-digital age” and a forthcoming conference hosted by Greenwich university: Flipping the Institution: Higher Education in the Post Digital Age. There are also numerous examples of the term casually making its way into strategic rhetoric in and around our institutions.

To mark the shift from Digital to Post-digital thinking members of the original ‘52group’ have each revisited the term to consider its definition and relevance five years on. This is my perspective:


I was in a vexed mood when I wrote my ‘Escaping the kingdom of the new’ post reflecting on our Post-digital working paper back in 2009. The edtech community were still in a ‘Web 2.0’ fueled miasma, heralding each digital platform as the next-big-thing. It was a slavish attachment to the ‘new’ that was blind to the simple duplication of existing practice from the analogue to the digital.

Nearly 5 years on the term Post-digital is becoming accepted in Higher Education circles as describing the normalisation of the digital in almost all aspects of activity. Elearning is a good example of this and huge success in some senses. I could prove this, for example, by pulling the plug on any university’s VLE and watching a riot break out. These kinds of tech, those that predominantly use the Web as a means of shuffling content are quickly ‘disappearing into use’. They have become Post-digital precisely because they don’t challenge the underlying way we run our institutions or engage students.

A Post-digital appropriation? CC-NC-SA https://www.flickr.com/photos/irisheyes/7201102646
A Post-digital appropriation? CC-NC-SA https://www.flickr.com/photos/irisheyes/7201102646

Meanwhile many students themselves struggle to answer the question ‘how do you do the research you need for your assignments’ because for most it’s difficult to imagine the answer could be anything other than ‘Google’. Similarity the incorporation of the Smartphone into the fabric of how students study is already Post-digital to the extent that it’s been described as ‘mundane technology’.

And yet moves to shift pedagogy to more collaborative, peer supported or open models are still met with confusion and trepidation. We have managed to ‘disappear’ much of the technology but predominantly in the service of mediocre models, efficiency and scale (MOOC?). One simple reading of this is that practice evolves at a much slower pace than technology. Another would be that institutions incorporate the ‘new’ only to serve what they already understand.

We appear to have moved from evangelising the new and shiny to using it without question. Perhaps it’s time to reexamine that of the digital which has become ‘post’, to question the embedded and ask if it is pushing boundaries or simply ossifying business-as-usual, petrifying forms of practice we assumed the ‘new’ of digital would disrupt.

More fundamentally the move to the Post-digital is submerging ideology: big-data, search engine optimisation, learner analytics, we-recommend-this-course-based-on-your-previous-attainment-levels etc. The surface this presents is one of apparent neutrality and in our cultural naivety we don’t recognise, or are barred from seeing, that the underlying algorithm has been marinated in a bath of vested interests. The new normalcy of being connected has created a Post-digital environment in which ideology can be embodied in code – a form that most believe to be free of bias.

I believe that in the same way Media Literacy shines a light on the political, cultural and ideological assumptions shot through broadcast media Digital Literacy should make visible the the very same which is crystallised in code. It might be too late though, we may already be completely Post-digital. The code we need to ‘see’ being too many layers down from the shiny surface of the technology we barely think about anymore.


Further reflections on the Post-digital from members of the 52group: