In the United States, there are approximately 123,000 libraries, including public, academic, special collection, school, physical, and digital libraries. Librarians and other professionals who work in libraries are stewards of cultural, scientific, environmental, and historic heritages. As educators and facilitators of learning, library staff help 170 million visitors build knowledge; develop information, media, financial, civic, health, environmental, and other literacies; and increase 21st-century skills and self-efficacy. Staff use designed environments in their libraries such as makerspaces along with exhibits, specialized materials, and outreach programs to help learners of all ages. Librarians also make use of a variety of approaches and methods to close the digital divide for children, parents, caregivers, adults, and senior citizens. This entry first gives an overview of public libraries in the United States and then discusses the use of libraries by children, adolescents, and adults; the resources that libraries offer for learning; and efforts to measure and assess learning in libraries.
The United States has more than 17,000 public libraries. Public libraries are community-based institutions that provide learning opportunities and information resources addressing health education, workforce development, and diverse local needs. Typically, these kinds of libraries are established under state laws or regulations and maintained with public funds. Public libraries have organized collections of printed and other materials. These libraries also have paid staff, established schedules of services available to the public, and facilities that are necessary to support their collections, staff, and schedules. In 2012, there were 487 public libraries in cities, 2,325 in suburbs, 2,209 in towns, and 4,061 in rural areas. More than 75% of the public libraries served populations of fewer than 25,000 people. In total, 4 million educational programs were offered to library users. Through these programs, public librarians helped patrons build learning and innovation skills such as critical thinking and problem solving, scientific and numerical literacy, cross-disciplinary thinking, and basic literacy.
The majority of library programs are for children. The library can be a family's primary place to access computers, get online, participate in school readiness programs, and gain exposure to curricula designed to help learners and their families address summer reading loss and school absenteeism. Many library programs extend school-based lesson plans as well as align books and other resources with specific topics of interest. Programs also feature the use of music and props to tap into the social, emotional, and cognitive aspects of learning and development. These programs are used to promote persistence, self-direction, critical thinking, and problem solving.
Going to the library can have a positive effect on academic outcomes in reading and science. However, the most powerful predictor of library visitation and library card ownership is socioeconomic status. Kindergartners living in affluent households are 3 times more likely to visit a library than children living in impoverished households. (More than 60% of first graders living below the poverty level do not have a library card.)
For adolescents, many public libraries have safe, innovative environments where youth can use traditional and contemporary digital media, work with mentors from diverse disciplinary fields, and connect with peers. The YOUmedia Learning Labs, for example, build on the anthropological research of Mizuko (Mimi) Ito and the concept of connected learning. Connected learning is a conceptual approach that addresses inequity in education, incorporates the use of digital media, and allows for the pursuit of personal interests with the support of others. Connected learners link their learning and interests to academic achievement, career success, and/or civic engagement. Modes of engagement range from casual social engagement or “hanging out” to tinkering or “messing around” and deeper engagement or “geeking out.” (All together, these modes are known as HOMAGO.)
At one learning lab in the Northeast, English language learners use digital media technology to learn elements of the design process, including basic research, site visits to digital media centers, product testing, and budgeting. Another lab on the West Coast supports digital creativity and communication in an area with limited services for teens and few places to engage in creative projects and learning. Across the labs, mentorship, in particular, has been found to help teens with self-expression, productivity, and meaningful development of individual interests.
Adults use the library to build their digital literacy, cognitive, and other skills. They take classes on reading and math to learn English, become citizens, find out about health care and wellness, and get jobs. Literacy, specifically, is a major area of interest for public librarians who work with adult learners. (Survey results released in 2013 by the U.S. Department of Education and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development indicated that 36 million adults in the United States have low literacy skills.) Librarians provide literacy instruction through informal discussions focused on science topics, General Educational Development workshops and institutes, and conversation circles for people with limited English-speaking skills. Librarians also share software for practicing speaking and writing English along with other tools and best practice–based resources with adult educators who work in other settings. Senior citizens, in particular, work frequently with librarians to access the Internet so that they can connect with friends and family, build digital literacy, and get information about health and government services.
Libraries offer learners of all ages a rich variety of resources and instruction in science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math (STEAM) topics to build patron curiosity and interest, address limited proficiency in science and other disciplinary areas, and address the lack of representation of women and people of color in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Makerspaces are designed spaces in libraries that feature mentor-led experimentation, invention, creation, and exploration through design thinking and project-based learning. These spaces are used by public librarians to help families pursue their interests and collaborate with one another.
Researchers and librarians are working together to design tools and principles of practice that make use of constructivist theories and other approaches to understand learning in libraries. This work focuses on learning outcomes that have to do with problem solving in engineering and other subjects along with the development of non-content-related skills. In general, libraries have become dynamic spaces where learners of all ages are using laser cutters, knitting, creating puppets, keeping bees, building 3D prototypes, and engaging in all sorts of design-based thinking projects.
Measuring and assessing learning in libraries is an emerging field. Researchers and practitioners are working to build capacity among library professionals, increase understanding about how learning in public libraries is similar to or different from learning in academic settings or at home, and provide the competencies required to facilitate meaningful library-based learning. Many professionals in library settings use an outcomes-based approach to design activities for learners with specific expected or intended outcomes such as increased teen engagement through the use of digital media or participation in making activities. Some recent efforts have investigated how diverse visitors to libraries make meaning and learn concepts through STEM-based exhibits and programming as well as with digital and other tools. Other work has to do with increasing civic engagement or building skills related to historical and cultural preservation.
In addition, more and more library workers are participating in continuing education efforts beyond the master's and doctoral level such as through participation in the YOUmedia Community of Practice network; the Coalition to Advance Learning in Archives, Libraries, and Museums; the STAR (Science-Technology Activities and Resources) Library Education Network (STAR_Net); and other groups, networks, and organizations. Library staff are increasingly working collaboratively across organizations and geographic regions to develop strategies to make sense of big data, develop needs assessments, and learn more about library visitors. Together, they are moving the field forward, building understanding about how better to serve visitor needs and interests, characterize connected and other kinds of learning, and design learning environments that support the development of 21st-century skills while welcoming and sustaining patron interest and engagement.
See also Assessments and Assessment Issues; Connected Learning; Digital Literacies; Learning Sciences; Open Educational Resources; STEAM-Based Approaches to Out-of-School Learning; 21st-Century Skills
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