Should libraries replace universities as centers of education and learning?

What do you think? Should libraries replace universities as centers of education and learning? Universities are increasingly expensive and commodified, offer a top-down curriculum, and reinforce the status quo. No thanks! Wouldn’t it better to have a ‘university’ that was free and that had a mission to serve everyone? A university for the people and run by the people? I’ve heard of something like this before…hmm…what was it…oh I know! It’s a public library! The public library is in the perfect spot to replace that old ivory tower establishment. Long live the library!

Okay, we’re not totally being serious here. The question we raise was meant to provoke, and also help us rethink what a library could be.  Universities are very important in today’s society and we admit there are clear roles for both libraries and universities. But, when comparing universities and libraries, who does what when it comes to education and learning? Where do libraries fit in? Are libraries being left behind as the education field evolves, or are libraries actually the ones leading the way?

These questions took us to Berlin, Germany in September to take part in Next Library, an “international gathering of forward-thinking library professionals, innovators, and decision-makers who are pushing boundaries and making changes that support learning in the 21st century.” We hosted a participatory debate at Next Library, where anyone from the audience could step into the role of agreeing or disagreeing with that same provocative question.  Here are our presentation slides and an interview about our session topic with the Goethe Institut.

© Mike Auerbach / ZLB

© Mike Auerbach / ZLB

It got heated! We heard all sorts of different points. Some saw universities as being exclusive spaces. Others argued that libraries, based on their mandate and physical location, would always be the leaders in accessible education. A real sticky point was how, exactly, would libraries work in the world of accreditation. We also approached the issue from very different contexts and cultures. In Germany, for example, universities are free to all students, so the relationship that Germans have with public libraries in terms of access is different than, say USA or Kenya.

Highlights from the debate were listening to a university librarian arguing (trying to play devil’s advocate) how libraries should, in fact, replace universities; and hearing impassioned speeches from librarians who felt that universities had lost their commitment to supporting local communities. Moses Imbayi from Kenya National Library Service offered an impromptu closing remark, stating “I wouldn’t be who I am today without the library” and also spoke about how he saw universities offering “the same medicine to different patients” (see his exit interview video below).

© Mike Auerbach / ZLB


Afterward, we broke into groups to dig deeper the future role of public libraries. What are libraries currently doing in regard to learning and education? What should they stop doing? What would they like to do more of? And, finally, what things should they definitely not consider doing?

Here’s what we all came up with:

Libraries are currently excelling and they should keep it up!

  • Information literacy
  • Literacy Programs
  • Tutorials
  • Partnerships on campus
  • Volunteer Training
  • Talks: Local people sharing their expertise
  • Cheap publishing
  • Filling in gaps in society
  • English courses for refugees
  • Maker Spaces
  • Podcasting
  • Universities are using libraries as a test space for learning new skills

Libraries should be doing these things but they are not (yet!)

  • A closer relationship with higher education
    • Partnership with schools and community colleges
    • Collaboration with universities and students for content creation
    • People from universities come in to offer lectures
    • Put university knowledge to use in libraries
  • Networks of volunteer trainers
  • Putting more learning content online and making it accessible
  • Digitizing library content and products
  • Training for skills that reach children and parents
  • Research and knowledge creation
  • Be more open-minded, bring in community/citizen “experts”
  • Work with P2PU and run learning circles
  • Review/curate/curriculum /content

Libraries are doing these things, but they should stop!

  • Top-down instruction programs
  • Outdated learning tools
  • Reducing training budgets for librarians
  • Stop making generalized library elevator pitch
  • Paying $$$ for bad education content
  • Don’t touch accreditation

Libraries are not doing these things and they really shouldn’t start!

  • Sell university degrees
  • Provide accreditation
  • Be a gatekeeper to education
  • Copy other education models
  • Create a traditional curriculum
  • Do not replace universities
  • Universities need to be more lean and meaningful

One ‘Ah ha!’ moment was the larger role that public libraries could offer higher education institutions. There was a lot of discussion about this potential, and real partnerships were already occurring like those featured in the Public Library Innovation Exchange (PLIX). For example, universities could regularly offer their knowledge and expertise in local libraries, or they could use libraries as a sort of public ‘testing ground’. There is a lot of potential for a supportive and symbiotic relationship between public libraries and universities, and P2PU is eager to assist in building those partnerships.

What do you think? Do you strongly agree or strongly disagree? Let us know through the new P2PU community forum.

For more insight into our thinking, read our Goethe Institut interview “Knowledge for Everyone, For Free. Period.” by Leonard Novy (deutsch: Kostenloses wissen für alle. Punkt.)

Want to join the “next” Next Library? Submit an interactive session like we did before November 12 2018.

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