shared ownership, shared space: library reflections from school experiences

Was just reading whose space is it anyway, on what sort of behavior is & should be allowed in the library, and it dovetailed with another issue I’ve been thinking about.

So, I used to teach at a very traditional prep school (which was awesome in a lot of ways, very different from my own education, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity). Now my daughter goes to a Montessori school. While both of these places provide excellent educations they have, of course, very different cultures.

In the traditional school environment, it was in many ways my responsibility, as the teacher, to set & enforce behavioral norms. This meant that it became my responsibility to monitor everyone’s behavior — and, perhaps, correspondingly less their responsibility to monitor their own. (I don’t think this is the goal of traditional school cultures, but I think it’s a structural effect.) Once you’ve set up that kind of power relationship, I think it becomes necessary for the students to look for ways to subvert it, to claim their own power (as a way to assert their own identities); when they look for ways to assert power outside the official structure, those often end up being ways to assert it against the official structure, which is to say, behavior that is often irresponsible, reckless, or at minimum annoying.

In the Montessori environment there’s a lot more freedom of choice for students as to what activities they’re involved in, which means correspondingly there’s a lot more responsibility for them to monitor their own behavior; it is simply impossible for the teachers to be channeling everyone’s behavior when there are substantially more activities going on than teachers. This means they invest a lot of time in teaching routines and building a particular kind of culture, so that they can wind up the students and let them go. This means that I’ve seen four-year-olds hard at work, in a room with no teacher, next to an open door. (In other words, yes, I’ve watched four-year-olds and gotten the distinct impression they were more mature than some of the twelve-year-olds I’ve taught. Maybe this is just the maelstrom of crazy that is early puberty? But I think it is, or at least is also, a cultural difference.)

There’s some real concepts of ownership here. My daughter is three, and she already feels, and is expected to feel, a shared stake in ownership of space at her school. It is her space, as much as anyone else’s. And I think the whose-space-is-it-anyway post is touching on these themes: is it our job, as librarians, to enforce certain notions of behavior in libraries — to set up that power dynamic? Or are we facilitators within a shared space, where we both give up control over the norms, and encourage people to feel ownership of their library?

Stated that way, of course the latter sounds more romantic. But it’s also problematic; my daughter’s teachers spent a lot of time developing those cultural norms. The first few months of the toddler program center around teaching these routines. You can do that when you’re dealing with a defined group that doesn’t change much, but library patrons don’t necessarily form such a group. How can shared ownership — including the level of shared responsibility necessary to escape that authority-relationship structure — be developed with a more transient population? Can it be? How?

5 thoughts on “shared ownership, shared space: library reflections from school experiences

  1. While many libraries have a rather large transient segment to their population, many also have a core group of regulars. My library, for instance, has the groups of moms and kids who come in for weekly story times, the group of latch-key kids who come in after school, etc. The librarians in my library seem to have settled for continuing the traditional school authority relationship structure with the latch-key kids, likely because they haven’t a clue how to go about doing anything else — Montessori training is not typically a requirement for being a librarian, after all. In contrast, the moms and kids who come in for story times do pretty well at self-policing; each mom knows what is expected behavior for a library (and of course, the rules of appropriate library behavior are a bit different on the children’s floor) and takes responsibility for teaching this to her own kids. Repetition of a fixed routine helps here, too. There are, of course, visitors that attach themselves to each group, but they quickly learn the rules/culture from those around them — visiting moms guide their kids through story time followed by exploring the children’s floor; visiting latch-key kids quickly get the hang of talking just quietly enough that they won’t catch the nearby reference librarian’s ire and get sent down to the children’s floor.

    Creating a shared sense of ownership and responsibility, along with a corresponding culture, is much easier in adults than in children. After all, most of us grew up knowing that libraries are supposed to be pretty quiet and have already learned basic manners, and we’re accustomed to taking ownership for things. Many libraries already have lists of rules posted; perhaps changing the tone of these lists to one of inviting the patrons to help maintain a specified atmosphere through the following activities (conversing only quietly, moving longer/louder conversations to specified spaces, etc.) would be a big help there.

    I’m a little less certain of exactly what they should be doing with the latch-key kids; I, of course, have not had thorough Montessori training either. I know some major components of the problem: (a) They are dealing with kids who are used to an authority-based environment; (b) The kids attach status to being in the Young Adult section rather than the Kid section (thus, a popular threat when anyone gets too loud is that they will have to go downstairs to the kid floor); (c) They are in the primary area where adults would also like to be, with insufficient quiet activities to keep them all quiet the entire time, and have just come from school, where they were expected to stay quiet most of the time. I think the solution would probably start with reframing the Young Adult/Kid distinction into a Quiet/Reading/Studying area and a Talking/Partying area; there are also some smaller study rooms with decent soundproofing and doors that close, which they could encourage kids to utilize if a group of them want to talk or work on a group project together. I don’t think the librarians would be able to totally get out of the job of enforcing the culture/atmosphere they desired, but I think it’d get a lot closer. Give them options, instead of just insisting that they keep it down to a quiet roar. Ask them which type of culture they’re looking for, and direct them to the appropriate place for it.

    This may be entirely too specific to the problems I’ve observed at my library to be useful to anyone else, but maybe someone can generalize from it.


    1. There’s definitely a growing idea of teen librarianship and teen library spaces, an understanding that this is a group of patrons that have distinct needs from both adults and kids and perhaps everyone would be better off if someone would pay attention to that already.

      Mind you “supposed to be pretty quiet” is a hotly debated point these days within librarianship ;). Why are we giving the teens options and directing them appropriately, rather than giving you options and directing you to the place that fits? Why are you normative in this situation?


  2. I’m not sure how sharp the distinction is between the two models. I presume that there are limits to which kinds of contributions the Montessori kids can make to their culture — for instance I imagine that the boundaries would not allow a group of the older kids to bring in a communal bong. So something feels not-genuine about downplaying the power structure in spaces like this one: the teachers must still be in control, just more subtly so. But I suppose subtlety is still a palpable difference. It’d be interesting to see what the middle school on V’s campus looks like — that’d let you get at the puberty idea.

    I am thinking now of Wikipedia and what kind of space that is. I suppose more like the Montessori model — there are definite Rules for behavior but I think it’s largely self-policing (but of course it depends on how you define hierarchy). That’s interesting because Wikipedia, like libraries, has to take all comers, basically, without having a year or so to formally train them on how to be Wikipedians. I think the key is having a critical mass of people who demonstrate the culture’s norms all the time, and trusting in the human tendency to adapt & conform to do the rest of the work. Maybe the other key is that violations in wikispace are basically tolerable; when the page on Chickens is vandalized, you don’t create a room full of people now unable to work, you just create a nuisance for whoever needs to know about chickens.


    1. I expect there are limits too, although it’s less clear to me where they are, of course. But from the way I see teachers and kids interacting, I also get the sense that establishing those limits is less of a power struggle. I mean, all societies enforce norms, but there’s a big difference between how norms get enforced in a social circle and in a classroom, typically. (Although communal bong: lol.)

      I have interacted only a tiny bit with the middle schoolers, so I couldn’t say. I haven’t seen their classroom spaces at all.

      Wikipedia…I dunno. I mean, partly it’s a social-norms thing, but when you have code as well as social law, different picture. And wikipedia also has bots doing a lot of the enforcing. And a few users with godly, albeit perhaps rarely exercised, powers. People tend not to notice all that stuff, but it’s there and I think it makes analogies with meatspace culture break down some.

      I think, yes, you’re right that once there’s a critical mass embodying certain norms that newcomers to the space get them by acculturation. But that seems like something that works better in some libraries than others — smaller or more circumscribed or more specialized patron populations help, I should thin. But if you walk into a library that doesn’t have very many patrons in it, what creates that social norm? And especially if you’re discouraged from interacting with them (small numbers of people spread out to maximize space between themselves, some librarians never come out from behind their desks, etc.), how can norms spread socially at all (i.e. it seems like enforcement is a much stronger mechanism). I guess that could spread a social norm of silence as not-silence might prompt interaction (but people might just be all really passive-aggressive instead).

      Well, I’ve just argued myself another good reason for coming out from behind desks, anyway.

      (Man, and I haven’t even gotten into how libraries with complex patron bases might have totally different norms in different spaces, or at different times of day…)


  3. I didn’t know that about Wikipedia and bots. I am not sure how much godly powers differ from a teacher who is twice your size, but maybe they do differ a lot. But bots are something else.

    And the density thing! Yes! If you don’t have enough people in place at the same time it will be very hard for an idea to spread. Just like many diseases, you need a certain number of carriers sharing space contemporaneously. Interesting!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s