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?