Learning by Doing: Engaged Service and the MLS; Community Service Is a Natural for Learning How to Foster Lifelong Learning. (Library Education)

By Sweeney, Irene | American Libraries, February 2002 | Go to article overview

Learning by Doing: Engaged Service and the MLS; Community Service Is a Natural for Learning How to Foster Lifelong Learning. (Library Education)


Sweeney, Irene, American Libraries


As a library-school student, I had been steeped in lectures and readings about the librarians and libraries of the future and the changes brought about by the new technologies. I was encouraged to ponder whether libraries (and librarians for that matter) would be around in 5-10 years and to fret about what the future bodes for the book, electronic reference, digitization, cataloging, library marketing, and the stereotypical image of the librarian.

However, notwithstanding that all these topics are part and parcel of the profession to which I was aspiring, these issues somehow did not engage me in any meaningful way--perhaps because I had no prior experience working in a library. Undoubtedly, this set me apart; I was observing libraries from the outside in, rather than focusing on them (as many of my classmates did) from the inside out, emphasis on the institution itself.

Throughout my studies I began to question just where the reader figured into the philosophy of librarianship--the people who came to the library for the books, who simply wanted to read for enjoyment, or to learn, to have a place to go to reflect, to imagine, a place where they didn't have to pay to access a world of knowledge. After all, the one library-related activity with which I had plenty of experience was in being a patron.

My classes explored the new technologies, information management, and information literacy, which naturally led to discussion about the "digital divide." But the "have-nots" encompass not only people who are technologically disenfranchised. It also includes the scores of Americans who are functionally illiterate, whether by virtue of being newcomers to the U.S. and struggling to learn English or by being thrust into a workforce for which they were neither prepared nor trained because of circumstances beyond their control (such as the Welfare Reform Act of 1996).

What did ultimately engage me was looking at libraries in the old familiar way--as a vital tool for the community. The local library of my childhood was an irreplaceable resource, since we could not afford to buy the books that sparked our imaginations and illuminated our lives. The library was a kind of balm for us, an equalizer in class-conscious suburbia. Surely my experience was not unique, I thought. But how did all the technical innovations in library science impact the more traditional role of the library as an institution of democracy?

The opportunity to find out came when my professors at the University of South Florida School of Library and Information Science suggested that I use a research methods class assignment to test the professional waters--in other words, to see how libraries were serving people in my own new backyard of rural North Central Florida.

Theory into practice

I was soon embarking on an experiment in engaged service--moving beyond the classroom into the broader community experience by applying the ideals of civic responsibility, community service, community building, and other social issues. This experience--blending theory, technology, books, and people--defines the very foundations of librarianship and reflects the original purpose of public libraries.

Taking up the challenge, I began to explore what kinds of library services were available to the seasonal farm workers and their children that I had seen coming into town. Why were some of the housekeepers and janitors at the University of South Florida--were I work--unable to read and write? As families who had owned and worked the land for decades sold off farmland, what kind of job training and career opportunities were being advanced for the new generation, now in need of different skills? As a new librarian, I wondered how prepared I was to meet their needs.

With the help of the State Library of Florida, my USF professors, and Three Rivers Regional Library System (TRRLS) Operations Manager Cheryl Pulliam, I submitted an LSTA family literacy grant proposal to develop "The Circle of Learning" for the TRRLS in Mayo. …

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