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Oui!Learn – The Library Dimension 2020-12-07T14:59:24+00:00

Oui!Learn –

the ‘Library’ Dimension


In addition to the intellectual and cultural co-ordinates outlined on the ‘curriculum’ page, Oui!Learn also incorporates a ‘library’ dimension, a dimension which puts in question the concept of regular or established ‘dimensionality’. The library continually re-opens to other dimensions, the dimensions of otherness that introduces warps, folds, twists and recursions into the regularity and the regulation of the dimension from which that opening emerges: the ‘current’ page, the ‘current’ moment, the page and the moment through which the ‘current’ runs, the ‘from which’ and the ‘to which’ the ‘current’ orients; a current which resists the hypostatisation or refication of the currency, flowing freely among ‘foreign’ currencies.

An article in the Public Domain Review (2019) highlights the ‘civilisational’ and the ‘technological’ dimensions of the symbolic domain constituted by ‘the library’.

In many utopian visions of the city, the article points out, the library is often of paramount importance. In such accounts, the library is a place where ‘civilisation’ is preserved, displayed, and accessed. For example, in The Golden Bottle (1892) Ignatius Donnelly imagined a reading room in every town hall, located at the centre of each Utopian community, with the remainder of the town laid out in concentric circles. The utopian socialist Charles Fourier calculated that the library at the centre of his Phalanstère would amass 800,000 books with a natural encyclopaedia at its centre.

The technological innovation at the heart of the utopian library is the focus of other narratives. For example, in Roadtown (1910), Edgar Chambless describes

“three underground railway lines situated one atop another with a single row of houses as long as the length of another railway located above ground. […] Roadtown residents submitted their library requests by telephone, and a mechanical carrier rapidly delivered the requested books”.


Public Domain Review (2019). The Library of the Future: A Vision of 1983 from 1883. Public Domain Review Newsletter, 9 (3). Available from [Accessed 8 February 2019]

The Long Now Foundation highlights the importance of ‘the library dimension’ for conceptions of the positionalities of (the more ‘immediate’ or ‘pointilliste’) I-here-now and (the more extended or entangled) we-here-now, the where and when from which we speak and act, the ‘ground’ (linguistic, environmental) we assume and the ‘grounding’ (material/cultural and social) we perform. On its About page, the Foundation states,

“Long Now added a “Library” dimension with the realization of the need for content to go along with the long-term context provided by the Clock – a library of the deep future, for the deep future. In a sense every library is part of the 10,000-year Library, so Long Now is developing tools (such as the Rosetta Disk, The Long Viewer and the Long Server) that may provide inspiration and utility to the whole community of librarians and archivists.”

Through discourse and action, we negotiate the different heres and the different nows which I inhabit, you inhabit, we inhabit and they inhabit, which form our distinct (differential, dissensual) habitus. The full extent of the difficulties inherent in the problematics of the ‘common ground’, the ‘common sense’ and the ‘commonwealth’, the endeavours to constitute the communal and the public, and perhaps the democratic re-public (res publica), become more apparent when these differences of timing (temporalising) and of spacing (spatialising) are taken into account.

This awareness affects the perception of the different forms of learning that continually take place among the different intersubjective positionalities, different temporalisations and different spatialisations, altering the notion of relevance irrevocably, making of relevance a perpetual re-adjustment. One immediate difficulty is to recognise that, as the Long Now Foundation asserts, “every library is part of the 10,000-year Library”. We have to make it so!


The Academic Library in the 21st Century

Revisions of the ‘library’ as a ‘civic’ institutional typology

“From the beginning, libraries and learning have been inseparable.” (Bennett, 2009)

While, as Bennet notes above, libraries and learning have been historically inseparable, a question still remains, as expressed by Mathews, Metko and Tomlin (2018), concerning “What relationship do we want learners to have with their [academic] library?”. This question has become particularly urgent in a context in which the information landscape is becoming ever more diverse, complex and digital. In response to it, academic libraries are engaging with their associated and affiliated communities in novel ways.

Aside: Kelly Miller (2018) asks a similar and closely related question to that of Mathews, Metko and Tomlin (2018) when she asks ‘Why are students coming to visit the university library in the digital age?’ In exploring answers to this question at the University of Miami Libraries, through a service model that aims to promote learning by doing, she comments that, in contrast to narrow curricular learning, libraries have the ability to offer students something different: limitless possibilities for exploration and freedom from judgment.

At their best, she comments, 21st-century libraries may function as informal learning spaces that bring people together and build community. They may also act as restorative places, where one can engage in thinking, wondering and figuring things out. For students who are often uncertain about who they are, what to study and what they wish to become, the opportunity to be in a state of suspended not-yet-knowing, of being open to past, present and future possibilities, within the library may provide a necessary relief. Given this insight, designing spaces and services that allow for open-ended dialogue, creative expression, and contemplative inquiry may support students seeking greater spaciousness of mind and being. In this way, libraries may approximate more closely the core of the intellectual experience: learning in relationship with others.

Students may be drawn to the library, Miller concludes, because it embodies opportunities for human connection and creative expression; helps students to cultivate inner quiet and coherence; provides a place where no one is judging or grading them, where they can work peacefully, if they choose (a more capacious ‘here’); while enabling them to experience a spiritual sense of belonging to a larger community (a broader sense of ‘we’) and centuries-long scholarly conversations (a longer ‘now)’.

 These new approaches call for evolution in service philosophy [1]. While commitment to intellectual empowerment remains an enduring value, Mathews, Metko and Tomlin (2018) argue that academic libraries are shifting from a transactional model to partnership models [2]. As sketched out previously (Parsons, 2010; Parsons, 2012), this shift may be seen in the development of the academic liaison librarian role, which could be considered to have moved from an informational/instructional (‘let me show you’), through a communication (‘let us discuss it together’) to a performative/engagement (‘let us work together’) paradigm, different modes of interaction and positioning, the last of which may be open to partnership (‘let us work together as equals to co-create’ – equal yet different).

Historically, libraries have been rooted in a transactional model, focused on providing access to content and tools, which required skills in acquiring, navigating and evaluating information. While still relevant and valuable, academic librarians, particularly those in a liaison role (liaising with students, academics, technical and learning support staff), are also taking on more active roles as scholarly collaborators, co-teachers, co-principal investigators and consultants. Libraries are providing the insights and the infrastructure that can empower people to create, share, curate and reflect on their learning (Mathews, Metko and Tomlin, 2018).

Librarians’ neuroses

Achieving the goal of performatively enacting the library as place of friendship, partnership and democracy requires overcoming typical and stereotypical librarians’ neuroses such as, for example, the prevention of all noise (silence), the halting of the spread of illness (good ventilation), the disorder of the collection (through technological innovations). (Public Domain Review, 2019). It also assumes open access to the library shelves. Kevin Hayes describes how difficult it was for librarians to relinquish the practice of closed access. He writes,

“As shelf access became inevitable, new libraries were designed with stacks that brought patrons in physical contact with the books yet kept them within the librarian’s view. One design had a library’s stacks radiate from the circulation desk so that a single librarian at the desk could see down each row and supervise everyone using the stacks. Recalling Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, an architectural scheme to facilitate constant supervision of prison inmates, this design seems subtly dystopian. While they were given the freedom to access the shelves, these library users were not totally free: they remained under the librarian’s watchful gaze.” (Hayes, 2010)


Hayes, K. J. (2010). The Public Library in Utopia. Libraries & the Cultural Record, 45 (3), pp. 333-349

Public Domain Review (2019). The Library of the Future: A Vision of 1983 from 1883. Public Domain Review Newsletter, 9 (3). Available from [Accessed 8 February 2019]

Libraries are re-positioning themselves as laboratories for exploration, incubators for ideas and collaborators across teaching, learning and research practices. Mathews, Metko and Tomlin (2018) outline examples of the initiatives being taken at Virginia Tech showing this transition from transaction to partnership. These initiatives include, first, an ePortfolios programme arising from Virginia Tech’s digital and information literacies endeavours. This programme aligns well with the more traditional library values of openness, curation, preservation of student work and the notion of the library as platform. Second, Virginia Tech is piloting a liaison model that embeds library staff within collaborative, interdisciplinary teams that are organised around the High-Impact Education Practices defined by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. These librarians are exploring new liaison models based on partnerships in undergraduate research, service learning first-year experiences and living-learning communities.

Third, over the past few years, Virginia Tech has created a network of studios. These are spaces that frame the library as a creative partner. They do so by encouraging peer-driven collaboration and engagement with emerging technologies. Taking into account the notion that space is the body-language of an organisation, as expressed by designer Chris Flink, Virginia Tech applied a service design approach to the creation of new learning environments in the library. The aim of this approach is to foster service models in which students can build new skills, tackle real-world problems and hone creativity, which are considered to be of equal importance to providing access to information collections and teaching digital literacy skills.

Fourth, Virginia Tech’s Course Exhibit Initiative turns course projects into interactive exhibitions. Such exhibitions enable students to materialise course assignments in powerful and unanticipated ways. The process of exhibition creation can provoke questions that are difficult to raise or answer in a traditional classroom context.

Through these initiatives, the library can be recognised as a dynamic educational partner, a co-creator in learning as much as a repository of information, whether in physical or digital form.

This is a critical time for libraries to experiment with new engagement models that empower teaching and learning, not just support them. Embracing that challenge will require, first, acknowledging the situation that while there is an ever greater amount of content being published, with more interactions occurring online, nevertheless there is an ever-greater need for personalised, face-to-face consultation. Second, a student lifecycle approach should be adopted. Within a holistic outlook, key engagement opportunities across the curriculum and co-curricular endeavours need to be pinpointed. Mathews, Metko and Tomlin (2018) think that libraries are well positioned to interact at an introductory level and then to move upwards with students, changing as the students’ needs, capabilities and aspirations grow.

To answer the question that they posed for themselves at the beginning, Mathews, Metko and Tomlin (2018) conclude that the kind of relationship that is desired between learners and the library is one that is grounded in dynamic, interdependent partnerships; one that propels ideas forward and posits the library not just as a place where learning happens but as an institution that transcends its walls; and one in which all learners feel included in a community, backed by a supportive network that addresses their unique needs.

In this way, a transformation will be accomplished in academic library service philosophy from transactional services to engagement and partnership, altering what learners can do and what academic librarians do in practice.


[1] Mathews, Metko and Tomlin (2018) argue that library values are articulated in a service philosophy that includes intellectual empowerment; openness (publicness); curation and preservation (of work, meaning-structures, symbols structures, symbol contexts); platform provision (public space, digital and ‘physical’); service design (to realise and materialise the service philosophy).

To this may be added insights from Kelly Miller, who emphasises that the ‘library’ as place of learning is one of partnership and scholarly community, providing human connection, creative expression and inner quiet and coherence; a place where students are not being judged nor assessed; a place that provides a sense of belonging to a larger community and to centuries-long scholarly conversation.

This library philosophy, in other words, provides a longer ‘now’ of learning (centuries-long conversations), a broader ‘here’ of learning (the gradual opening of ‘word’ to ‘world’ and the plurality of wordings to worldings in a double environmentalisation (Jiminez, 2018: 54-57), and therefore a wider ‘we’ of learning, dismantling, in practice, the I/now/here (right now, right here, in this moment) of the possessive individual (Macpherson, 1990, 1962)), the self-possessed possessor of knowledge.

 [2] This takes the transition suggested by Joan Lippincott (2018) one stage further. Lippincott discusses the transition in branding terms. She comments that the old library brand was “books”. By contrast, the new library brand is that libraries are places that connect people with content.

She notes that, in the 1990s, two specific concepts motivated many of the changes in library spaces, an argument that resonates with the position of Mathews, Metko and Tomlin (2018). The first was the realisation that libraries could become places for students and teachers to create content rather than just places to access content. The second was a greater emphasis within higher education pedagogy on active, collaborative learning, in contrast to the traditional, passive lecture mode.


Bennett, S. (2009). Libraries and learning: a history of paradigm change. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 9 (2), 181–197. Available from [Accessed 7 October 2018].

Jiminez, A.C. (2018). Spiderweb anthropologies: ecologies, infrastructures, entanglements. In: Cadena, M. d.l. and Blaser, M. eds., A World of many worlds. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Lippincott, J. (2018). The Link to content in 21st-century libraries. Educause Review, 53 (1), 64–65. Available from [Accessed 17 January 2019].

Macpherson, C.B. (1990, 1962). The political theory of possessive individualism: Hobbes to Locke. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mathews, B., Metko, S. and Tomlin, P. (2018). Empowerment, experimentation, engagement: embracing partnership models in libraries. Educause Review, 53 (3), 52–53. Available from [Accessed 17 January 2019].

Miller, K.E. (2018). On being in libraries. Educause Review, 53 (5), 50–51. Available from [Accessed 30 August 2018].

Parsons, A. (2010). Academic liaison librarianship: curatorial pedagogy or pedagogical curation? Ariadne, 65. Available from [Accessed 1 December 2010].

Parsons, A. (2012). From liaison, through media performance to performative, interactive sensemaking. Poiesis and Prolepsis [Blog]. Available from [Accessed 17 January 2019]


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