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Dean's Update: The Library as Informal Learning Space in an Evolving Hybrid and Flex-Demanding World

May 25, 2022

“Library as place” continues to be core to the classic professional definition of a library and to the popular connotation of its purpose within most communities, including academic ones. Libraries serve different purposes for different people: they are a destination for self-directed learners to get trusted data and assistance to find information, spanning geography, time, and authors. Or an oasis to escape the stress and intensity of studying, teaching, or learning, to revitalize personal energies, or simply to rest one’s eyes and ears. And they are a hub for meeting others, triggering relationships around common interests, or building community around the life of the mind with celebration and stimulating the joy of unexpected conversations.

At Drexel, our library facilities continue to support intentional informal learning, offering environments where learners take ownership of what and how they learn and pursue information and strategies to develop problem-solving skills. Students and faculty are not required to come here and are not evaluated for academic achievements. Through experiential—and sometimes experimental–pursuits, such self-directed learners visit the Libraries to practice the methods taught in formal settings that support curriculum.

What we hear from our students is that they value the Libraries’ learning environments for the feeling of safety—of not being assessed in ways that affect their grades. They seek the inspiration of ‘learning amidst’ others – the affordances of our built library environments that prioritize a synergy of minimal distractions and proximity to others who appear to be there for the same purpose of focusing on active learning behaviors. They appreciate having convenient access to our approachable staff who they trust are caring and knowledgeable experts. And they recognize that as a result of engaging with the Libraries—whether onsite or online via a computer or mobile device—they experience the rewards and the confidence that comes with mastering a skill or understanding an important concept that will be helpful again in another context.

This issue of In Circulation spotlights a few recent activities that illustrate both continuity of traditional notions of what a library does and the evolution of new impressions of both cyber and physical built spaces.

The article Drexel Alumnus Donates Event Poster from the First-Ever Earth Week illustrates the long-lasting value an archive—as a place for collecting, preserving, and sharing pieces of history—to enable learners to discover, reflect, be guided, and possibly even trigger new relationships with others with similar interests. Perhaps no one will assign, through a course, to go see this poster, but nonetheless a self-directed learner may enjoy the self-development and confidence that comes with its discovery and engagement with historic artifacts.  

An interview with the Libraries’ first hired Research Co-op student describes not only insights on research relating to informal learning environments, but also the experiences the student had to be a self-directed learner and the value of working in such an intentionally designed, built space. Her self- developed methods of learning about an unfamiliar topic valued the elements of informal learning environments, including access to experts, trusted information resources [available in the Libraries’ online environment, its website], and the satisfaction of becoming a confident learner prepared for professional roles after graduation.

This year’s annual Drexel Authors Celebration was a joyous return to offering an informal environment for people to gather, build community and learn about the changes in publishing and finding information, while honoring Drexel colleagues. Although no one is required to come into this Libraries-designed hybrid space, over 85 people with diverse backgrounds and across academic disciplines came together for serendipitous conversations with others with a similar interest in sharing insights into Drexel’s “life of the mind.”

We are encouraged to see fewer necessities that require us to work away from places we have long known to be welcoming, safe, nonjudgmental, supportive, and available to inspire thoughtful curiosity and responsible exploration of ideas, alone and with others. Although experiences from working remotely have left some dismissing the value of a library as place, they have raised new opportunities for us here at Drexel to explore creative ways to offer the best of both space designs to provide hybrid environments for our self-directed learners. But there is a lot to learn about what is effective in supporting learning and nurturing learning communities.

Danuta A. Nitecki, PhD
Dean of Libraries