When creating nontraditional learning spaces, is it more valuable for libraries to focus on offering opportunities for a “geeking out” behaviors or more mainstream interests? Why?

The public library system that I work in serves two of the poorest counties in Virginia, and since much of our financial support comes from the local government, our budget has never been plentiful. We have always tried to utilize our funding optimally by offering materials, programs, and services that will be beneficial to the widest possible segment of our local population.

In thinking about the above question this week, at first I decided that it would be best to offer services for the mainstream, so that the largest possible number of patrons might take advantage of the learning space. Then I began to think about the positive outcomes of supporting “geeking out” activities, since these, while more specialized, are also “most likely to be pathways into technical expertise and other forms of interest-driven learning” (Ito et al., 2010, p. 240). In the end, I determined that the best strategy of all would be to create space and opportunity for every type of learning ecology.

Through the careful creation of a participatory learning space that includes flexible workspaces, reconfigurable tables and chairs, essential making equipment, and high-speed digital connectivity, the widest possible range of learners could be accommodated. By considering the requirements of different levels of learning from the very earliest stages of design, the space could be created in a cost-effective manner, and learning opportunities tailored for those participants who are looking to “hang out”, “mess around”, or “geek out” could be offered for little to no additional expense.

Such a space would encourage the development of social relationships and connections that are a large part of “hanging out” and “messing around” behaviors. Consequently, some of the participants in these more mainstream programs would want to continue to explore their interests in a more serious, “geeked out” way, and the flexible learning space could offer a place for this kind of “continued, intensive, and sophisticated interaction” (Ito et al, 2010, p. 66) to flourish.

The differing levels of interest and expertise for any type of learning occur on a continuum and vary over time and across individuals. If libraries can offer a welcoming and inspiring space where people of all ages can experiment with technology and hands-on making activities, at whatever interest level they currently occupy, all while reaping the benefits of social connection and collaboration, the resulting innovation and creativity will be nothing short of spectacular. Instead of creating a space for one modality of learning, I suggest creating an adaptable space for all, which will be flexible enough to support an ecology of experimentation and technical knowledge. Ultimately, this would be the most economical way of meeting the highly varied needs of the people we serve, especially for cash-strapped libraries like mine.

Ito, M., Baumer, S., Bittanti, M., boyd, d., Cody, R., Herr-Stephenson, B.,… Tripp, L. (2010). Hanging out, messing around, and geeking out: Kids living and learning with new media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.