March 16, 2018

Learning To Learn | Office Hours

Michael Stephens“BEING ADAPTABLE IN A FLAT world, knowing how to ‘learn how to learn,’ will be one of the most important assets any worker can have, because job churn will come faster, because innovation will happen faster,” writes Thomas Friedman in The World Is Flat. I’ve invoked this “learn to learn” mantra before, but recent shifts in the opportunities for librarians and library staff to learn have brought me back to it.

I’ve presented at a fair share of library staff development days. I enjoy them; staff come together, usually with the library closed, for updates from the director, a speaker or two, a chance to learn something new. These sessions might be focused on LIS—I usually talk about evolving library services and ­socio-technological change—or centered on personal improvement and include such content as yoga demonstrations, stress reduction techniques, or healthy cooking. These are all good things, especially if used as a starting point for “healthy library” initiatives or a future-focused strategic planning year. Sometimes, though, I worry that there’s great excitement about learning during staff day that doesn’t last. Many staff days get folks energized, but then the excitement dies down the following week.

Learning momentum

How might staff development days evolve? I was impressed with the activities at Highland Park Public Library, IL, when I spoke at the library’s staff day a couple of years ago. Staff participated in a live, hands-on “passport to technology” program. Stations around the building offered staff members the chance to try out new devices and new web services offered by the library. The Best Buy Geek Squad was in attendance as well, offering encounters with popular and best-selling consumer tech. At each station, employees received a stamp in a passport. Filling all the blanks entered each person into a number of drawing for ereaders. It was Learning 2.0 with a hands-on twist. (For more about “on your feet” learning, see my report from the illuminating R-Squared conference)

I’d argue for continuing staff development days, but I’d also urge administrators to promote a culture of learning all year long. At a workshop recently in Alberta, Canada, an administrator asked me how to incorporate all the new ideas and services we were talking about into practice. “How do we balance it all out?” she asked.

I suggested two strategies, one for management and one for staff. For administrators: mandate weekly time for each staff member to explore something new related to their jobs. It might be a social tool, a web service, or simply distraction-free time to read a few articles or a book. Reports on learning progress should figure into performance evaluations and monthly meetings.

Staff should then make good use of of the time they’re given. Start an exploration blog to chart progress and post each week as part of the activity. Formalize reading an important work, such as David Weinberger’s Everything Is Miscellaneous or Chris Anderson’s new book Makers, with others on staff or online. Investigate the great things the Nebraska Library Commission has done with the Learning 2.0 model: offering supplemental technologies to explore and posts on important written works that participants can receive continuing education credits for reading (­nelearns).

Another strategy might involve participating in a new, no-cost online learning opportunity like the “23 Mobile Things” created by Jan Holmquist in Denmark, along with Mylee Joseph and Kathryn Barwick from Australia. The online program extends a new twist on the Learning 2.0 model: 23 mobile applications for library staff to explore as a means to understand how people are using apps. Participants can reflect and consider the tools for use within the library. Take a look at a group of more than 600 Australian and New Zealander self-organized library staff who have already adapted the program for more inspiration.

Learning meets the road

I’ve researched Learning 2.0–style programs and the impact of such staff education since 2008; see “Lessons from Learning 2.0” for details on what types of strategies to use after Learning 2.0. A recent study with a group of Chicago-area libraries further illuminates exemplary practice for creating a culture of learning in your organization, including the notion that all staff should participate in educational opportunities, not just librarians or managers; program creators should focus learning programs on practical implementations of new tools and services; and “learning champion” staff members should be designated as support throughout the program in each department or service area.

A mantra I use in my talks and in my classes is “Learn Always.” I’m impressed with some of the grassroots learning activities I’ve witnessed of late that give library staff low-cost, active learning opportunities. If libraries call themselves learning organizations, setting time aside for staff to explore and reflect is mandatory.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Michael Stephens About Michael Stephens

Michael Stephens ( is Associate Professor at the School of Information, San Jose State University, CA



  1. Hi Michael,
    I’m embarking on a new journey with UC Santa Barbara next month as their Learning Organization Librarian. I’d love to know more about how to schedule you to come in for some concept introductory time … I’m sure you’re quite busy, but it would be so awesome to collaborate with you!