Be Like Brando: The Library as arena of co-creation and belonging

Text of my keynote at the annual ChALS conference in Gothenburg, Sweden September 26 2018. The theme was learning (in a brought sense).

This conference is about learning so I thought it would be relevant to start asking the question, ”Why is learning important, why do we even care about learning”.

[a number of responses came from the audience: learning liberates, learning makes us grow, learning developes us]

To me learning is important because I feel my world is expanding when I learn something new. My opportunity and ability to influence and understand my surroundings, my friends, my family, my libraries, the society we serve grows with every little new thing I learn. Learning is significant to make the world a better place to be. And then it is just a whole lot of fun to learn new stuff.

So learning is great. Is the library a place for learning? I would say that is a big yes any day but not everybody thinks so…


This is a picture of a slide from a talk at a conference in Vienna I attended earlier this year. The talk was about the fairly new WU Library & Learning Center at Vienna University of Business and Economics and what it says is, that there is a difference between what they see as the library function and what they see as the learning center function. A library is a place for reading, a place where shelving is the main focus (sic!), a place with ideal climate for paper copies and where collection is the most valuable part. Then, on the other hand, The Learning Center part is a place for learning, where environments for learning is important and with ideal climate for students. In short you could say that the library is a place for books storage and the learning center is a place for people and learning.

I strongly disagree with this approach and I have some really big issues about the term ‘learning center’ used in library context. To me libraries are very much about learning and about people meeting, collaborating and talking. The library is also about collections for sure but a collection in itself is not the goal, the goal is to support learning, education and research and libraries are great at that so let’s just call it a library.

Supporting learning is what is what we do. That is why we are here. Really nothing new to this, it’s not unique thoughts. Back in the late 1800s Justin Windsor, the first president of the American Library Association, pointed out that The Library both had to be “…a repository, a collection, but also a workshop, a place where you together could be informed and learn about the world“. I highly agree with Mr. Windsor.

Be like Brando

So we agreed that learning is important and libraries are great places for learning. Now I like to tell you a story about Marlon Brando, the American actor. When Francis Ford Coppola was casting for the leading role as Don Corleone in his iconic film, The Godfather, many actors signed up for addition. Both Dustin Hoffmann and Warren Beatty was casting for the role and also Marlon Brando. And Brando had been reading the screen play and he got this clear idea on how he would play Don Corleone and in his mind The Don should be a man of big format, he should be hoarse and look like a bulldog so Brando comes to the set and he takes some klenex and put in his mouth like this (at this point of the talk I actually filled my mouth with klenex) and he started acting; “I’m gonna make him and offer he can’t refuse.. revenge, is a dish best served cold” and it was in that very moment he defined the role of Don Corleone, he gave life to the charactor. And I find that so inspiring. You could not imagine someone else playing that role – Marlon Brando defined The Godfather, he made it his own and just like that I want us all to be like Brando when we talk about learning in libraries; I want us to be aware of our responsibility as learning arenas in our communities and to define the learning activities we carry out and to take ownership of the output. I want us to be like Brando.

The-Godfather-TuxedoBe like Brando, define and shape your learning activities in the library

So now I will show you an example of how to be like Brando. You can be like Brando in many ways but I will show you 5 ways of defining and shaping learning using Digital Social Science Lab in Copenhagen as a case.

Context: Digital Social Science Lab

First a bit of context. At The Faculty Library of Social Sciences, we opened Digital Social Science Lab (DSSL) on 18th of February 2016 as a reaction to some of the changes we saw around us. When the world changes, it often affects the institutions and people we serve and when they change, libraries should also take a good look at whether there is something they should change. What we were seeing was students and faculty members turning to other resources than books and journals when they wanted to get insights on the world and carry out studies and research. They started collecting digital data. Students and researchers of higher education has always used data in their work; Collecting rocks, doing interviews, observing human behavior is all collecting data. But we experienced that they also started to deal with other kinds of data; harvesting social media data and use open data sources like Airbnb location or digitalizes maps of Greenland. They also started asking us if we could help them, for instance visualization of data or analyzing of huge amounts of text. So we moved on that and created Digital Social Science Lab to support data literacy in social sciences.

DSSL is a physical space for education and instructions for data handling within social sciences, it’s software and hardware for harvesting, cleaning, analyzing and visualizing various kinds of data, it’s a building a community around this but most of all it’s a reaction. A reaction to change.

Billede1Digital Social Science Lab, est. 2016

In DSSL we have initiated some activities in order to create a bridge between the students and digital methods. The library teach and do workshops on various software and methods for handling and analyzing data within social sciences – for example Netvizz and TCAT for harvesting data, Open Refine for cleaning, NVivo, SPSS and Excel for analysis and Gephi for visualization. To break it down you could say that the learning aim for DSSL is to foster awareness and skills on digital methods and data literacy in the academic community and since academics luckily often go out into the real world after studies, the aim is also to support data literacy in our society.

Digital Social Science Lab is a huge success, we do around 80 events on data wrangling a year and the space has been nominated to the University of Copenhagen’s Yearly Study Environment and we have acted like Brando and used 5 principles for making learning impact as great as possible: Why, Trust, Place, Humans and Belonging.


Be like Brando #1: Why

To me ‘why’ is the single most important question in the world. Please, never ever stop asking ‘why’. In a learning context why is also significant. Think about yourself at work; Your boss ask you to go to a conference to learn about makerspaces in academic libraries but your boss don’t tell you why you have to learn it and what your newly gained knowledge is to be used for. Feeling motivated to learn something? Being totally clear on why your library’s learning activity is important for the individual and the community and communicate it clearly will be motivational for your users and will support their ability to learn. So in Digital Social Science Lab we have been using a lot of energy on explaining why learning digital methods in social sciences is important.

We have been using storytelling as method, we created stories around DSSL to explain and answer why it was extremely important to get engaged with DSSL and the story simply was, that learning digital methods was a new opportunity to learn something about the world. We didn’t say that the methods where better than the traditional ones, we simply just said that we could help them expand the world they knew; instead of only reading about Brexit they could harvest and analyze Twitter data about Brexit. So tell the story about why your users should care about learning something from you or each other.

Be like Brando #2: Trust

I find trust to be the single most important value in my personal and professional life. I find it extremely hard to deal with people I don’t trust. Trust is a precondition for societies to function. And trust is a precondition for learning. Try to imagine somebody that you don’t trust. How many is thinking about a politician? [a lot were]. Try to imagine your relationship and feelings towards that person. Now try to picture yourself in a situation where you have to learn to skydive from this person… Or from an institutional view think about Puma that accidental leaked 2 million shoe sizes. It’s shoe sizes, not governmental secrets but still Puma’s sales went down dramatically. Why? Because how can we trust them to make great shoes if they even can’t handle something as simple as shoe size data?

In DSSL we have actively used the library brand to create a learning environment of trust. And that is because The Library is a very trustworthy institution. Think about it, libraries has been around for almost 5000 years and has since the introduction of public libraries during the Enlightenment era been associated with spaces for learning, education, research and cultural activity. Our values are openness, diversity, inclusion and accessibility (or at least that the values I like to be floating through my libraries). We are democratic institutions (but not neutral!). The book itself, which many link with libraries (for good reasons), are one of the strongest brands in the world. Recently there was a huge survey in Denmark on which job professions the Danes found most trustworthy. Librarians came in as number 5 only beaten by the healthcare sector and the police but far above journalists and politicians. As a profession we are extremely trusted. It’s a gift, cherish it and use that actively to support your learning activities.


Be like Brando #3: Place

In highly digital world I find physical places more significant than ever. And in order to thrive, learn and develop the places that we created in our societies are important.

I’m always in a search for great places and whenever I’m in a place where I really feel good, where I feel that I belong, I think about what it is about that place that make me feel like that. And then I start thinking that about how to take some of that and maybe transfer it into the library space. Chances are that I’m not the only one who feel that way about that place.

I believe that a place – both the physical setup but also the feelings and emotions you connect with a place – has great impact on our ability to learn. I find great inspiration in Project for Public Spaces that is a is a nonprofit planning, design, and educational organization dedicated to helping people create and sustain public spaces that build stronger communities. They have identified 4 key qualities that makes a great place:

  1. It is accessible and well-connected to other important places in the area.
  2. The space is comfortable and projects a good image.
  3. People are drawn to participate in activities there.
  4. It is a sociable place where people like to gather, visiting it again and again

If you got a good and relevant library you got all four of those and then you got perfect conditions for creating a great learning environtment. If you then add the trusthworthy brand of the library you got a good deal going.

But a place dosen’t create learning by itself. In the context of library learning environments I’ve seen many attempts at creating new spaces at libraries to facilitate learning; Fab Lab’s, Makers Spaces, Data Labs, Learning Commons. Some were great and some failed and I really love failures, we should embrace failures and learn from them. When we fail we take a room and fill it with some nice furniture and some state-of-the-art hardware and software and stand back, excitingly waiting for people to start learn something. What happens in those cases is that students come with there own lab-tops, sits down and stats working like they have always done. And that makes a nice bridge to the next Be like Brando: Humans! Humans are the median that will spark learning in a library, not furniture and hardware.

Be like Brando #4: Humans

Humans drive learning, not books or buildings. No doubt in my mind the most valuable asset of any great library place is the library staff. We need to take ownership of the library space, we need to facilitate learning processes, we need to tell stories about the library and the learning that we want to support. Architects can do the buildings, authors can write the books but it is our responsibility as library professionals to provide the content.

One way we take ownership of the space and the learning we want to support in DSSL is to facilitate education and events to support data literacy, we are not the experts, we set a scene where people meet and learn together. One of the specific activities we are doing is an event series we call Digital Methods Sessions. It is an event where we invite students in to present their work with digital methods and data management for their fellow students. We typically have three groups of 20 minutes’ duration for the purpose of inspiring there peer students and give insights on other methods than the traditional ones. Digital Methods Sessions is not about learning something hands-on, the purpose is to inspire and create networks and new relationships.

Another facilitating activity is Data Sprint’s. A data sprint is a time-limited research and coding workshop where people from different academic and non-academic communities convene physically on a set of data within a curtain topic. The aim of data sprint’s like these are typical two-fold: 1) to raise awareness on how digital methods can be used on various subjects and a more concrete final result of working with the data.

Now I’m not a learning expect but I can see that something different is happening when we set the scene with peer-to-peer sessions instead of the regular instructor/expert-to-student setup. First of all it gives us other opportunities to create different events and learning content than if we were to be the expert/teacher/instructor on every event. I only have a certain amount of library staff, resources and skills and we have no chance to cover the whole spectrum of relevant digital methods and tools. And sometimes a student simply looks different at a certain method or tool than a library worker be course they are more often to use it on tasks in their academic life and not only as an instructor.

Then there is the actually learning situation. What we are doing right now is a pretty traditional learning setup: I know something, I talk and you listen. Not much interaction going on. When we as library professionals teach we represent an institution and they come with some sought of authority. That is totally cool and I think and hope many students see the teaching librarian as someone who really want to make the students succeed which gives the librarian a pretty great role. But it’s different than a student who shares some knowledge and experience on a specific tool or method: The librarian is a professional and the student is a peer and I think that students who learn from other students are more likely to think “hey, if Joe from sociology can do this Gephi data visualization for his paper so can I”.

When we set up our facilitating events we want the participants to be as equal as possible, we want them to collaborate and to work together. We don’t want one person standing at a chalk board being the expert. We want them to talk to each other, learn from each other, challenge each other. Small thing, we always serves a glass of wine and some snacks at the end of our sessions because we want them to stay and talk and network. Peer-to-peer learning seems to be really great at that.

Be like Brando #5: Belonging

Some of you probably know Maslow’s Hierachy of Needs; Human beings have some basic needs like food. water, rest etc. If we don’t get them we die. We also need to feel safe and secure in order to function. And then we have some psychological needs: We need to belong and we need to feel loved. We need friends, and lovers, we need to care for others and we need to fell that others care for us.

maslow-pyramidMaslow’s hierachy of needs (1943)

Students and researchers at institutions of higher education are no different from that. For many students the study is a huge part of there life and I think it’s crucial for there well being and ability to perform that they feel that they belong. Same go with researchers and teachers. As an open space, not focused on administration or grades, I think the library can help students with the feeling of belonging with stimulating their academic identity and create and facilitate spaces where they can connect with other students (and teachers and researchers).

In DSSL we have actively tried to foster a sense of belongingness (not sure if that is a word) by facilitating and creating a community around the work and learning of digital methods within social sciences. It’s hard to measure a sense of belonging but I know it’s there and that it matters.

So to rap this up I think it’s important to aknowledge that libraries are about learning and we have an obligation to actively support learning activites in order to effectully make our communities succeed; Libraries are trusted, great institutions and that comes with a responsibility.. so be like Brando: Take ownership, shape and define your learning




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