Monday, May 16, 2011

The Name Game: Library to Learning Commons. Is it worth the stress?

Lately, I've been thinking about names. What's the purpose of a name? Does a name really impact how something is viewed or perceived? More specifically, I'm contemplating name changes. When I got married a few years ago, changing my name wasn't a big deal. I know other brides agonize over losing their "identity" when dropping their maiden name, but for me it was a non-issue.

In stark contrast, the name change I'm contemplating now seems like a HUGE deal - though I wasn't expecting it to cause quite so much of a stir.

Our profession seems to undergo name changes on a pretty regular basis. In the first half of the twentieth century, people who did my job were "librarians." Then, in the 1970s, we became "media specialists," with the clarification of "school library" thrown in to reduce confusion. To be honest, I've always had trouble introducing myself as a "school library media specialist" -- it's a mouthful, and I'd rather have a title that's not ten syllables in length.

In recent memory, some in the profession began to adopt the title "teacher-librarian." This is a label I can get behind. In social settings, I always introduce myself as a teacher because that's what I do -- I teach, ALL DAY LONG. It's only when people ask, "and what do you teach?" that I add, "I'm a school librarian." Because I already consider myself a "school librarian" I have no issue with AASL's decision to officially change our title, though I would have been happy to also endorse "teacher-librarian."

From this:
To This?
Worth the stress?

In another arena, we're contemplating changing the name of our physical space, as we transition from a "library" to a "learning commons" model. We're already a learning commons in many ways:
  • Flexible physical space that changes during the day to accommodate individuals, small groups, and large groups
  • Multiple groups working simultaneouly
  • Quiet spaces for individuals and small groups
  • Spaces and resources for differentiated learning opportunities
  • Serves as a center for Web 2.0 tools
  • Showcases student work
  • Online 24 hour access to resources
And we'll be addressing these things in the next six months:
  • Wireless to allow for network access in the whole commons
  • Cultural center with live performances
  • Interactive OPAC
So if we're already doing all these things that make us a learning commons, why not change our name to reflect it? It sounded like a great idea to me, and so, with the rest of the district librarians, we began the process of changing our program names.

And then we hit a roadblock Or two. Or three.

It turns out, everyone didn't think the name change was a good idea. One concern, voiced by someone I respect, suggested that changing our name could potentially put our jobs at risk. Everyone knows the role of a "library," but they're far less familiar with a "learning commons." Board members, administration, and the public may have a much easier time eliminating something "superfluous" like a learning commons (what happens there, anyway?), than they'd have eliminating a library. The concerned individual also felt that the name learning commons suggested a space that could be staffed by whatever teacher happened to be using it at the time. It's a "commons," after all.

During our conversation, she wanted to know why it mattered. What was the purpose of changing our name? It's JUST a name. Couldn't we still do learning commons "things" and continue to call ourselves a library?

And I didn't have an answer. Does it matter? Is there a real reason to change our name?

But, after an hour of thinking on the elliptical, I decided that yes, there are some very concrete reasons to change the name, especially at the elementary level, where progress towards a learning commons model is much slower:
  • Changing the name is aspirational. It gives you something to strive for. If you're calling yourself a learning commons, you best be doing your darnedest to look, act, and operate like a learning commons. 
  • The new name provides guidance for administrators. When a librarian lobbies for changes, an administrator can easily Google "learning commons model" to see if the proposed changes align with the program goals.
  • Changing the name helps a library start-over. A new name means things are changing - the building population shouldn't expect the status quo. A  new name can excite your building and build momentum towards creating an environment that embraces a potentially different way of thinking.
Even though I've come with reasons as to why a name change matters, I'm still on the fence, especially because, for all practical purposes, we already are a learning commons.

Anyone out there changed their name from "library" to "learning commons?" Did you run into an resistance? Did concerns develop that you weren't anticipating?

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