Bibliotheca Class, and Learning and Teaching at Harvard

I’m having a huge amount of fun teaching a class at the Harvard Graduate School of Design with my friend Jeffrey Schnapp on the history, present, and future of libraries, called Bibliotheca.  The students are fantastic: twenty or so, mostly studying design and architecture, though there are graduate students in other fields.  We’re holding the class in an open, spacious basement room of the GSD’s Loeb Library, thanks to our collaborator Ann Whiteside, the library’s director.  Ann and her team are thinking collaboratively and creatively about how to use library space.  Opening up this big room, laden with visual materials, to us as an active teaching space is just one example of that.

Today, class opened with one student showing the photos he’d taken of a tour of the Harvard Depository, a huge facility about 25 miles off campus to provide storage and now access to books that don’t fit on campus.  A group of students from our class, plus a few others who heard about the trip and hitched a ride, piled into a bus we rented and spent a day last week on a spontaneous field trip.  The crew wants to go back with a video-camera.  The idea is to produce something, as part of the class, that we can publish openly about what we’re learning.  The photos prompt a series of questions about the organization of physical materials that tie straight into where we’re going with the class later.  It was an impromptu start to the class, unplanned, but opened new avenue.

After reflections on the HD visit, we welcome David Weinberger, author of Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder.  We’re talking about how the design of physical libraries and the design of virtual spaces for knowledge and information relate to one another.  The topics are free-ranging and deep, with David — he’s a ph.d. in philosophy by training — and the students pushing one another about the role of libraries, the need for librarians in the future, the timeline for coming to a largely digital experience v. our current hybrid experience, and so forth.

A few choice quotes from David W., plucked out of context: “I like the Library of Congress!” says David.  And: “we need a paper back-up: everyone realizes that.”  (But students push back: is the physical only important as a “back-up” to the digital?  And concerns about the stability of the digital as a format: does that argue in favor of the physical as a resource for redundancy, or as something that ought to be in the physical spaces that we call libraries.)  And, again from David: “there are huge values associated with local libraries.  I just don’t pretend know what the future of libraries is going to be.”

After David W. leaves us after the first two hours of class and we take a break, a group of students will present on their review of Louis Kahn’s iconic library at the Phillips Exeter Academy.  I know that library well, but only from the perspective of a learner: I spent many happy (and some stressed-out) hours there as a high school student.  I’m excited to hear what students of design make of it.  This is a design principle of the class: students work in teams, of their own forming, to present excavations of library design projects throughout the term and then develop a final project, also team-based, at the end of the semester.

What this class has me thinking this morning about is not just the substance — the future of libraries, the organization of knowledge, how we store and provide it and think about it — but also about the possibilities for teaching and learning.  Yesterday, Harvard announced a landmark new gift: $40 million to catalyze innovations in learning and teaching from Rita and Gustave Hauser.  If we have the chance to spend those resources, and ideally more, that it catalyzes from other donors, over the next decade to improve our learning and teaching, how might we go about that?  There are many, many worthy places to focus and many great things going on here at Harvard to build upon.

Technology should surely be part of that focus, but not the starting point.  In my view, the starting point should be our pedagogical goals, which vary by discipline.

What’s so rich about this experience for me (and perhaps for the students?) of this class is the chance to spend several hours a week with Jeffrey Schnapp and great students and library staff from Harvard and a broad array of guests who have meandered through our shared exploration.  Our guests have been great experts in the history and design of libraries, some from the Harvard faculty and others from elsewhere: Matthew Battles, Greg Nagy, Ann Blair, Katherine Park to name just some of those who have already been with us.  We’re tying our themes and our exploration into the reform of the Harvard Library system that we’re a few years into, and which has scared up a huge number of interesting problems that we can take up.  Several librarians are coming to all classes, and we’re opening up some classes to a much larger group of librarians.  It’s been great to learn from their perspectives and incredible knowledge.  The class feels porous and connected.

There are challenges with the Bibliotheca style of teaching.  It’s intense and time-consuming for the teachers; it has two faculty members involved, which means it is expensive on a per-student-unit-of-credit basis; it has great support and involvement from lots of community members who are volunteering their time; the students are (or seem) dug-in and helping to co-produce the class and its outputs.  It’s tied into hard problems that we face on our own campus, and might even help us solve (address, at least?) some of them.  But it’s a ton of fun and makes me so grateful to be at a place that supports, and even privileges, this kind of approach to teaching and learning.

(P.S.: BTW, David has a new book coming out in January: Too Big to Know.  I’ve pre-ordered it already; you should too!  Plus, I read a late-stage draft, and it’s totally wonderful, building out the Everything is Miscellaneous argument, and many other strands, in fascinating ways.)

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