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When I walk into the local library, I am greeted by a friendly and knowledgeable adult who immediately lets me know that they are available if I have any questions. There are beautiful posters on the walls, soft carpet and comfortable chairs, and shelf after shelf of books. There are tables with computers awaiting guests. In the corner there is a colorful and inviting children’s section, complete with books and puzzles and chairs for smaller people.

The library is quiet, but not silent, and often contains the sounds of an impassioned conversation about a great book that someone is recommending. In the evenings and on the weekends the space is busier with the coming and going of more families and community members, who may be attending a workshop, an event, or a children’s read aloud.

For hundreds of years, lending libraries have provided safe and welcoming spaces for community members to congregate with the goal of acquiring knowledge through the written word. Now libraries also have computers, movie collections, and online databases. Sometimes they even have makerspaces and tools.

Another function of libraries is community-building. Reading a book or online article by yourself is certainly an option, but many people crave the engagement that comes with sharing what we’re learning with another person. Learning is often deeper when we are engaged with others in the process.

The library down the street is a safe and inclusive space where people can come and go as they please, share resources and knowledge, and follow some community agreements. These agreements are simple and rooted in a culture of consent. You will be asked to be quiet if you’re disturbing the learning environment for others, and you cannot check out another book if you already have too many you’ve borrowed sitting at home. On the other hand, you won’t be told that you have to spend 45 minutes reading a dense history textbook, sit in one particular place, or be forbidden from leaving until you’ve finished a worksheet. Libraries support you in your own journey, and foster a love of learning by providing resources to help you dive deeper into the topics that excite you!

Imagine a library like the one I’ve just described. Now add a room in the back where tools and machines abound. Add a few adults and teens in there building an awesome boat. Add a collection of kids who come in everyday, as an alternative to going to school. Add some adults in the space, working like librarians do. They’re helping people follow their passions, and empowering them to build the skills necessary to continue learning on their own. Imagine there is also a playground out back with a tree-house, lots of fun toys, and room to climb and run and get dirty. Down the hallway from the library, there’s a kitchen where people are cooking their lunch, and preparing for an afternoon cooking class. Adjacent to the kitchen there is a lounge area with folks hard at work on their computers; one is a graphic designer, another a project manager. Both work remotely. Now you’re imagining Alder Commons.

We hope that public libraries continue to thrive, and that one day public funding will be available for projects like Alder Commons. For now, we are excited to explore a model of what learning can look like outside of a school environment.

It you’re intrigued by this, check out Peter Gray’s thoughts on the relationship between libraries and Self-Directed Education.

Published October 24, 2019 by Rachel Munzig (she/her/hers)

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