On Virtual Learning Commons (Or, How Libraries Will Save the World)

So the headline already hints at my bias: I’m a big fan of virtual learning commons, perhaps the latest trend in the intersection of libraries and information technology. They are, in my view, libraries’ secret weapon to expanding their services and reaching new users where users are

Virtual learning commons also strike me as an innovative way to take the best of the library and the best of the Internet to create a mash-up, if you will, of wondrously user-centered resources and services. 

Recently I took a look at two different ways that two different libraries are engaging users online: one a public library that just unveiled a new (albeit more traditional) website, the other a small college that explicitly branded its online presence as a virtual learning commons.

It’s important to recognize that each of these libraries has a distinct and diverse community of users, which no doubt informed their decisions as to how to cultivate and convey their online presence.

The public library’s new website is definitely user-centered in the way it presents information about the library: information about the library’s programming, resources, and services is clearly labeled and easy to find. Users can also engage with the information directly by registering for events through the online calendar.

However, it’s clear that this website is designed for users to interact with rather passively, as a means to an end. It seems designed for users to easily and quickly locate information so that they can then engage in the library resources more effectively — rather than being a site for direct and active engagement in those resources online.

The college website, on the other hand, offers online resources that users can engage with immediately and in an online environment. The virtual learning commons, as such, provides toolkits for assignments and projects, guides for strengthening academic skills, resources for identifying your unique learning style, and more. Rather than simply offer information about the resources, this site offers the resources directly — expanding the library beyond the doors of the building.

Here’s something I think all libraries, whether they have traditional websites or virtual learning commons, could and should be doing: creating more online space for users to contribute and create interactive material that promotes learning and literacy (e.g., blogs, video content, social media posts, etc.).

One final disclaimer: it can be tempting to say that all library websites should strive to be virtual learning commons. But I don’t think that’s true — nor do I think it especially wise.

Every library’s online presence, just like every library’s user community, is going to be different. And it should be, as long as it’s meeting the needs — and dreams — of its community.

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