Gimme Shelter: Informal and Formal Learning Environments in Library Land

By Frances Jacobson Harris, Advisory Board Chair, Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults

When reminiscing about their high school years, alumni from my school often focus on the creative projects they voluntarily undertook outside of formal class requirements–projects that were often more pointless than useful, generally fraught with complexity, and always out-of-the-box. I was recently in touch with a few such students from the class of 1973 who conveyed how they went to great lengths to sneak (highly inappropriate) books into the library. They created and filed catalog cards for each title, and affixed call numbers, pockets, and cards in the books. In order to succeed in this venture, they had to develop more than a rudimentary understanding of the Dewey Decimal system and descriptive cataloging. I compare their efforts to my many years of (often futilely) trying to teach similar concepts to students with no intrinsic interest in the subject. On a much grander scale, we can look to Steve Jobs’ life and legacy as a compelling case for the kind of learning that can occur both inside and outside of formal schooling.

Recognizing the value of interest-driven learning, Priority Area 4 of the YALSA Research Agenda focuses on informal and formal learning environments. YALSA is not alone in seeking answers to these questions. The Pew Research Center, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is launching a new research initiative to study the changing role of public libraries and library users in the digital age ( And of course, the ongoing work of the MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning project directly addresses informal learning practices (

The MacArthur-inspired research has identified genres of participation as a way to describe everyday learning and new media engagement.1 This framework makes an important distinction between friendship-driven and interest-driven genres. Friendship-driven practices are dubbed “hanging out” behaviors, interest-driven practices are “geeking out” behaviors, and “messing around” is the genre of participation that can bridge the gap between the two. For those doing research on 21st century library services for young adults, a singular challenge lies in exploring the intersections of formal and informal environments (along with friendship-driven and interest-driven pursuits) with library-related activities as varied as adolescent development and literacy acquisition. As an example, Gross and Latham recognized these dynamics in their study of information literacy acquisition skills among first-year community college students with substandard information literacy skills.2 They allowed the students in the study to select topics of personal interest in order to focus on self-generated (rather than imposed) information seeking behaviors and skill-building. A major goal of the research was to identify ways of embedding some of the attributes of informal learning into a formal learning environment, thereby improving information literacy skills.

The YALSA Research Agenda defines informal environments as including public libraries (emphasis added) and other community spaces in which young adults choose to participate in activities. The rationale is that, by their nature, these spaces can lead to learning but are not considered to have an overtly educational focus. In contrast, formal learning environments include classrooms–spaces that are specifically designed for pedagogical purposes. However, I would not wish to place school libraries solely in the formal camp simply because they reside within school walls. Although a major function of school libraries is to support and enrich the curriculum, their mission also includes (and is not limited to) literacy promotion, development of lifelong learning habits, and providing students with access to resources and spaces that enhance social and emotional development.

At the same time, it is undeniable that the school framework limits the ways in which young adults can use school library spaces and services. Certain activities are much more likely to be proscribed than they are in public libraries. Use of the Internet may be restricted to “curricular” research and is likely to be heavily filtered.3 Cell phones and other mobile devices–core accouterments of contemporary teenage life–are often not regarded as appropriate learning tools. Many young adults use social technology–generally forbidden in schools–to connect with outside expertise as they “mess around” in the pursuit of their passions. Even access to the library’s physical space may be limited by scheduling issues or restricted to particular types of activities. Without doubt, more research is needed to study the impact of these elephant-in-the-room issues that do not take the value of informal learning into account.

During her closing keynote speech for the 2011 AASL National Conference, Mimi Ito described school libraries as the ideal interface between interest-driven and friendship-driven inquiry, the critical locale for connected, transformational learning experiences facilitated by new media.4 Her message to schools was to make the formal environment responsive to and supportive of personal interests and affinities. She urged adults in schools (and elsewhere) to help young people create the environments they need for a connected learning experience, one that supports peer learning, specialized content, and diversified assessment. She observed that the real digital divide is not defined by access to technology, but by access to interest-driven learning opportunities. Along similar lines, Ishizuka’s recent article on young people and hacking illustrates the need to see beyond the stereotype of black hacking, and instead focus on ways to guide the skill-building, inquiry, and creativity intrinsic to the activity.5

For libraries, a significant take-home message of the MacArthur work is to consider reengineering the restraints of formal learning environments and endow them with traits young adults seek when engaged in their own informal learning. Our charge as a research community is to study the process and impact of this reengineering (or lack thereof) on the library spaces and programs that serve young adults, particularly in terms of the core values that define YA services, such as intellectual freedom and privacy.


  1. Mizuko Ito, Heather A. Horst, Judd Antin, and Megan Finn, Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010).
  2. Melissa Gross and Don Latham, “Experiences With and Perceptions of Information: A Phenomenographic Study of First-Year College Students,” Library Quarterly 81 (2010): 161-186.
  3. Barbara Jansen, “Internet Filtering 2.0: Checking Intellectual Freedom and Participative Practices at the Schoolhouse Door,” Knowledge Quest 39, no. 1 (2010): 46-53.
  4. Mizuko Ito, “One Film, One Conference” (presentation, American Association of School Libraries 15th National Conference, Minneapolis, MN, October 27-30, 2011).
  5. Kathy Ishizuka, “License to Hack.” School Library Journal 57, no. 10 (2011): 44-45.

Frances Jacobson Harris is the librarian at University Laboratory High School, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Professor of Library Administration, University Library. She is the author of “I Found It on the Internet: Coming of Age Online” (ALA, 2011) and has written and presented widely on topics related to young adults, Internet ethics, and digital information.

This entry was posted in Volume 2 Number 1: November 2011, Volume 2 of the Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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