Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Libraries as Centers for Self-Directed Education

How could your local library best serve your family's and community’s needs?

Multnoma County Library, CC for reuse
Source: Multnoma County Library, CC for reuse

We have in our society two types of publicly supported institutions whose explicit purpose is education—schools and libraries. How different they are from one another! The primary difference is this: Schools are places of forced education (or forced attempts at education) and libraries are places of voluntary, self-chosen education. The other differences follow from that. Schools try to mold us through a predetermined curriculum; libraries try to serve us by responding to our own wishes.

I looked up the data on how much we, the tax-paying public in the United States, spend each year on these two types of institutions. The most recent data available are for the 2014-2015 school year and the 2014 fiscal year for libraries: We spent $688 billion on public primary and secondary schools (here) and $11.3 billion on public libraries (here). So, we spent 61 times as much on schools as on libraries.

Isn’t that interesting? We are the land of the free, who cherish self-determination and the rights of individuals, and yet we spend more than 60 times as much per year on forced schooling as we spend on the provision of opportunities for self-chosen education. We are the home of the brave, and yet we are not brave enough to stand up and demand that education be put in our own hands.

Here’s a thought: According to the most recent Department of Education survey (here), 3.5% of American school-aged children are currently being homeschooled, which presumably reduces by 3.5% the total amount that would otherwise have to be spent on schools. Suppose we took 3.5% of the schools’ total budget and turned it over to libraries. That would amount to a $24 billion annual increase in funds for libraries, more than tripling the current amount available. Think what libraries could be!

What Libraries Already Are

If you haven’t been to a library in years you might think of them just as places where you can look up information in books and borrow books. You might think that libraries are less valuable today, because you can look almost anything up on Google and there’s lots of free stuff to read on the Internet. But libraries have been changing with the times, responding as best they can to the real needs of people today, and are thriving despite their slim budgets. They are attracting more people, from more diverse backgrounds, for more diverse reasons, than they did decades ago. They lend not only books, but also CDs and other sorts of media, and some of them lend toys and tools. Beyond that, they provide a host of community services. They make computers available, free of charge, for people who don’t have one at home or don’t have a home, and they give instruction in how to use them. They host speakers, films, book clubs, and other community events free to anyone who wants to come. Some libraries offer social services to the homeless who seek refuge there (here), and most libraries help people search for jobs.

Libraries, quite the opposite of schools, are staunch supporters of intellectual freedom. The American Library Association (ALA) code of ethics calls on libraries to “uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.” In today’s world, where people attend primarily to media that reinforce their preexisting views, some libraries offer forums that bring people of different political persuasions together to hear one another (here).

What Libraries Can Become

As a guide for planning, the ALA has trademarked what it calls the E’s of Libraries (here): “Education, Employment (helping people find employment), Entrepreneurship (helping people become entrepreneurs), Empowerment, and Engagement for Everyone, Everywhere.” Education—self-directed education—is the first E, and the others follow as aspects of education. Libraries have been gradually redefining themselves as centers for self-directed education, writ large, rather than specifically places for books, and they are beginning to embrace the idea that education comes not just from what we traditionally call study, but also from creating things, playing, and socializing.

Imagine a library that has, in addition to books and quiet rooms for reading, an arts and crafts room, a makerspace with modern tools, a room for casual conversation and snacking, an auditorium for public events, a gymnasium, and an outdoor playground. Maybe a swimming pool. Depending on where you live, you might not have to imagine all of this; you can see at least some of it by stepping into your local library.

A good example is the downtown branch of the Chattanooga Public Library (here and here). Its fourth floor has been converted to a maker space, which includes 3-D printers, a laser cutter, a zine lab, a sewing machine lab, a button maker, virtual reality equipment, a photography studio, a woodworking router, and even a loom. All you need to use any of this is a library card. It’s been a huge hit, attracting many hundreds of users, of all ages, many of whom previously had little to do with the library. Another floor has a room for music practice and production, and the staff hopes to add, before long, a fully equipped kitchen where people can learn to cook. Other libraries are taking similar steps. A survey conducted a few years ago identified 109 libraries that had a maker space already developed or close to developed.

Some libraries, recognizing the educational value of play, have brought free play to the library or to outdoor spaces near the library. An example is the Laura Bush branch of the Westbank Library of Austin, Texas, which opens its indoor and outdoor spaces for periods of free play, for people of all ages, sometimes attracting as many as a hundred people at a time. A library to watch in the future is the East Arlington (Texas) Library, which has partnered with the Parks and Recreation Department to build a combination library and recreation center all in the same building (here). It is expected to be completed in the Spring of 2020 and, when done, will include a gymnasium, indoor pool, fitness center, community meeting rooms, and outdoor play areas.

Every library event that brings people from the community together helps to strengthen the community. Other people, over the whole age range, with their diverse points of views and personalities, are the biggest educational resource there is. Observing and hearing others, sharing ideas, arguing civilly (and libraries always promote civility), are the most valuable educational means for people everywhere.

What if your local library included everything that Chattanooga’s library has plus what East Arlington’s library will have—places for music, art, making things, meetings, play of all sorts, and casual conversation? Such community centers would be valuable for everyone, and would be a great supplement to school for children who continue to go to school. An added plus is that they would make it far easier for families who wish to opt out of coercive schooling and choose Self-Directed Education as the full route for their children’s education. (See my post here on the public obligation to support Self-Directed Education for everyone).


And now, what do you think about this? … This blog is, in part, a forum for discussion. Your questions, thoughts, stories, and opinions are treated respectfully by me and other readers, regardless of the degree to which we agree or disagree. Psychology Today no longer accepts comments on this site, but you can comment by going to my Facebook profile, where you will see a link to this post. If you don't see this post near the top of my timeline, just put the title of the post into the search option (click on the three-dot icon at the top of the timeline and then on the search icon that appears in the menu) and it will come up. By following me on Facebook you can comment on all of my posts and see others' comments. The discussion is often very interesting.

More from Peter Gray Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today