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THE PIPELINE: What’s in the Pipeline? Teacher Librarians as STEAM Vents

By Stephen Abram - Posted Jan 1, 2017
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It’s the start of a new year. Winter never looks like a beginning in this hemisphere, but the calendar tells me it is! So, it’s time to look at what’s in The Pipeline for another year.

I hear you. “Not more change! I just don’t know if I can handle more.” Of course you can. You’ve already done it for decades, and you now have the sweet skills of being an adaptive, successful librarian who models change every day. Indeed, others look to librarians and our success in continuous adaptation and evolution in these revolutionary times.

That being said, we must make choices. Some we don’t have a choice about—such as mandated changes from above on curriculum and learning strategies. On the other hand, we’re pretty awesome at learning and playing with new technologies and filtering them through our professional lenses in that context:

1. Will this first and foremost work for our learners?

2. Will it work for faculty?

3. Is it affordable, learnable, and trialable; does it deliver value and impact for the money and effort?

4. Is it in our wheelhouse—teaching information use and literacy?

Choosing and justifying technology innovation is a core skill of teacher librarians. Of course, we know the following:

• We have to play first—just like our learners—and learn as individual professionals. We play to learn and inform ourselves at a deeper experiential level than just reading the abstract reviews and articles of these innovations.

• We need to pilot and experiment. We can’t just bet the whole library, school, or district on an untested technology until we learn the process and strategies, as well as many of the unknown consequences of these innovative opportunities.

• Our lens is what delivers the biggest impact for the chosen group of learners. Lots of tech shows promise, but is it worth the effort for the few, or is the payoff too slow, too long-term, and too speculative to warrant the effort in a conservative educational environment?

• Are we ready for it? Do we have schoolwide Wi-Fi, or is this just going to be a lab or library “thing”? Do we have the rugged tech infrastructure and financial opportunity to make this sustainable?

We’ve adapted to a lot of changes to the benefit of our learners—such as the internet, databases, the cloud, and makerspaces—but we’ve also discarded quite a few items along the way (slide-tape, overheads, videotape, and more).

I’ve often written that we have to prepare our learners for today’s world, and not the one we experienced growing up; hence, this column’s mandate to scan the future horizon. We should be able to predict some of the juggernauts that will change the world, and not just those technologies that create a fad, without looking at the underlying trends.

For example, Second Life (SL) as a learning environment continues to be a profitable company. Those of us who played there learned experientially what the longer-term immersive, gamified world of learning might look like. We improved our lens. It wasn’t about whether SL is the one true solution, but learning about what the facets of these environments might be. The same thing was true with this summer’s fad, Pokémon Go. Yes, it looked like a fad game. It wasn’t. We learned that gamification was mutating and that technologies were combined in myriad ways in a simpler fashion than ever before. In Pokémon Go’s case, we saw the intersection of goal-oriented learning and play with GIS, augmented reality, and location metrics and maps. Imagine Pokémon Go as a technology applied to self-driving taxis. The trick is to look under the hood at what these innovations are doing and what their potential is over the long term.

Basically, the technological environment is moving into a post-web phase, and mobility has moved to trump devices that are anchored. Just observe what has happened to bank machines being disintermediated by mobile banking apps and e-money, or music that no longer requires anchored devices such as car radios, turntables, or CD/tape players. That was the easy evolution; the harder one is the reimagination of the learning and social environments when learning management systems and social networks evolve and disrupt (such as when LinkedIn merged with SlideShare, or as Facebook and Google Alphabet continually implement changes).

I think that for the foreseeable future, the role of teachers/school librarians will be a little like steam vents. Think of that pressure cooker that needs the steam vent to avoid an explosion. That’s us! We can test, pilot, and experiment by ourselves and with our small groups of learners and see what works and sound the steam whistle when it’s ready. We can learn how future employment, the creative economy, and research are evolving and transforming society and prepare our learners (and our systems) with some of the skills and foundations they need to thrive.

I was quite taken with “122 Things You Will Be Able to Do in the Library of the Future That You Can’t Do Today” ( futurist? ), which was published by Futurist Speaker Thomas Frey. It’s worth a read.

The article asks, “What should libraries be?” It’s a great question, and the answer moves beyond technology into the questions that librarians care about. Does this innovation address the important things people care about—living, learning, working, socializing, playing?

So, What’s in The Pipeline?

First, what has gone through The Pipeline already?

• Simple search

• 3D printing

• Robotics

• Digitized content

• Digital banking and commerce

• Big Data and Little Data

• Personalization

• Streaming media

• Online courseware and courses

All of these will evolve more, but they’re already in the marketplace and transforming the way everyone behaves in society. As they say, “The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.”

We now need to watch for the library story in all of these topics.


People don’t want to search; they want to find. The history of search has gone from results based on words to those enhanced by algorithms based on search behaviors. We’re entering the next phase now. Early results are in maps, word clouds, and taxonomies being displayed with your search results and wordless searches making a difference to the experience of “find.” The next phase will be transformational and challenge our information literacy progress again.

We’re entering a world where we’ll see an integration of multiple search options in search command dashboards offered in many modes. (Remember, consumer-based Boolean and advanced search pages failed big time.)

As Frey noted in the Futurist Speaker article: “Most people entering a library are searching for something. Over the coming years search technology will become increasing complicated, but at the same time we will have far more capabilities to use in our search.” Frey continues, “When it comes to video search, we still struggle with attributes like context, style, circumstances, and a variety of situational details.” Video is the most searched and used aspect of the internet, and search is not good based on the real questions we ask. That’s about to change.

Complex searches are the main issue for adults who use search in their careers. This area has been a huge domain of investment and investigation. The search space is investigating and experimenting with search protocols beyond the consumer single search box and sponsor-driven content. Moving beyond algorithmic searches and popularity into real knowledge-based responses aimed at individual users is the goal.

Being able to use predictive search engines, right answer searches, and more will be the norm in employment. Indeed, we’re already seeing the emergence of more options to detect bias, manipulation, address filter-bubbles, and more. Tie this to future searches that target other senses or goals such as smells, tastes, harmonic vibrations, reflectivity, specific gravity, chemical composition, textures, and viscosity. Fussy search features such as looks like, smells like, feels like, tastes like, sounds like, absorbs like, echoes like, or coats like will materially change the fields of science, discovery, and invention. There will need to be advanced and specific information literacy training for all ages.

Information display will move into a new realm that necessitates the development of visual skills for interpretation at a younger age of development and building those skills beyond just textual displays such as word clouds. Being able to really see the overall context of an article, paper, or entire database in a visual fashion will be a key trend for scientists and more. This already exists in Big Data and Little Data search engines that are tied to citation systems, preprints, and timeliness factors.

Makerspaces are moving beyond STEM and STEAM and into real spaces that aren’t just associated with fun crafts, games, and hobbies but are fundamental to employment in the 21st century. This includes the full range of video and digital film skills, Internet of Things (IoT) workbenches, access to making beyond just CD printing and CAD/CAM, robotics, digital sound recording and editing, virtual reality and augmented reality development, app creation, and making of all kinds—both traditional and modern. Handcrafts are going away, but they are being enhanced by technology.

Creative spaces in libraries will involve training and information support, and they will come complete with all the tools, technologies, and supplies for people to get creative and produce art, music, games, podcasts, webcasts, and VR experiences, as well as host IoT workshops and create and print with 3D printers.

The library’s role as inspirational hub will be challenged by having inspiration rooms, performance spaces, pop-up programs, and mini theaters for watching movies; playing video games; viewing live events such as concerts, sporting events, NASA landings, etc.; watching YouTube, Facebook, and Twitch; and more. We’ll also see professional production facilities for live webcast studios for everything from reviews of books, games, apps, courses, technology, and more. The library as a space to share will be much more centered on users’ creations and processes.

Libraries have loaned books and more for a long time. We do this to increase people’s skills and help them learn. The next phase of libraries will expand our role in schools and our communities into lending 3D printers, 3D scanners, drones, games, IoT devices, artificial intelligence and augmented reality tools, robots, robotics, and the full range of digital and other tools needed for successful learning. Adding creativity apps to our tablet-lending programs is a positive first step. Tying this to workshops in the use of these tools and bringing creative communities together to inspire their kind with displays, workshops, tournaments, and competitions will drive adoption and learning.

As you can see from the list on page 8, this will have a major influence on the design of our library facilities. They will need to be more flexible as demands for power and high-speed access increase. The facilities will need to be instruction-ready, partner-ready, noise conscious, and more. It’s exciting, but the days of the book are not over, in any way. Information underpins learning, exploration, and discovery. We need to present the traditional library in the context of the future where content in all its forms provides the foundation for work, discovery, learning, development, and invention.

We’re ready for that and have always been. We’re the exemplar of adaptability!

Contact Stephen at

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