On Monday, I hosted a short conversation on possibilities for using open badges in libraries as part of a series of community conversations with people interested in Mozilla’s Open Badges Infrastructure. The raw notes we took during the session are located here. For background on the topic, we read “Badging the Library” by Ahniwa Ferrari.
As a badge-curious web developer and member of the society of Folks Married to Librarians, I often ponder how libraries could make use of badges, particularly as they are adapting to new roles to fit into an era where physical books and periodicals are no longer the primary access point to written knowledge. I believe libraries have important, essential functions in promoting public skills and knowledge.
Besides asking what help librarians seeking to use open badges could use from the community, we talked about three theoretical questions:
- What benefit does a badge program hold for a library?
- What types of badges should libraries offer to achieve these benefits?
- How could badges help libraries transition into and showcase their emerging 21st C. roles?
I suspect that as libraries shift roles, communicating what services they provide will take some effort. Badges have frequently been discussed as an incentive to participation, but I think another role that is less well-known is promotion or advertisement of the program that issued them. This is especially true, as several of our participants noted, as libraries expand into new areas, like offering maker spaces. (One fun idea that emerged from the discussion, suggested by Amy Rimland of Penn State’s Libraries, was that patrons might earn badges as a pass into a maker space, once they have developed the skills needed to safely use the equipment, and maybe mentorship programs where skilled maker space users could assist curious newbies outside of formal classes).
Libraries already offer many learning opportunities, both as a gateway to self-education and through events or programs. There are probably some stronger incentive effects to badges for achievement wherever this learning overlaps with traditional schooling or recognizes skills needed in the job market. Jack Martin (@jacksondevious) pointed out libraries already frequently offer ESL (English as a Second Language) programs, and many students receive technology instruction from librarians. Libraries that promote their resources and work with schools so students can earn school credit for these experiences may find that badges fill both a technical and social role in this relationship. As governments push high schools to improve graduation rates, opportunities for “credit recovery” become more important, and as one of our participants said, some libraries are already providing classes to fill that role. It’s also possible that students in the next decade will be more able to use outside educational experiences to prove competency and skip ahead in their expensive traditional programs by “badging out” of certain requirements.
Somebody, though sadly I did not write down who(!), noted that in conversations with her libraries donors, who were prominent members of the local business community, badges piqued some interest because those businesspeople saw them as an opportunity to promote and recognize skills that are important to jobs in their field. I keep reading articles lamenting the “skills gap” of the American workforce, where employers say they can’t find workers with the right skill to fill hundreds of thousands of positions across the country. The skills needed, often technical in nature, are not reliably taught at any level of the current education system. I think that like libraries, as they expand their educational and programming roles, will become involved in addressing the skills these employers are talking about, both through simply providing access to information and through intentional programs. Partnerships between libraries and businesses are a natural way to promote the skills needed, and badges are a natural fit to recognize those people who improve their qualifications through library classes.
Badges for library workers could be important as well. Imagine that as a patron, you could tell which librarian has subject expertise in the topic you are researching by looking at their badges. That was my idea. But perhaps an even more useful viewer of employee badges would be librarians themselves. Either Jack or Sean Fullerton of the University of Washington’s iSchool, suggested that just for internal operations’ sake, student workers and assistants earning granular badges for each operations skill they developed (like learning how to shelve books reliably) could help their supervisors assign work, get things done, and know what to teach each library worker next. For the employees, earning badges recognizing their library-specific skills could help them out in the job market. When your library doesn’t have enough money to put your hard-working but unpaid intern on staff, issuing badges to help her build her resume could help her make her next steps into the profession.
Badges are a good fit for libraries in many ways. As less formal providers of educational opportunities with fewer restrictions on what and how they can teach yet a greater need to self-promote those services, badges are a fun way to recognize achievement and spread knowledge of libraries’ resources around their communities.