December’s Featured Learning Commons: Candace Aiani’s USIC at Taipei American School

Interactive Digital Book MarketPhoto from TAS USIC website

Knowledge Quest readers will recognize the librarian at the helm of this month’s featured learning commons, as her article on international schools and intellectual freedom was an online exclusive in the Sept/Oct 2015 issue. I had the exceptional fortune to get to work with Dr. Candace Aiani at the Taipei American School last year while I was living in Taiwan. Dr. Aiani is in her seventeenth year at TAS, an independent international K-12 school with 2,300 students. The school actually has four libraries, each thoughtfully designed to meet the needs of the specific ages it serves. Dr. Aiani runs the Upper School Information Commons for nearly 900 high school students as well as the faculty.

Freed up by the enviable position of having a fantastic staff of her own, Dr. Aiani spends much of her time assisting students in one-on-one research interviews, as well as developing the systems needed to provide the best access to information possible. For many of us back here in the States, it is sometimes difficult to imagine having the time and resources to innovate and publish in our field, so it was fascinating for me to get to know Dr. Aiani and observe how she manages a space that is not just staying relevant but providing services that exceed the expectations of those it serves. The overriding philosophy that seems to guide her decisions is one of being responsive to technological change in an ongoing and adaptive way, which has most recently included a major shift from the library as a place of ownership to one of access. She wrote in another recent article, “in the past, the library collections were viewed as finite, and students would ask: Does the library have X, Y, or Z? Now the operative question is, increasingly: Can the library get X, Y, or Z?”

My other posts in this series featuring learning commons have focused a great deal on the spaces themselves, and I won’t be posting many pictures of TAS’s USIC (mostly because I don’t want to make you jealous). Regardless of where we are, the population we serve, and the resources we have, the work Dr. Aiani is doing is the same as what we all need to be doing in our libraries – responding, innovating, and providing exceptional service in relevant ways to meet the needs of our students. Here are more of her thoughts on the subject:

How do you feel our profession is changing?

Professional library literature has speculated for some time on the inevitable shift from “ownership of” to “access to” collections and resources. I believe that with administrative support school libraries are in the unique position to lead this charge by using a wide range of access models for e-books, e-journals, and other digital collections and services. Our mission is to support current students and a current curriculum, so it is important to adapt to our student culture and expectations regarding immediacy and convenience of access to information. That generally means digital over print, but not always.

How did you decide on calling it an “information commons”?

To be honest this was not a much debated or difficult decision. I visited a number of university libraries with “commons,” and I liked the concept of a natural gathering space for casual interaction focused around information. There is a great article by Martin Halbert called “The Information Commons: A Platform for Innovation,” in which he places less importance on the name and more on what it actually means to be “a platform for Innovation.” The article validated my lack of angst over the name change, but more importantly, provided me with language to articulate goals and vision for my own library.

Are you included at the curriculum mapping table at your school? How have you integrated library and information literacy skills into the curriculum?

There is integration of information literacy skills across content areas, but not taught exclusively by or through the USIC. Although I spent years promoting information literacy skills and bringing teachers on board if and when possible, more systemic integration started happening when the whole school embraced formal research requirements and more inquiry-based learning. Teachers are protective of the time they have to cover their curriculum, so my formal teaching time with students is limited, although I work with the whole 9th grade class several times a year. In tenth grade I work with individual classes, and in 11th and 12th grades I work with some classes, but primarily with individual students conducting research interviews and modeling research.

What kinds of technology do you have in the space & how is it used?

The most important technology in the information commons is adequate and reliable wireless. It is easy to take this for granted if connectivity is ubiquitous across the campus, but it is critical. Other technologies currently in the USIC include: iPads for OPACs and e-journal access, Kindle eReaders for checkout, presentation stations with apple TVs and projection capability, hand-held scanners, copiers, printers, etc. eReaders are checked out for a regular, three-week period, and iPads are checked out short-term (overnight or over weekends and vacations). Hand-held scanners are checked out for in-library use only.

Do you have a Virtual Information Commons?

I never really use “Virtual Information Commons” to describe it, but we have a library portal page from which all Information Commons (IC) resources and services can be accessed, including but not limited to these resources such as the local catalog, online databases, a discovery search, etc. and services such as guides for usage (LibGuides), online appointment and space scheduling (LibCal), a knowledge base for FAQs (LibAnswers), and online request system for document delivery request, book purchases, etc.

How much of your collection is digital vs. print?

The investment in print is down to about 5% of the total annual budget. I rarely purchase fiction in print, but I do purchase reference and non-fiction in print unless the interface for access is designed for easy searching or scanning the text. Some digital formats do not lend themselves well for moving back and forth in the text.

What are your frustrations/challenges?

Building the infrastructure for a digital collection and acquiring digital tools to use that collection efficiently and effectively requires a vision and will by the administration to support it. I am lucky to have a forward-thinking and supportive school administration who understands the educational benefits of providing students with relevant resources and responsive services. But while libraries and users are poised to take advantage of new technologies and to have greater access to digital resources, the publishing companies and technology industries seemed to be mired in limitations: protectionism, copyright concerns, a lack of standard formatting, proprietary secrets, etc. This is my greatest frustration.  Librarians imagine a world of open access and seamless integration, but that can only happen if the information industry can share the vision and create a model for it. Maybe one day.

Halbert, M. (2010). The Information Commons: A Platform For Innovation. Journal Of Library Administration, 50(1), 67-74.


Author: Cassy Lee

Cassy Lee is a middle school Teacher Librarian focused on education equity, empathy, and empowerment. She is the recipient of the 2020 AASL Roald Dahl’s Miss Honey Social Justice Award and the 2018 SLJ Champion of Student Voice. She lives in San Francisco with her husband, son, and a steady stream of foster dogs. You can find her on Twitter at @MrsLibrarianLee and at CSLA in February!

Categories: Blog Topics, Makerspaces/Learning Commons

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