At work in the phenomenal field

At work in the phenomenal field: can there be a person-centred library? By Nick Norton


The educational structure which most effectively promotes significant learning is one in which 1) threat to the self of the learner is reduced to a minimum, and 2) differentiated perception of the field of experience is facilitated. (Rogers, 1951, p. 391)


I begin in a phenomenal field I call my own, a perceptual field; a field of experience. Now there is an awareness of the chair beneath, the pile of papers beside me, the sound of children in a school playground, a neighbour pounding something with a mallet. There is a growing hunger, a temptation to make lunch, at the same time an urgent pull to remain here, typing. Here, the computer below my hands. Yet this is not the field, not in its entirety, for the field unfolds and rolls all around. The sounds remind me of other sensations and memories; the memories bring forth associations, which in turn evoke meanings and comparisons. A narrative begins or, consciously brought to the present moment, I again begin. The closer the scrutiny the greater the scope of memory, meaning and association; even unto a bold assertion of unity. Each conscious state is ‘to be phenomenally unified with each other’ (Bayne, 2010, p. 31). If this is truly so large, do I have a right to call it my own?

Nonetheless, for practical purposes, this pragmatism of identity is where any investigation must begin. In time the pragmatism extends and fold back onto consciousness: this is understood as self. 

… my hand, while it is felt from within, is also accessible from without, itself tangible … it takes its place among the things it touches, is in a sense one of them, opens finally upon a tangible being of which it is also a part. Through this crisscrossing within it of the touching and the tangible, its own movements incorporate themselves into the universe they interrogate … (Merleau-Ponty, 1968, p. 133)

We conceive of a self in the phenomena of our perception: our perception crosses over itself, so to speak, and seeks Self that conceives. It is the physicality of this which will be useful to us. Perception, consciousness, unity: each can be touted as abstractions yet we do not push and pull abstracts (except in painting); we speak them with tongue and mouth, we breathe through them. This embodied state is actual, as physical as the language with which I gasp the word: Coffee! 

These words tapped out by clumsy fat fingers, these piles of paper I maintain in good order (for a moment): Information has not yet vanished into an immaterial realm of electricity (or ideology). Indeed, as ideas must be carried so the digital must also carry a body, must be a body of electron and of quantum. The library, therefore, it must be remembered, is a body. It is a memory and remembering; a perception and a perceiving. It is a collection and it is the collecting; a service and a servicing. The library is in our phenomenal field and of itself it holds forth its own phenomenal field because it is that which is perceived in the present moment (Syngg; Combs).

How can a library be said to be perceiving? In the main by the volition of the service it provides. That service is in itself of the multiple wills of the service providers. The service providers, the staff, are of course themselves persons; sensing, breathing, moving beings who encounter themselves and others, who in these encounters conceive of an identity, articulate that identity through their actions and receive it back via the perceiving the articulation of others. 

There is great excitement in this. The persons. The collection. The exploration.  When this is real, genuine - when there is congruence of person and service - in this sharing, diving after information, collaborating on projects, pooling knowledge, each is brightened through an awareness always open to the potent encounter, learning something new. The library is on the one hand presumed to be a stable entity, with its totality mapped by classification and subject; but the potential is such that this stability reveals an astonishing mutability. Map is not the territory: awareness linked through the phenomena of encounter makes learning, the wholly new and always possible.

This does not always pass as a fitting description of library, it must be said. How so? Bad hair day? Lack of coffee day? Incongruent, unreal, not genuine; persons maintain a persona in order to get by, and they do not enjoy what they perceive. Sometimes that lack of enjoyment is projected onto the collection or onto those who would try to engage in the contents of the collection. Sometimes the service users get caught in a set of mirrors so distorted that they, the users, are pre-emptively classified as ‘problem’. This ‘problem’ is then given the energy of one’s projected judgement (negativity), and becomes a persona. Persona grinds up again persona, the friction brings defensiveness. Hence there is, on occasion, a palpable sense that even before words the service provider can themselves be caught in perceptual crossfire and therefore become ‘the problem’.

It is these unspoken conversations, or the barely sensed phenomena that get roughly bagged into rough categories, from which proceed impersonal dislikes and awkward social interactions. This sketched-out picture is one which typically hampers learning. Learning begins in that latent awareness which O’Neil and McMahon (2005) describe as ‘readiness’; to be aware, to be ready, and to physically approach a body of information in this readiness, is to fairly guarantee a transformation of information into knowledge. Awareness is transmuted into learning; the learner may then be allowing their perceptual field to flow over into knowledge and this knowledge might be seen a culmination of previous inter-subjective conversations.

How can such unfolding of awareness into learning be hampered? If we return to the library, surely the collection is still there? The contents have not changed, our signage is clear, the reading lists are well catered for, why does that potent encounter not occur more often? Is it because our phenomenal field is too busy with persona? Our awareness is snagged on scripts (Berne), other issues fill our internal narratives (Ellis): he hates me; what’s she looking at; I’m not meant to be here; I don’t get this; boring. This the persona of the unhappy library user. 

And what of the unhappy institution? Here they come again; same old questions, can’t they read the signs? Look, I’m busy. They hate me. What are they looking at? I’m not meant to be here; I don’t get this (but I can’t admit that); boring.


I will now describe a workplace on a register of fiction. This will allow me to conflate several conversations and stories; the workplace with all the unruly potential of an encounter in fable. In the skewed but powerful reality of fairy tale (Carter; Zipes) this becomes a narrated library rather than a documented library.

Milltown College is a mixed provision specialist art and design college, near buried in the wild growth of a busy metropolis. The mills have all been shut down and repurposed as shopping malls or urban dwelling spaces, the skyline bristles with towers built for civic ambition and to snare service sector wealth. It is a harsh environment for dreamers, and yet Milltown College has managed to nurture creative industry for over one hundred years. The student census has consistently returned over 90% satisfaction rates with the library. The library itself has dreamt; others also dream on its behalf, and these others do not often step amongst its collection. They rather dream of it as an object, a part of some greater machine.

Of course, should one continue in this register, eventually the story may end: My tale is done now, I can lie no more.

This unreliable narrator does have advantages, despite impishness. Objects are smuggled in beneath a subjective disguise. It is easier to have an emotional or subjective response to a singing teapot, or a teapot with a dormouse inside, than to endure a lecture on delirium and its ontological affect within the space-time continuum of childhood; likewise, there is less of an intellect-made chasm between ‘truth objects’ if they are simultaneously experienced as subjectively true.

Nonetheless it is chiasmic perception we are concerned with: the cross-over of phenomena in person-to-person encounter, not cross-dressing wolves and – hopefully – not the drama of an intrigue.


Milltown College as centre for visual study attracts a higher than average proportion of dyslexic students: roughly one-third of students on the FE courses, and a quarter in the larger intake of HE. These numbers fluctuate, of course; some enter post-compulsory education already knowing something about their learning difference, while others are identified during the course. A dyslexic diagnosis enables a greater degree of support to be given but is often an emotional event, a wholly new form of education being thrown into an already full schedule. The difference between FE and HE numbers may be in part because of the greater maturity of the HE intake. These students have developed their repertoire of coping mechanisms.

Dyslexia is present in an estimated one in ten of the general population. In conversations with A. and K. - staff who support learning differences - a few pertinent points came to the fore. Firstly, yes, students are intimidated: ‘You’re a scary man.’ The librarian as ogre. But perhaps by the use of a magic potion called attentiveness we can become more charming? The library has supplemented the Dewey Decimal System with a colour coding division by subject matter: the dizziness of words and numbers can be somewhat allayed, therefore, if a student can be guided toward ‘the red section’.


One should remember that general descriptions of dyslexia are only that, and that every learning difference is unique to each learner: 

•  Appears bright, highly intelligent, and articulate but unable to read, write, or spell at grade level.

•  Labelled lazy, dumb, careless, immature, ‘not trying hard enough,’ or ‘behaviour problem.’

•  Isn't ‘behind enough’ or ‘bad enough’ to be helped in the school setting.

•  High in IQ, yet may not test well academically; tests well orally, but not written.

•  Feels dumb; has poor self-esteem; hides or covers up weaknesses with ingenious compensatory strategies; easily frustrated and emotional about school reading or testing.

•  Talented in art, drama, music, sports, mechanics, story-telling, sales, business, designing, building, or engineering.

•  Seems to ‘Zone out’ or daydream often; gets lost easily or loses track of time.

•  Difficulty sustaining attention; seems ‘hyper’ or ‘daydreamer.’

•  Learns best through hands-on experience, demonstrations, experimentation, observation, and visual aids. (Davis, 1992, accessed May 2013.)


The daydreamer, the haptic learner, the attraction toward visual thinking: these are less symptoms and more like recruitment criteria. K. concurred that this theory of the match between dyslexia and visual thinking may be valid, but added that there is a further line of thought suggesting that visual education attracts learning differences because it is (falsely) perceived as less academic. When students discover there actually is required reading, and written work, then quite often a state of panic ensues. It is here that the interlaced talents of teaching staff, support staff and library must endeavour to weave an individual garment for each learner. K. insists that with the correct support (perhaps the garment is worn underneath the day apparel) dyslexia proves to be no barrier to academic success.


Under 2010 UK equality legislation all public institutions are required to take ‘reasonable steps’ to flexibly respond to disability. One approach to such adaption would be to make generic changes, ‘best guesses’ on what the next intake may present. There is, however, an inbuilt inefficiency in this approach. One cannot presume on individual learning styles in the same manner as one builds in wheelchair access. Cornell University, which runs a course in Person-Centered Planning, state that

[p]erson-centered planning is a means for uncovering what is already there: the essence and extraordinary gifts and capacities of a person. […]

Person-centered planning requires systems to respond in flexible and meaningful ways relative to the unique interests and needs of the focus person. (Cornell University Person-Centered Planning, accessed May, 2013)


Let’s tell brief stories from library experience in each part of this journey. Let’s pull together several worlds and see if this collaboration equals a new world or an uncomfortable fit or, perhaps, the beginning steps of another journey ...

I recall the librarian coming out and worrying over us, a small gang of gawking boys who have found the most horrific book possible: a catalogue of grotesquery, accident and mutilation. Bravado demanded sniggering and gasps of amazement (I felt sick but would not show it); the librarian fluttered: No, no, now no. That is not at all what the book is for. Thereafter the book retreated into the office, and bravado sufficient to asking for it never again appeared.

In the therapeutic model the manner of relating to a client has been statistically proven to be more important to the therapy’s outcome than the practitioner’s personal, demographic or professional characteristics. Positive outcomes are associated with a collaborative, caring, empathic and skilled way of relating (Cooper). 

In conversation, N. and T. (professional counsellors in a post-compulsory educational setting) confirmed that this was true of their experience, and suggested to the library service that in order for a library user to feel committed to the process, a sense of equality, not paternalism, was required.

Of course it could be argued that in this memory of the school library the viewpoint is skewed. Was the book inappropriate for our age group; perhaps our sensationalism was ruining a carefully nurtured atmosphere of self-improvement? Similarly, the legal relationship between school staff and pupil is different to that of post-compulsory educational staff and their charges. Even so, a person-centred approach in services dealing directly with young people experiencing mental health and emotional problems (one in ten amongst children aged 5-16) does claim an overarching need to hear the young person’s voice. Indeed, the approaches are to be ‘derived from what young people say works’ in services that are ‘person-centred, holistic and inclusive’ (Listen Up!). 

A more recent study of ‘the emotive topic’ (McCluskey) of school behaviour repeatedly reports the children in compulsory education stressing the significance of ‘fairness and active listening’:

Many children, in different ways, suggested that how teachers listened and the social context of being listened to was of crucial importance: ‘Take more time to actually listen. Ask us in comfortable situations, not in front of other people.(McCluskey, 2013, p. 292)

The principle is that the person does fundamentally recognise what is good for them and, given the right environment, will always move toward that good and/or generate the context to foster that good. Under the name of self-actualisation, this principle is described by Maslow (1943), but, it seems to me, is more fully experienced in the work of Carl Rogers, whose work I shall describe in greater detail shortly. In the context of this library memory, meanwhile, we encounter these questing young persons, whose explorations of their bodily limits (in a safe environment) are met with an imposition of scarcity. The question of proper authority, due process, communication, and respect all remain unanswered. Again, perhaps the little huddle was being disrespectful of the purpose of their neighbours. How was this discussed or resolved? Only by means of a short-circuiting of their involvement in a book. What, I wonder, was the book for? Maybe it had been purchased against the librarian’s own judgement, taste, or ease? If so, then now that librarian was able to turn to their line-manager and say something along the lines of: I told you so.

If this force, self-actualisation, really does push our personal growth, guiding each set of interactions within an ever-shifting environment, then the question might well be one of tools.

The concept of ‘tool’ triggers a memory of a series of illustrations demonstrating how ‘Early Man’ struck stone with stone in order to make things. As this memory of an illustration is active, a number of observations are made: I can smell the book, the gentle rot of its glue; I know its size and feel its weight. My childhood environment is drawn up around me before receding, as it did when I was a child; I am sinking into the intent book scrutiny with my childhood I, and I myself now enter into the flint tool-making exercise with ‘Early Man’. It is all a reaction to visual material, rather than any accompanying text. I can feel my nakedness in the world, the heat, my hands hefting the weight of this inquiry; stone. Behind me there is a cave, before me, rocky terrain; a group of hominids making noises is moving around me, and yet my awakening mind focusses intently on the flint in my hand. Surprisingly, rather than the rough boulder outline, its ‘within’ is visible. The ‘within’ is the tool, already arriving from out of its exterior form. What is more, the uses of the tool are also there: if this rock becomes the tool it is meant to become it will help me sharpen wooden sticks, the wooden sticks will help me kill animals, the animals will provide food, clothing, more tools, and this new becoming tool as yet in the rock will also help scrape clean flesh from bone. By envisioning rock becoming tool, this ‘Early Man’ has seen his whole existence become more efficient, more viable. If the insight into the inside of the rock can be shared horizontally amongst the community (and historically we presume this happened), then species development - evolution - is underway. 

This olfactory book memory has triggered a cascading metaphoric description of self-actualisation and learning. The rock could not ‘tell’, nor ‘Early Man’ be instructed, and yet learning has taken place, enabled by the material relationship. One can see also the importance of that grunting background group; although they do not directly participate, they catalyse the moment, and the becoming tool works for them as much as for its author.

Memory is a fixing of points but also a mental space that may be manipulated, tested, turned around and inspected (Yates). It erects around itself the context, a physically experienced space, and yet simultaneously the content is displayed. Memory is experienced both in its physical and psychological impact. Further, the memory itself holds further memory (as I describe ‘Early Man’ the opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey - by Stanley Kubrick - irresistibly starts up, hovering over the imagery as an additional possibility). A contextual scaffolding is generated and one may enter into this construct to discover another array of the remembered.

Imagine the same stone-banging scenario in a slightly more sophisticated society. There is the tool, the rock in my hand: it needs only to be revealed, but the shaman comes out of the cave and says: No, no, now no. That is not at all what the stone is for.

Memory, therefore, is able to swiftly and neatly stitch together different reading experiences: one of absorption, the other of a curtailed group discussion.

In my experience this latter parental ‘no’ and the ‘not listening’ that accompanies it has not been limited to the childhood library life …

I was working in a major university library on an issue desk. My normal role was in the specialist architectural department, but I was covering in a much larger section and was therefore a stranger, somewhat, to its protocols. This library stocked a range of one-hour loans. It was exam time and the collection was being tested by the sense of urgency this entails. There was only one copy of one particular book left. It had just come back but had not yet been shelved, and therefore was not allowed to be loaned. Could this rule be avoided if urgent circumstance asked? I was not in a position to say, and yet two people now wanted this one book (which neither was allowed to touch until shelved). They needed it now. To stir into the mix, one of the people wanting the book lived in the same house as I. This was difficult. The other person wanting the book knew this co-tenant also, having studied alongside him throughout their course. They could both actually see the book. Only the desk and myself stood in between. Listen, they said, we need it. We can work it out together. Please

With the great wisdom and authority of a person new to the job I explained that I would inform my line manager, who most certainly should be able to resolve this matter. The head librarian responded promptly, came out from her office, picked up the book and returned to her office with the book. Not once did she look at the imploring students, and nor was I required to explain the situation further. When I came into work the following day this one-hour loan item was still safely parked within the inner sanctum, causing no more disturbance.

Doubtless my view on this was skewed, or limited at least, for I was not seeing how the proper library concern was henceforth a question of securing further copies and perhaps conferring with the programme area as to whether or not this title was really required as a one-hour loan. I had heard but we can work this out together - and yet in spite of these two reasonable voices there were perhaps half a dozen more troublesome calls coming up behind them. The librarian had need to feed everyone, not a few.


The user demands, the seeker seeks, the gap is to be filled. A feeding model. Can feeding and knowing, consuming and learning, be seen as comparable?  Learning is the wholly new and the always possible. The quandary for education, therefore, is: how in the light of this newness can learning be taught? The pedagogical materials are all drawn from other peoples, other times; no matter how contemporary, the taught subject is past - and yet the pedagogical experience one hopes to instil is entirely of this moment, and it is for this person’s learning. (Although that grunting surround of hominids are surely participating in the learning, even if not directly.) There is, then, a contextual disjointedness to teaching and learning: the two phases are simultaneously intimate and entirely distinct. Vygotsky posits a Zone of Proximal Development in order to accommodate this. Social interaction is central to cognitive development, and teaching as sanctioned social interaction is a scaffolding for preparedness.  Human learning presupposes a specific social nature and a process by which children grow into the intellectual life of those around them.

When the school child solves a problem at home on the basis of a model that he has been shown in class, he continues to act in collaboration … this aspect of collaboration – is invisibly present. It is contained in what looks from the outside like the child’s independent solution of the problem. (Vygotsky, quoted in Daniels, 2001, p. 65.)

The learner’s own character development and psychology - this preparedness for personhood - are not directly taught, but the collaborative shapes around that development are. 

Scaffolding as a metaphor has the temporal advantage of being movable: it has no pretence of permanence.  The metaphor then shades into accommodation, and we are able to talk of taught space as a welcome shelter. One enters this shelter with agreement to respond to the good hospitality with a giving of oneself in the same way that a traveller shares stories. Education thus becomes a mutually enriching exchange. At once scaffolding and hospitality: does this not seem an amenable description of the library as a collaborative space? Objectively it is an arrangement of objects; subjectively it is a theatre of memory in which players must play in order to stitch together their robes of meaningful meaning.

In other words, the library is a phenomenal field and, in an educational environment, it is called to be pasture, a consumable field. If the library user is to become a learner, a dynamic interaction is required – chewing cud at the very least! There are, of course, various degrees of hunger and different modes of curiosity. The library service may be skilled in a particular manner, geared toward satisfying a particular hunger. Nonetheless, the preparedness of the learner may not always, and will certainly not automatically always, fit the habitual functioning of the simplest institutional feeding mode.

Carl Rogers saw the development of fully-functioning persons not as the result of great expert skill and some chance but as sheer inevitability given the correct environmental conditions. In the therapeutic context the person themselves discovers their personhood; the patient knows best their route to healthy functioning and the environment which they require. In an educational context, significant or experiential learning

has a quality of personal involvement. – the whole person in both his feeling and his cognitive aspects being in the learning event. It is self-initiated. Even when the impetus of stimulus comes from the outside, the sense of discovery, of reaching out, of grasping and comprehending, comes from within. It is pervasive. It makes a difference in the behaviour, the attitudes, perhaps even the personality of the learner. It is evaluated by the learner. He knows whether it is meeting his need, whether it leads toward what he wants to know, whether it illuminates the dark area of ignorance he is experiencing. The locus of evaluation, we might say, resides definitely in the learner. Its essence is meaning. When such learning takes place, the element of meaning to the learner is built into the whole experience. (Rogers, 1969, p.5. Emphasis in the original.)

Even as a stone tool must come forth from gross material as it imprints its possibility on an awakening mind, so is the fully-functioning person such a potential. How is it, then, that the apparent inevitability of the psychological whole person has been, to say the least, historically a patchy affair? In the vicissitudes of childhood one develops differing loci of evaluation. At a certain stage these may be appropriate collaborations - a co-constructed space of meaning and suitable adaption to the environment - but, going forward, they are always mismatched because, rather than adapt as the environment changes, they become a fixed function within the psyche. That initially fruitful collaboration between a teacher and learner, or a parent and a child, may persist to such an extent that the invisible partner is always present: perhaps volubly so, dogmatically so. Collaboration ceases and a dictatorship takes hold. A fixed function within the psyche, the invisible partner, is now making judgements on behalf of the present, and, furthermore, making demands on the present reality so that it is expected to fit an internal reality. A new reality will always be just that – new – whereas the internal scripts or commentaries are always familiar (overly so). In this situation of mismatch a learner experiences incongruence: they cannot be true and cannot trust their own learning experience; not speaking truthfully within their own self (or across their many inner personifications [Rowan, 2010]), a person cannot properly receive, never mind assess, the full spectrum of current information. 

The person-centred approach is a means of re-evaluation but it does not move in as an intervention: the person is not turned into a medical object but matched as a trusted subject. 

The individual has within himself or herself vast resources for self-understanding, for altering his or her self-concept, attitudes, and self-directed behaviour – and these resources can be tapped if only a definable climate of facilitative psychological attitudes can be provided. (Rogers, 1986, reproduced in Kirschenbaum, 1989, p. 135.) 

Rogers states that, given these core conditions, ‘facilitative psychological attitudes’ (Rogers, 1986), growth and healthy functioning are an unavoidable movement of the person. There may be specific tools or techniques that need to be introduced in facilitating the movement, but it is the person that recognises the need and moves toward its satisfaction. In an educational context this introduction of tools or techniques would be part of the learning mediation: while the teacher – or library – may well have access to these mediated objects, the motivational force between learner and learning nonetheless remains with person. The core conditions are:

Congruence – described as realness or genuineness.

There is a close matching, or congruence, between what is being experienced at the gut level, what is present in awareness, and what is expressed … (Rogers, 1986)

Unconditional Positive Regard – described as acceptance, respect, caring deeply and as a true concern for the individual.

Empathy – an as if quality wherein it is possible to trust the perception of the other’s world as if one were experiencing that world; the meaning and feeling of that experiential quality becomes apparent (Rogers, 1986).

Empathy implies a continuing desire to understand from the client’s perspectives, regardless of one’s own view, experiences, values. (Connolly, accessed April 2013)

Recent studies have discovered remarkable properties associated with empathy. Where empathy is present in the physician-patient relationship there is significant increase in positive clinical outcomes. It has also been shown that those who perceive themselves to be empathised with have a changed brain response to stress and an increase in pain tolerance (McGlashen; Sarinopoulos).

Again, recent reports from hospital clinical practice have highlighted the success of the Schwartz Center Rounds, a person-centred group focus meeting, in re-motivating medical and care professionals across all grades and roles. Goodrich reports how the focus is to ‘care for the caregiver through a supportive work environment that treats them with the same dignity and respect that they are expected to show patients and families’. Once more it is noted that ‘higher empathy is related to lower stress’ (Goodrich, p.1, accessed May 2013).

The King’s Fund published Patient-Centred Leadership: Rediscovering our Purpose as a direct response to findings of the Francis Inquiry (2013). The King’s Fund particularly recommends valuing the person, staff and patient, and listening to the patient and their support networks (family, friends, care advocates). These are core Rogerian principals. The shame is that these calls are anything but new. In a 2001 White Paper, Valuing People, published by a previous government, person-centred planning is recommended:

A person-centred approach to planning means that planning should start with the individual (not with the services), and take account of their wishes and aspirations. (Valuing People, p.56)


If we are to take anything from these clinical findings and recommendations then we shall need a sensible and meaningful mapping across process. Rogers himself applied this approach to education, management and organisational issues, and latterly to peace negotiations in South Africa and Northern Ireland. A library may not be dealing so dramatically with peoples’ lives, but nonetheless we are dealing with an aspect of their living - and in the post-compulsory education sector we are in fact dealing with a vital, sometimes turbulent, stage in a person’s development. The library may be that free, crucible-like space through which the transformative waters of young adulthood, learning, and new experience flow.


In Milltown College Library one sunny afternoon I pointed out to a more senior member of the team how cosy a particular couple seemed to be. He gasped in horror and sprinted between the stacks, bounded up a flight of stairs in two, and demanded that the couple – well – uncouple. There was no state of undress involved, just much entwining of limb and meeting of lip. The library signs ask for mobiles to be turned off, no food or drink, and remind everyone to act respectfully in a study area. As yet no new sign has been made: No Snogging.

On another occasion, C., a tutor who works with the FE provision, expressed some surprise at her rediscovery of how different the second-year students whom she normally taught were to the first. It was a busy period with each year group completing their final major project. The first years she described were far more ‘needy’. They had to be reassured, guided, confirmed – and it was hard work. Just the short chronological gap between first and second year created in this young intake a great shift toward independence. In psychological terms they become more autonomous. This small insight has a potential impact on how the library imparts the skills and knowledge of library use: should inductions follow a two-phase strategy?


In Carl Rogers, it should be recalled, was a trained scientist. He observed this movement toward growth, development and healing in his clients and put his observations under empirical scrutiny and the approach remains a proven success in many cases (Cooper). This is not to say that the approach is uncontested, or that alternative approaches are invalid. Even therapists who were accounted Humanist Psychologists, as Rogers was, suggested that his optimistic view of the self-actualizing human might benefit from acknowledging a greater complexity:

Does not Rogers’ emphasis on rationality, and his belief that the individual will simply choose what is rational for him, leave out a large section of the spectrum of human experience, namely, all the irrational feelings? Granted that it is not ‘exquisitely rational’ to bite the hand that feeds you, yet that is just what clients and patients do – which is one reason they need therapy. And furthermore, this anger, aggressiveness and hostility, often express the patient’s most precious effort toward autonomy, his way of trying to find some point at which he can stand against the authorities who have always suffocated his life – suffocated it by ‘kindness’ as well as by exploitation. (May, quoted in Rowan, 2001, p.31.)

This encounter with rage under a regime of kindness is worth pondering a little longer, for does not the attentive library service, for example, always strive to be kind? Or if not, then the functioning service needs always to show the rational workings of its system: The loan period is … the fine is … this item can be renewed, and so on. Every month, however, there are people who ‘forget’, ‘lose’, or mark, soak, rip or otherwise destroy books. (I have seen items returned that have clearly gone skateboarding, great tangents ground off the book’s spine much in the manner of a schralped skater’s elbow. Strangely, these books were re-shelved as if nothing untoward had happened.) In other words, any system must be designed in expectation of a certain amount of aggression, even if that aggression is passive aggression. No amount of rationality and clarity is ever likely to be sufficient to elicit an entirely clear and rational use of the service or system, and this holds in the library as much as in any other human institution. 

While discussing the possibility of a person-centred library with N. and T. it was precisely this point of how to deal with aggression that suggested an ethos rather than a fully person-centred approach. The call of unconditional positive regard is precisely ‘unconditional’. In order to run a service however it is presumed that one must set conditions: The loan period is … the fine is … etc. Nonetheless, should the ethos be toward the person, should it be an ‘enabling style’ (Mansell; Beadle-Brown), then those negotiations which inevitably arise around contested fines/losses/damage must put persons, not the fine/loss/damage, at the centre of the negotiation. And, to be real about this, in such negotiation there is the personage of the library, all those service concerns, represented by a staff member, who is also a person, and the person of the library user. This means there will be more than two people in this negotiation. There may also be all those hidden narratives to contend with – they are a problem – why am I here – etc. If the staff member of the library is not sure of their own condition of worth they may judge the situation around them by how they imagine some other person, a manager perhaps, would judge although such conjecture is fundamentally impossible. The library user’s own locus of evaluation may not be within themselves, so they could be fantasising any number of alternatives that would alleviate their responsibility for being in the present.

We have touched on education as mediation (Vygotsky). In the above-described the two present people could each be object and subject, the one gaining knowledge from the other, while the mediating artefact (positioned at the apex of the triangle if we imagine this as a diagram) is the library in the institution with all its attendant (and clearly articulated) codes. Unfortunately it may be all too possible to scramble all these codes through another triangular description: the Karpman Drama Triangle.

Karpman Drama Triangle 

The Karpman Drama Triangle by Paul Ryder, from Wikimedia Commons


We may imagine the institution as persecutor, the ‘good cop’ staff member as rescuer and the library user as occupying the victim position. The bizarre truth about such scripted positions is that the victim script is driving this dynamic. The victim must be victim in order to be rescued. As the rescuer rescues, they force the victim from their position, all involved take up a new script position, and a drama occurs. 

While such barely conscious games are playing themselves out there is a crucial lack of awareness. These are persona games, actors, and while quite often the drama can be very distracting, complexly absorbing, it is also horribly inefficient, time-consuming and sometimes simply painful. Without awareness of how the moment is structured, then the full range of other options will remain elusive.


A Milltown College library staff member runs the overdue notices on a regular basis. Over the arc of the academic season he has noticed what appears to be a regular pattern of relationship between seriously overdue library loans, an inability to establish meaningful contact with – and here pauses. He was going to say ‘the offender’, he explains, but given the context he now realises how loaded this language is, violent even. A transgressor, the offender; already the person is lost behind a prejudging set of association. The person, then, who has very overdue items, who has not responded to email alerting service or paper notice or the stern warning letter, is often also a person who is about to or already has withdrawn from their college programme. He wonders if an empirical study could be made before going on the suggest that often the withdrawal from education, as he sometimes discovers only afterwards, is related to ill-health, anxiety disorders, economics or chaotic family situations. Perhaps all the above at once - which then puts the matter of few books in some perspective. There are occasions, however, when one of their family or a member of the teaching faculty steps into this circuit and explains some circumstance. They act as a proxy between the library and the distressed student. By establishing a new quality of communication the matter can be resolved. Without such two-way communication the library system is doomed to repetition: TripTropTripTrop. Who’s that trotting on my bridge!! TripTropTripTrop …


N. makes the point that people will feel intimidated by the library but they will also be excited in response to it. People will have all sorts of reactions which are uniquely their own from a fluid, dynamic sense of themselves. The library service cannot actually avoid this as this response is the person’s own responsibility, but, N. continues, the library can offer an environment where users are held and accepted in learning. Rather than ‘rules’ the service has boundaries. It is against these boundaries and the ethos of the library being there for the library users’ needs that the staff can continually check themselves: How did I react to that? Did they prompt me to jump to conclusions? Were we listening?

So, the library staff member continued, it is in this context that we need to ask: can there be a simple structure put in place that is not just about transmitting information - X items late by Y days - and is not solely a matter of conveying threat - X items late by Y days will cost you Z. Such equations may look perfectly reasonable to their authors, but it is not possible to predict how they are received. 

A metaphor from sense-making methodology is brought to mind: ‘the studies assumed that the information brick was being thrown into the empty bucket’ (Dervin). Clearly the library user is not an empty bucket: the whole point of using the library is to ensure one’s bucket is at least partially full! Moreover, the anecdotal findings of Milltown College suggest that after a certain period of non-communication or stalled activity on the library account it is probably that bricks thrown in will be met by a storm of activity rather than an empty rattle:

When you change the power differential in a class, you realize that students and professors become something different. They become more than people playing different roles. They become whole persons with thoughts, feelings, and behaviors which are fully taken into consideration. (Motsching-Pitrik and Santos, p. 17.)


A marketisation of the student body alters the balance of expectations. We have already met the feeding metaphor in the context of the library, and this same method of understanding the pedagogic contract can be applied to post-compulsory education as a whole. The stated aim of the BIS report Students at the Heart of the System is ‘to put more power in the hands of the consumer’ (2011). The student and consumer are accounted as one, and thus the whole sector is deemed a market, replete with branding strategies, products, and, of course, compelling testimony as to the quality of said product in the form of league tables and numerous surveys.

Students widely buy into the idea of consumer sovereignty. Often inadvertently, this stance acts to reduce the potential value that studying at degree level can offer; for example, many students will opt to satisfy often whimsical personal tastes and preferences, rather than immerse themselves in the ambiguity and angst of deep learning … (Molesworth, et al. p. 233.)

It is in this seemingly fickle environment that the term ‘student-centred’ is promoted as a good. Outside the Rogerian context what may this mean? Can the student demand a pass as right because that is what they have paid for? Might the BA be purchased as an impulse buy, like a perfume or perhaps a tattoo? How will the scaffolding surrounding the preparedness for learning be reshaped to accommodate a more self-consciously privileged person? Clearly the learner is indeed a consumer: the manner in which the institutions are funded makes this unavoidable. Perhaps the question is, are they a consumer first and a learner only second, or vice versa? Or, by foregrounding this element of choice and expectation, do institutions actually prepare the ground for a participatory experience? It can no longer be acceptable for the paying customer to be held at a distance while dollops of fact and/or opinion are ‘banked’ in their person. Education as banking is the counter-concept, derived from Paulo Freire, to that of pedagogy as liberation. The active consumer of education may agree that they are not

abstract, isolated, independent, and unattached to the world.


Authentic reflection considers neither abstract man nor the world without people, but people in their relations with the world. (Freire, p.81)

It is interesting to see how Freire’s authentic non-alienated reflection has become refocussed as a strong brand word: the desirable authentic experience offered by …

Education can function as being about getting the facts to get the degree to get the job. And post-compulsory education must be able to genuinely provide for both elements; employability and transformative learning. If the stress of this fault line falls mainly along the delivery of teaching programmes (or teaching and/or facilitation), the library is certainly not exempt from these tensions. The depth and breadth of a collection is, without doubt, worth promoting: it is a selling point. Is it possible for the library to be a free space for reflection, communion and becoming, while simultaneously recognising it is an easily accessible depository of correct and necessary data? 

Is the institution ‘student centred’ because they, the students, are the financial fuel in this particular machine? Is the student therefore a monetary unit? Is the institution ‘student centred’ because this is code for image management, with the student required to be correctly displayed in any public correspondence? Perhaps these questions veer unduly toward the cynical but, again, there is an also/and running along the self-same ground. The best possible advertisement for any educational institution cannot be drawn from strategic portfolio or brand conference. ‘It is by their fruit you shall know them’; an actual, vibrant, creative and visibly talented body of graduates is the convincing sign which will attract further consumers.

Student-Centered Learning is a personally significant kind of learning that integrates new elements, knowledge, or insights to the current repertoire of the learner’s own resources such that he or she moves to an advanced constellation of meaning and resourcefulness. (Barrett-Lennard, quoted in Motschnig-Pitrick and Santos, p.4.)


There is always a cost to implementing change. If a person-centred library is to flourish then, it is suggested, a preparedness for learning would proportionally flourish. The library may even rebrand as The Zone of Proximal Development. Even so, for collaboration and co-constructed meaning to take root, person-centred action cannot be a mere proclamation. A linked series of goal-orientated actions is required that reaches from top to bottom of the organisation, with an attentiveness to checking and ‘re-checking on what is working and what is not working’ (Smull, et al., p.4-5).

There is sometimes a cost to even suggesting change. For some situations it seems that to merely contemplate difference is far worse than the actual process of changing. In such a state even suggestions of a suggestion arouse suspicion and consequently aggression (usually passive), resistance and accusation. All the verbing of a negative processing: digging in, making a stand. This rhetoric may be slyly resentful or heroically barricaded, but in either case it is against a verbing of doing, flowing, fluxing, discovering or moving. An equal, if not greater, amount of energy may be invested in the former, more truculent, way. As in the drama triangle, the resisting mode demands that all other characters (and again the person is reduced to a role) engage in the designated destiny of ‘with us or against’. Awareness becomes uncreative ‘focus’ and cognitive power is moved toward a nomenclature of stating positions. Self-actualising flux, the listening to persons, any change at all is now subtly removed from present activity.

Hearing, as Dervin argues, cannot be presumed from the sheer fact of transmission. Transmission and reception are mutually engaged or they are irrecoverably dysfunctional. To hear, listening is required. To speak, listening is required. To listen, meaning must be available and sought after. Which said, we again swing round to the question of the possibility of clear communication. In order to properly judge the successful functioning of an institution one has recourse to a whole new array of experts – the learning body – the person who knows in their own person how best to achieve their goals. ‘Without partnerships, the inefficiencies increase’ (Smull, et al., p.8).

The verbing of Sense-Making and the process of person-centred planning and action indicate that communication is a collaborative reality - the doing reality of a Zone of Proximal Development. The self is participatory and thus fundamentally weighted toward the necessity of the relational journey, the library journey, the learning person journey. One of the necessaries of the necessity of relationship is listening.

If a library is to hold a person-centred ethos, that ethos must develop creatively from within the library. Person-centred thinking and action develop from the ground up, but cannot suffice unless the ground-up also meets a top-down action in a manner both constructive and engaged. Following Michael Smull’s terms, the whole body is to be looking for what needs to be celebrated, sharing good practice, and changing what is not working. As the library and its staff itself meet with the core conditions of realness, esteem, and empathy, so in this courageous move does it model for all its relationships the type of relating it expects to both provide and receive. Would this change be sufficient to impact on the number of books lost, stolen or damaged? Would this alter both the quality and the quantity of the interactions between library staff and library user, or indeed between library user and library user? Markers will need to be placed so as to measure how far the dunes shift. Strategies of relating may be devised; art exhibitions within the library, new patterns of pedagogy, and different circuits to alert users to services’ agreed boundaries. 

Then someone may say:

Stop, pot, stop! And at last the porridge stopped.

So they all joined in to clean the floor apart from the ogre, who made the coffee.        


A note

Milltown College is fictional, an amalgam of several institutions the author has experienced. Nonetheless the conversations were genuine and experienced with immense gratitude - thanks:

N. and T. – College counselling staff

C. – Tutor

G. – Tutor

A. and K. – Learning difference support tutors

and every member of library staff ever encountered.




Afterword by Garry Barker


Dear Nick

As a young boy growing up in Dudley in what was then Worcestershire, I discovered the town library in about 1957 or 1958. In the approximately four years between first going inside what was a somewhat daunting classical building and my entry into Dudley Boys Grammar School, I discovered something wonderful. Worlds of ideas and stories that could transplant me into the past, the future, into strange and different countries and into the presence of people that sometimes frightened me and sometimes intrigued me.  In the background was a quiet librarian, who would watch me wondering the shelves, and who would every now and again offer advice.  I didn’t realise what was happening, she was simply educating me at my own pace and allowing me to be an immersive learner. She never said something was off limits or a boring read, but she had a sense when I was getting sated with something. I had read virtually every Jules Verne in the place, when she simply suggested I now have a look at H G wells. Reading was random and often influenced by the images on the covers. H Rider Haggard stories always offered that thrill of exotic adventure whilst John Buchan could bring it all back home.

I don’t think I’ve changed that much. But I don’t go into libraries very much. What has made the difference is the internet and a salary. I was until I moved my base up to the college’s newer site a regular user of the college library and I could make my way round the shelves by memory. The fact that the library was on the ground floor meant that you had to pass it on your way out and in and therefore were constantly reminded of something or other that you felt you had to read. The other issue was as I was a part-timer and for many years I couldn’t afford to buy books, but even so I did, but not as much as when I started to deliver contextual studies materials.

So what changed? The first thing was the advent of internet buying. If I was thinking about a subject I wanted to keep the books related to it for long periods and refer to them when I wanted.  Internet buying was a fast and cheap solution to this. I also liked to be able to show students or read from these books and I’m not a very good planner. Not to the extent of ordering books well beforehand and remembering to take them back etc. I also found that students were similar, so as I developed dissertation tutorial responsibilities I would ‘loan’ these books to students, often with a feeling I was never going to get a book back, but with a sense that at least the person I was giving it to might learn to love it, or cherish its contents. The days of the 1950s are now long gone. As a boy there were few other distractions and things were not out there to be collected. The nearest to owning personal property like books was probably the trade cards in Brooke Bond tea, but these were free and you swapped them with your mates.  Now students expect to own things. iPods, computers, phones etc., are all expensive items that they own and they will have been given many books as children. A book therefore seems not so special nowadays, so you have to make a book special. This is why I have over the last 10 years simply given them away as gifts. I’ve given hundreds of books away over the years as the library itself may itself testify, as I gave my last collection to them as I finished my final year as a contextual studies lecturer. I think books are special, so special that they ought to stand outside the Capitalist system. Each one as it is written and then read, passes on in a unique vessel, human thoughts frozen in language. What then should be the best way to pass these idea vessels on? As you have written, centring a library around do’s and don’ts and making late book returns subject to fines perhaps breaks the magical bond between the reader and the text. Either the books should all be free, or you chain them to the shelves.  Introduce students to the gift economy, get them to see that quantitative easing isn’t just to do with putting more money into the economy, it can be about getting everyone to actively share.

You point to the library’s pastures, and these are by implication both pastoral and pastoral.  Students need to graze the shelves as well as library staff offering professional advice at the right time.  What is though often experienced by individual students at gut level is often a tightening of the stomach muscles as they confront a set of learning outcomes that have no link to his or her actual experience. Communication with hundreds of different individuals on widely differing courses by using ‘the brief’ is actually insane. If we weren’t so used to being straightjacketed we would realise it, but we have worn the restrictors for so long that they have become the norm and straightjacketed patients now dictate their own medicine as a cure-all for everyone.  Unconditional positive regard and empathy are just words if we put into place inhuman systems. Again you have referred to the fact that planning should start with the people not the system. So what do I suggest in response to your text? Well one thing I do believe is that if you establish good will all will eventually benefit. Give the students trust. Provide spaces for them to be what they want to be and for those who find books challenging, free the text from the books.

So many students are frightened by academic text and put off by its dry tone, but when they hear it read out or paraphrased as a parable or fable, suddenly pennies drop and they want to read. I tried to spend as much time as I could reading out loud to students in my last years of teaching contextual studies and would still with the fine art students I now work with if I wasn’t so timetabled into a task orientated curriculum. I well remember the response to Patrick Oliver reading Beckett or Flann O’Brian to the students, those books were gobbled up by some, and others would just remember the sound of the spoken words, in either case those books had been opened for them.

I mentioned Rilke and his connection with phenomenology when I saw you last. Poets will perhaps always make their way into our thoughts before philosophers step in to try and organize them. As an art college I would suggest we are more about offering possibilities than collecting information, therefore our books can be seen as random thoughts waiting to be realised by chance encounters. Can you as librarians facilitate these encounters and foster them as you learn to recognize those browsing youngsters’ different needs?

The pedagogy of the art library is rarely discussed, but I also believe the whole structure of art and design pedagogy is also rarely approached with the rigour and open mindedness of earlier writers such as Anton Ehrenzweig. Impose a structure on the learners and they will learn the structure and not the subject of study. More students ask me about what the brief means than what their own work might possibly become. Can the repository of texts be a place for the re-discovery of self? Perhaps it’s as always down to individuals. That quiet woman in Dudley public library who watched a young boy grazing the shelves had no other agenda than being a good human being. The gift she offered me is one that still keeps giving.

Regards Garry



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