Libraries adopting innovative model for community learning


Libraries are making online education more accessible and interactive by adopting "learning circles", librarian-facilitated study groups for people who want to take online courses together and in person. This November, 15 public library systems in the US and Canada will run free learning circles for hundreds of library members who will learn together for 6 to 8 weeks. Topics reflect a broad range of interests, including refugee rights, healthy eating, public speaking, and computer science.

"There are thousands of free online courses out there" says Martha Yesowitch, Educational Partnerships Manager at Charlotte Mecklenburg Library in North Carolina, "but without peer support, motivation and internet access, our patrons have struggled to find value in them". Martha believes libraries are the perfect place to support access to online courses, as they provide free space for learners to meet, access to internet and computers, and librarians who are eager to help facilitate course discussion.

Learning circles began as a partnership between Chicago Public Library and Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU) in 2015. The program is unique in that it emphasizes peer-learning, facilitation and community building. Andrea Sáenz, First Deputy Commissioner from Chicago Public Library, has seen big benefits in taking this approach, “Learning Circles have enabled us to offer free, high quality courses to adult learners from very diverse backgrounds at neighborhood libraries across Chicago. Everyone who shares a desire to learn is welcome at CPL, and learning circles give our librarians the tools to form powerful communities of learners that transform our libraries into vibrant, community-based centers of knowledge.”

Learning circles have also expanded internationally to Kenya. Richard Atuti, Director of Kenya National Library Service, brought learning circles to his library system in 2016 and has already seen the program grow from two to 12 branches. "The learning circles program is a valuable addition to library services and supports KNLS’ role of promoting independent learning and supplementing formal education. The program has enabled learners to independently gain and share valuable knowledge and skills for self-empowerment.”

Expansion across public libraries in North America has been supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Chris Barr, Knight Foundation director for technology innovation, underscored the importance of this initiative. “In a new civic information environment, libraries have an essential role to play in creating more informed and engaged communities. The learning circle model will help libraries put communities at the center of their work and connect people to knowledge in new and innovative ways.”

The learning circle toolkit is freely available online to librarians and community organizers around the world. To see where learning circles are happening in your own neighborhood or to learn how to start your own, visit

Active North American Cities and Libraries:

Boston, MA (Boston Public Library)

Cambridge, MA (Cambridge Public Library)

Charlotte, NC (Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library)

Chicago, IL (Chicago Public Library)

Cleveland, OH (Cleveland Public Library)

Detroit, MI (Detroit Public Library)

Kansas City, MO (Kansas City Public Library)

Miami, FL (Miami-Dade Public Library System)

Philadelphia, PA (Free Library of Philadelphia)

Providence, RI (Providence Public Library)

San  Jose, CA (San Jose Public Library)

Seattle area, WA (Pierce County Library)

Toronto, Canada (Toronto Public Library)

Tampa, FL (Hillsborough County Public Library Cooperative)

Wichita, KS (Wichita Public Library)

For further information contact:

Nico Koenig

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