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Personal Learning Networks


Sarah Culp Searles

If you roll your eyes every time you hear an acronym-based buzzword in education, you’re not alone—but when it comes to Personal Learning Networks, or PLNs, it’s worth getting past the painful cliché and making excellent use of the many tools available to us!  PLNs are very important for librarians because a) we work in an industry that is rapidly changing and will continue to change rapidly until we’re long retired and gone, which means we need to be learning new things constantly, and b) we’re very generous people who always have lots to share, which means we are excellent contributors to PLNs.  And for school librarians, using tools and strategies for PLNs is important because we are responsible to teach kids to be lifelong learners.  We need to model that for them, as well as gain familiarity and practical experience in the kinds of tools they’ll use to learn throughout their lives.

The first thing I think of as part of my PLN is the helpful people I know.  The librarians I can call with questions about how to run a certain report in my circulation system, the person I know who’s really great at tricky reference questions who can help me find something weird for a kid, the friend in another district I can compare notes with to see if TEAM evaluations look the same or different in her building—all of these people are part of my PLN.  And the network isn’t only made of librarians; watching teachers in other content areas was definitely my primary way of learning classroom management when I started, and I’ve learned some powerful leadership lessons from church members I’ve known.

Digital tools are also getting a lot of attention for PLNs right now, and with good reason.  I was a very reluctant Twitter adopter, but once I started really using it, I got hooked.  There are certainly things I don’t care about in my Twitter feed, but I don’t have to look at them, so I just skip them; and in the meantime, I receive an amazing bounty of great ideas—everything from quick photos to lengthy professional articles—by following library and education professionals I admire.  What’s great about Twitter is that when people you follow retweet good stuff from people you don’t know, it’s incredibly easy to then go find those people you didn’t know and use them to expand your network.  The real trick to Twitter is to build a large enough network that it’s really useful, but to keep in mind that it’s okay not to read every single thing that pops up (talk about information overload!).  I also have friends on Facebook who post very interesting articles that I enjoy learning from, and I use Pinterest to organize and share some of those things. 

Professional organization membership is a powerful PLN tool, and is a hybrid between in-person and digital.  At conferences we form relationships with session speakers and people we meet in the exhibits.  Later, we extend those through email listservs, organizational Nings, Facebook friendships, and other ways to keep ourselves connected until the next year’s conference.  The people I’ve met through professional organizations are the major way I feed the other PLN tools I use.

I use Instagram as a PLN tool as well, but not for librarianship; it certainly could be used for professional purposes, but I have plenty of tools already in place for my network there.  I use Instagram because I’ve been learning to be a better cook, and it lets me easily document and share my creations, which I’m very proud of!  I can also use its functions that are similar to Twitter to extend my network, by finding several other people who post food that I can learn from and imitate.  Whether personal or professional, the important thing about a PLN is that you harness a network and use it to learn whatever you want to learn, personalizing it for your needs and habits.


Sarah Culp Searles is a librarian at West High School in Knoxville, TN.  She can be reached at
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