The Why, The What, The Who

Why a Library? What Is It? Who Developed it?

The Why

Over the past decade, hundreds of initiatives have been launched to support learn-and-work components of our rapidly changing economy. The nation’s dated, degree-centric higher education system is giving way to a multiplex of credentials and credential providers. Credentials include diplomas, degrees, certificates (within and outside the higher education system), industry certifications, apprenticeships, and state licenses. Providers include K-12 schools, colleges and universities, professional associations, certification bodies, and industry groups. We are in the midst of a transformation in how and what students learn, how employers understand what prospective employees know and can do, and how policymakers and accreditors can and should set policy and regulation around credentials. This transformation has made the U.S. learn-and-work system more complex and confusing, especially for populations facing steep challenges in gaining access to quality education that prepares them for good jobs and careers.

The proliferation of innovative reform efforts underscores the system’s shortcomings—and its complexity. Major efforts are focused on: (1) transparency in credentialing; (2) employers’ skills-based hiring processes; (3) new systems for student-owned, portable, comprehensive learning records; (4) common data standards to enable interoperability among efforts; (5) an array of competency and skills frameworks; (6) research on credentials’ quality, value, and return on investment—especially for people of color and low-income populations; (7) career coaching and navigation; and (8) transforming the degree-centric system to an incremental credentialing system.

Most large-scale initiatives have created some form of web-based repository of their work. Some projects operate during grant funding and are archived afterward—or slowly abandoned. Even when repositories are maintained, they tend to operate in isolation. From the standpoint of users (e.g., policymakers, practitioners, scholars, students, credential providers, and industry groups), useful information is scattered across websites and difficult, if not impossible, to find. There also are gaps in information on many topics.

Lacking an organized, curated library of information, today’s system operates mostly through an informal network of peer insiders. Finding information this way slows the work of experts at the very point that rapid information flow and problem-solving are needed. Newcomers to the work typically have no idea who to call or where to find information. Librarians, essential agents in the knowledge world, are hard-pressed to help because curated, synthesized sources simply don’t exist.

What is needed is a repository of resources to support those working to build a fairer, more effective learn-and-work system. Those working in this arena need information—historical, recent, complete, and curated—to develop and fine-tune solutions, to make the case to the many stakeholders needed to transform our system, and to expand and accelerate the reform effort.

The What

One of our early questions was what do we build—a dictionary of terms or an encyclopedia? We concluded both are needed because there are terms to define and terms that require more general understanding. Generally speaking, encyclopedia articles focus on factual information concerning the topic named in the article’s title. Dictionary entries focus on linguistic information about words, such as their etymology, meaning, pronunciation, use, and grammatical forms.

Another early question was what is a library—why not instead build a repository of resources, a dictionary, or encyclopedia? Wikipedia informs us that a library:Is a collection of materials, books or media that are accessible for use.

We concluded that a specialty library is needed to make information about the learn-and-work ecosystem easier for diverse stakeholders to find and use. We also decided the library should be updated regularly by those best equipped to do so—through a community-supported wiki model.

The Who

In planning for the library, the George Washington University Program on Skills, Credentials, & Workforce Policy (housed within the George Washington Insitute of Public Policy) designed two studies in early 2021. The first study (conducted in summer 2021) reviewed 18 websites of key intermediaries, including federal agency sites working in the learn-and-work ecosystem. The goals were to (1) see if terms commonly used in the ecosystem are defined at those sites, (2) identify whether there are referrals to other sites for more information, and (3) identify generally what the sites cover. Among the takeaways: there were few referrals, there were few definitions of key terms, and many websites were difficult to navigate. A few did not have a search bar, for example, and many appeared to display outdated information.

The second study surveyed hundreds of experts in the learn-and-work ecosystem in summer 2021. Participants were asked to rate the importance of areas that might constitute key components or “building blocks” of the ecosystem and to rate the importance of a number of subcomponents or “topics.” The key finding was that most topics were rated as “very important” or “important.” Twelve key components were identified as the basis for what was then identified as the “knowledge section” of the Library (plus many subcomponents).

This research and planning, aided by numerous conversations with potential users of the Library and a Library Advisory Board, helped organize the prototype Library by four types of content: knowledge, key initiatives, alliances, and archives. Following this organizational structure, the prototype Library launched December 1, 2022.

During 2021, the leadership team of Credential As You Go (Program on Skills, Credentials & Workforce Policy at George Washington University; SUNY Empire State University; and Corporation for a Skilled Workforce) developed a plan to incorporate a digital library as part of a 2021 grant proposal to the U.S. Department of Education’s IES grant program. Credential As You Go subsequently received a three-year grant which included support for the Library. While the Library has a close relationship, therefore, to Credential As You Go and supports the work of incremental credentialing with useful, curated information resources, the Library is designed to support the many efforts working to improve the learn-and-work ecosystem.

Since launch of the Library on December 1, 2022, the Library has collected feedback to increase its usefulness. This resulted in relaunch on November 20, 2023, with a major redesign. The following components are newly grouped: Glossary, Index, Archive, and Key Components of the learn-and-work ecosystem.  Initiatives, Topics, and Organizations (Alliances/Intermediaries) continue to have their own sections and are accessible through an advanced search and filtering system on the Library’s front page.  A new feature includes Relational Maps. In 2024, the Library is partnering with AI to automate the development of maps in order to depict how a Topic, Initiative, or Organization that is searched relates to: (1) glossary terms, (2) other topics, (3) other initiatives, (4) other organizations, and (5) the key components of the learn-and-work ecosystem.  AI will also be used in a “conversational” search feature going live in May 2024. These many changes are designed to assist users searching for information.

The Library is committed to open use and community ownership. The Library is designed as a wiki model. Those who use it are asked to improve it, to keep it accurate and current. Throughout the Library, forms are available for users to submit suggestions for new entries or to revise information.

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For the ecosystem to function effectively, all parts of the system must be connected and coordinated.


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