Should Libraries Shush?

Many say no. The libraries of the digital age are becoming community learning spaces, adopting innovative methods to engage a new digital generation of learners.

In January, the Pew Internet and American Life Project released a new report on libraries in the digital age that caused a bit of a stir. The finding that almost half of those surveyed valued libraries as places to sit, study, read, and watch or listen to media generated a lot of discussion about returning multifunctional libraries teeming with activity to the pin-drop quiet many adults grew up on.

Laura Miller at Salon was one of those arguing for quiet. “[T]here’s a lot to be said for that shushing,” Miller writes, adding, “I’ve long believed that one of the most precious resources libraries offer their patrons is simple quiet.”

By embracing a wide variety of activities, from job training to musical performances, are libraries really leaving the needs of their patrons behind?

It doesn’t appear so. Although having quiet time at the library is important to a lot of users, almost an equal number of survey respondents said they go to libraries so their child or teen can attend a class, event, or program. Libraries are among the places where children start their journey of learning, and modern libraries are adopting innovative methods that engage this digital generation in that learning.

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, part of the Kids+Creativity Network, has been working for more than a decade on a systemwide renewal. A major focus of its capital renovations and service enhancements has been on providing 21st-century technology for children, teens, and adults in the neighborhoods where they live.

Throughout Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, The Labs—digital media labs equipped with computers, audio and video recording equipment, graphic design tools, and various media-editing software programs—offer a unique environment for kids to get creative and collaborative. For example, The Lab at CLP – Main just finished a workshop with the multimedia storytelling organization Hear Me in which teens connected their personal experiences and observations with news events and used their stories to create a digital film.

My Story Maker, a game-based approach to literacy and storytelling for younger kids launched a new website last week to make it even easier for kids to write their own stories.  The site was developed by CMU’s Entertainment Technology Center for the Carnegie library in 2007 and was later made available to remote users. The site was recently named one of the 
best websites for teaching and learning 
by the American Association of School Librarians.

CLP – Brookline has a volunteer Teen Advisory Council with its own Facebook page, where kids can share their drawings and “smoovie” videos and learn about events, such as a manga drawing contest using The Labs’s Smart Table.

And Carnegie Library of Homestead debuted its Teen Tech Zone for middle- and high-school students last month. Teens in the area can now edit their own original movies, design online games or websites, and learn the latest technology in digital music composition and sound recording.

We’ve written about how local schools are also transforming their library spaces into centers of digital learning.

“Libraries aren’t a place to be silent anymore,” says Mary Beth Wiseman, Director of Technology for Elizabeth Forward School District where some high school students can now check out laptops or digital video cameras in addition to books. “They’re a place to get together and share ideas.”

In Chicago, YOUmedia has been transforming Chicago Public Library (CPL) facilities into digital learning environments for kids since 2009. CPL’s new commissioner, Brian Bannon, asserts that digital media is helping libraries connect with kids whose entry point isn’t books.

“You see the kids interacting with one another and the [physical and online] space in a way you don’t typically see in libraries,” he said.

The teens have a dedicated space—which gets VERY loud— where they can hang out and experiment and create with an array of high-tech tools and software, from video to music recording to computer graphics, all free. “You have kids with their own record label,” says Bannon of those who follow their dream with the help of YOUmedia tools.

Others have created their own interpretation of classic books. The teens have created an instrumental score based on Toni Morrison’s “A Mercy,” and created audio narratives and spoken word performances in which they reimagined dialogue between characters in the novel.

They created short video remakes of Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere,” which he loved.

For the “heavier” read of Carl Smith’s “The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City,” the teens joined a modern-day scavenger hunt using mobile phones and geocaching. As they chased history clues around the city, they learned about Burnham and how his plan affected the city they call home.

Today’s libraries combine the best of what has worked for generations with new methods to enrich the lives of their patrons. The American Library Association’s “2012 State of America’s Libraries Report” says that “amid the shifting winds of an economic storm, libraries continue to transform lives, adapting to and adopting new and emerging technologies, and experimenting with innovative and transformational ideas to provide services that empower patrons.”

Published March 18, 2013