Libraries Prove to be Adaptable and Vital in the Digital Age

In Pittsburgh and around the country, libraries are becoming “bustling community centers.”

Late in the afternoon, after school is dismissed, some teens in Pittsburgh head over to their public library to make movies, create digital crafts, and produce hip-hop music. And even though they are in the library, no one is telling them to be quiet.

In fact, they are learning these fun skills through The Labs at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, also called The Labs @ CLP, a program where students in grades 6-12 can use sophisticated digital equipment that sparks their creative interests — either on their own time or through many of the program’s workshops.  These “learning labs” are currently located in three Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh locations.

These libraries are among the many around the country that are becoming “bustling community centers” according to a recent New York Times article, “where talking out loud and even eating are perfectly acceptable.”

“I see the program as an opportunity for teens to follow their interests, developing them into true talent,” says Corey Wittig, a Labs mentor and CLP digital learning librarian.

The Labs @ CLP is just one example of the many new programs and resources offered at some of the nation’s 9000 public libraries.

Public libraries do face numerous challenges in today’s digital age, writes Karen Cator,  former director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education and current CEO of Digital Promise. Poor public perception and lack of funding are just two major hurdles.

Yet as Cator also points out, libraries continue to evolve in innovative ways to meet the needs of people of all ages.

“Libraries are so valued by the people who use them,” she writes, “that they simply cannot meet the growing demand for both traditional and new services of all types.”

In Boston, the downtown branch is building a new teen space based on cultural anthropologist Mimi Ito’s work on “homago” — where teenagers can “hang out, mess around and geek out.” Like the school library at Elizabeth Forward High School in the Pittsburgh Region, the new space in Boston will include “lounges, restaurant booths, game rooms and digital labs, as well as software and equipment to record music and create comic books,” according to the Times.

Young people’s demand for library services is strong. A 2013 Pew Research Center report found that 16- to 29-year-olds are just as likely to visit the library as their older counterparts, and are significantly more likely to use technology at the library.

For those familiar with programs like The Labs @ CLP, that’s not a big surprise. Indeed, for kids who don’t have a computer or internet connection at home, the local library is a vital resource.

“Until now I never used Photoshop,” said Gabe Gomez, a Pittsburgh high school student who, along with his friends, made a seven-minute film at The Labs that they hope to turn into a web series. “It’s rare to have access to this sort of thing. I’m trying to learn as much as I can.”

Cleveland Public Library Executive Director and CEO Felton Thomas Jr. is at the forefront of making “libraries the center of learning, where technology is provided that levels the playing field for the disadvantaged,” reports American Libraries Magazine.

In 2012, their library launched TechCentral, an impressive 7,000-square-foot space that holds a computer lab with 90 workstations and a “Tech ToyBox” equipped with iPads, Kindles, and all sorts of fun tech gadgets, as well as a maker space.

To bring attention to the dynamic things libraries are doing with technology, the Young Adult Library Association (YALSA) hosted Teen Tech Week March 9-15. Libraries across the country celebrated the new and inventive ways they are engaging teens. This year’s theme was DIY @ Your Library,” reflecting the new trend of libraries developing maker spaces.

School librarian Buffy Hamilton, aka “The Unquiet Librarian,” tweeted and blogged about the high- and low-tech projects students at Norcross High School in Georgia did for Teen Tech Week, including making friendship bracelets  and creating duct tape art and circuit kits made out of dough.

She also wrote about Teen Tech Week’s grand finale: the school’s media center partnered with the Gwinnett County Public Library to explore 3-D printing.

For Hamilton, seeing kids get excited about these new resources is rewarding.

“To see these teens thinking so intently, experimenting, and learning through trial and error in a relaxed setting was truly a joy and a way for us to grow the kind of culture of learning we want the library to embody,” she wrote.

Photo/ San Mateo County Library

Published March 27, 2014