With New Learning Labs, Teen Programming at Local Libraries Goes Digital

In Pittsburgh this summer teens can mix music, tinker with robots, and take courses in digital design. All at their local library.

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]here’s some good news for libraries—and library patrons. The bleeding appears to have stopped. Library budgets—although not growing—are at least not shrinking any more, after years of tough going.

The recession slashed the budgets of most public libraries in the nation, leaving them struggling to maintain services, including the higher-cost digital services that community residents have come to rely on. E-books, internet connections, and 3D printers are the “World Book” set of years ago—the expensive, scarce resource that libraries provide when families cannot.

For many libraries, those kinds of services have become harder to fund. States cut funding to libraries by more than 37 percent from 2000 to 2010, as a recent Stateline article reports, “forcing libraries to rely more heavily on local funds.” Throughout the nation, local governments shoulder approximately 85 percent of the costs of public libraries. The federal government picks up a small tab, amounting to less than 1 percent of the total budget. But even those funds decreased. In Pennsylvania, federal funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services—which provides leadership through research, policy development, and grant making—declined from $6.31 million in 2010 to $5.49 million in 2014.

However, as Stateline reports, funding cuts appear to have ceased. Budgets are leveling off, if not growing, which is welcome news.

Photo/ Ben Filio

Pittsburgh’s libraries are at the forefront of innovations for kids and families, and teens in particular. The Labs at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (Labs @ CLP) joins 23 other Learning Labs nationwide to advance hands-on, interest-driven learning for teens, focused on digital media and tools. This fall, with funding from the Cindy and Murry Gerber Foundation, the East Liberty branch will create a space for teens to cultivate their digital and creative skills.

The Learning Labs’ core philosophy is that youth are best engaged when they’re following their passions, collaborating with others, and being makers and doers as well as consumers of technology and information.

The 24 Labs have spent the last few years planning for their launches, building partnerships with other organizations in their respective cities and involving teens in the planning and design processes. In Nashville, Tennessee, for example, teens worked directly with architects planning the Lab space. Other Labs have been piloting programs that build teens’ creativity and problem-solving skills.

Teens in the Learning Lab in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for example, used geocoding and mapping tools to tell the story of their city’s rebirth following the devastating tornado in 2011. The Learning Lab there is a partnership between the Alabama Museum of Natural History and the Tuscaloosa Public Library. Libraries excel in storytelling, and the museum is a federal and state repository of maps on the campus of the University of Alabama. Combine the two, and you have story mapping. In this case, the teens combined urbex-ing—urban exploration of buildings, often abandoned or decaying—with geospatial tools, coupled with mentors from the university’s geography department, to tell the story of the role of destruction in a city’s renewal.

The result was “another way to look at the history and story of our city,” said Lance Simpson, a teen services librarian at Tuscaloosa Public Library.

In the San Francisco Bay area, the Learning Labs focus on media making and teen voice for social justice. KQED Public Radio, the San Francisco Public Library, California Academy of Sciences, and the Bay Area Video Coalition are all collaborating to help teens tell their stories.

In Kansas City, Missouri, Learning Lab is preparing teens for future jobs in the area as a leading employer, Hallmark, expands into digital storytelling. The partners in the Lab—the Kansas City Public Library and Science City at Union Station—focus on coding, digital storytelling, videography, and other digital tools. The skills will prepare teens to enroll in new digital storytelling degrees at Johnson County Community College and the University of Missouri.

In Pittsburgh, the Learning Lab at East Liberty branch will feature a freestanding music studio and a variety of digital tools and software. It will also offer workshops with practicing artists, technologists, and other experts, said Corey Wittig, the Learning Labs director. During the summer, they’ll be offering a two-week photography course with Pittsburgh Filmmakers Youth Media Program.

During the school year, the Lab at East Liberty offers diverse programming, focusing on a different subject each week, from audio production, to graphic design and printmaking, to photography and videography. Teens’ ideas and interests are what guide much of the programming, explained Wittig. Staff mentors help students build their confidence in skills, such as using a vinyl cutter or a video camera, and more expert teens work on their own projects as well. Other Learning Lab sites in the city focus on gaming or host open jam sessions, among other options.

WESA, Pittsburgh’s local NPR affiliate, visited the East Liberty library branch last month, just a few days after school let out. They found teens engaged in an ancient Egyptian design workshop. Carnegie Library Teen Specialist Andre Costello said workshops like these are helping change our vision for how we think about libraries.

“Before we thought of them as a pantry, whereas now we’re thinking of them more as a kitchen,” he said. “So rather than taking the information home and just using it there, you can actually use the library as a place to create.”

Published July 02, 2014