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Spreading the Word: Library Learning Labs Go Abroad

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

By Corey Wittig
Digital Learning Librarian, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

As the Digital Learning Librarian for Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (CLP), it’s been my pleasure, to work on designing library programming for teenagers in Pittsburgh based on many of the tenants of the maker movement. From the world of making, the staff at The Labs, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's teen-only creative technology program, have learned the value of project-based learning. Making something, rather than passively absorbing content, is valuable for everyone, but it feels especially important for youth who need to encounter the kind of learning they care about while they’re still open to such experiences.

When you encounter The Labs, you will find a program focusing on spreading a love for making stuff in the library through a process known as Connected Learning.

Kids working on screen printing

Screen-printing during a pop-up “Labs on Location” visit to CLP - Knoxville

Connected Learning posits that learning works best when it’s tied to the learner’s interests. The work of The Labs and CLP Teen Services is accomplished not just by giving teens access to shiny equipment and cool gadgets, but providing the tools necessary to connect to things that they care about. And that’s all done by building relationships with mentors and connecting to the community through our library locations.

Teen specialists—librarians and library assistants hired specifically to work with teens in all 19 of our libraries—are mentors. The Labs program is currently focused at three “core sites” (CLP-AlleghenyCLP-East Liberty, and CLP-Main) with extra staff and tons of cool gear for teens to work with. Mentors who work in The Labs program at these locations have been hired not for their background in literature or databases, but for their skills working with creative technology. As a result, teens who frequent the core sites have weekly access to guidance from local artists, musicians, and graphic designers.

The way we see it, The Labs is about enhancing library services through an expanded notion of literacy in the 21st Century. Libraries have always been about access to information through books and other materials. The Labs seeks to extend that mission to the tools of today.

One week, a workshop may be focused on sewing, while another week we’re doing video game design. Mentors talk to teens in the library about what they’d like to see and cater their instructional approach to the crowd they’re working with. As a result, our services are evolving to reflect the needs and interests of the communities we serve. The library is not only a safe place for youth, but a place where they gain access to equipment, software, and caring adult mentors.

There’s an idea that today’s youth are Digital Natives—naturals who can use an iPad from birth. Well, that’s just not true. Twenty-two percent of youth across this country live in poverty and have little access to the tools we ascribe to their generation. That’s where the library comes in, with “Free to the People” emblazoned over the door of our main library, seeking to democratize access to learning in Pittsburgh. It’s all in our mission statement to “Engage our community in literacy and learning.”

This programming is beginning to spread around the country through groups like the YOUmedia Network (a community of practice growing out of the IMLS Learning Labs in Museums and Libraries grant community) and across the globe through the Hive Learning Network.

Teens in Barcelona work on a stop-motion animation project

Teens in Barcelona work on a stop-motion animation project

Perhaps, as a result, I recently received a cordial invitation from the United States Embassy and Consulate in Barcelona to speak at a series of events across Spain about my work designing The Labs programming and, while there, work with youth by offering workshops in stop-motion animation.

My presentations in Spain were well received. Spanish librarians seemed eager to try this kind of programming and to recognize the value in making the library more attractive and more useful to the youth we serve. I saw this, too, each time I worked with teens in Spain.

Below is a video compilation of stop-motion animation videos created by teens at a Spanish FabLab (a makerspace based on a design out of MIT where the focus is on fabricating physical artifacts). I worked with these amazing teenagers on my second day in Spain, and reenergized my confidence that what we teach teens in Pittsburgh is relevant and of interest to teens in other parts of the world.

The events I spoke at in Madrid and Valencia and the workshops I provided for youth in those cities further convinced me of the importance of this work. Mentors make magic happen. Librarians are powerful, life-changing community members. We are all lifelong learners, and learning doesn’t happen in schools alone. It’s important that libraries, museums, and other community sites of informal learning also embrace what it means to be a learning space. That’s our responsibility.

People are always talking about the necessity of libraries in the 21st century. What happens when books are all digital? Well, if we aren’t about books alone, but free and open access to information and learning, then we have so much our patronscan sink our teeth into.

Sometimes we have to go away from home in order to find a connection to the place we left. I felt this during my trip to Spain. Talking about The Labs and CLP’s great programs and services allowed me to contextualize our mission and our values. It showed me that these lessons are universal, even if I already felt that was true.

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Corey Wittig is Digital Learning Librarian for Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and program manager of The Labs @ CLP -- the library’s creative technology program which pairs mentors and technology with teens

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