Reading & Literacy

Louder Libraries for a Digital Age to Open Across U.S.

By Jill Barshay & The Hechinger Report — November 29, 2011 4 min read
A high school student works on a borrowed laptop at the YOUmedia lab in the Harold Washington library in Chicago.

Imagine walking into a public library filled with PlayStations, Wii game consoles, and electric keyboards pumped up to maximum volume. Teenagers are munching on snacks, checking out laptops and slouching on sofas or beanbags. A carousel of computers sits in the middle, navigated to Facebook.

That’s exactly how one enormous room on the ground floor of the Chicago Public Library’s main branch functions. And this noisy library model is expanding around the country. The Miami-Dade Public Library in Florida is opening a high-tech teen room in December. The Hartford Public Library of Connecticut will open one next year. Four museums and eight libraries—from California to Missouri to Pennsylvania—recently received a total of $1.2 million in grants to design new teen spaces for the digital age.

The grants come at a time when public libraries are slashing hours, staff and budgets, but are still trying to engage younger visitors by spending money on technology.

“Libraries struggle with how to stay relevant to teens,” said Amy Eshleman, an assistant commissioner at Chicago Public Library. Eshleman helps oversee the 5,500-square-foot space, known as the YOUmedia lab. “We think this is how libraries should look in the future.”

On a recent afternoon, youth mentors circulated through the airy room, teaching teenagers how to make films and work with multimedia. A group of girls was shooting a talk show, using a laptop camera and external microphone. Others played guitar and keyboards, or shared poetry and songs.

Matthew Bryd, a 16-year-old junior at Jones College Prep, a public high school in Chicago, was about to record a video-game podcast with a group of friends, as he says he does most days after school. “We sit down and talk about a bunch of topics related to video games,” he said. “It’s kind of like a radio show with commercials. We publish it on iTunes and on our website.”

Bryd says he sometimes takes out books or critiques movies and games for the website he created with friends.

Some librarians caution that there are downsides to running a cacophonous disco inside the library. “I think it’s a violation of what some kids need,” said Barbara Stripling, a professor in Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies. “Some people could block it out. For others, it’s a distraction. It’s irritating. It’s too loud [for people] to be thoughtful and reflective.”

Stripling is also concerned about the isolating effect that technology can have.

“I have a problem with everyone sitting next to each other on Facebook and not engaged in conversation,” said Stripling. “I have this deep sense of the library being a safe, shared space of civic engagement. It is so ironic to think that you’ve created this space and they’re not really talking to each other.”

The sites receiving the new planning grants are located in Houston, New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco, as well as in smaller cities and towns in Colorado, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. They’ll be co-funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, an initiative of the federal government, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. One of the MacArthur Foundation’s goals is to promote the use of technology in schools and other educational environments.

Chicago’s YOUmedia lab was developed in partnership with the Digital Youth Network, a digital literacy program based at DePaul University in Chicago, and designed with help from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. It opened as an experiment in 2009 at a cost of $1.2 million for the first year and was based on the research of Mizuko Ito, a cultural anthropologist at the University of California-Irvine and co-author of Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media (MIT Press, 2009). Ito’s contention is that children and young adults are more likely to come up with new and creative ideas when they’re surrounded by stimulating technology that they can play with in a relaxed, social setting.

Since the opening of the YOUmedia lab, the Chicago library has been bringing in up to 100 teenagers a day. They must have a library card to check anything out; they also must be of high-school age.

Video games are considered an educational tool and the librarian is a self-described “gamer.” Library staff say the games are specifically selected to foster complex problem-solving skills. Grand Theft Auto III—which encourages players to “rob, steal and kill”—is not in the collection, but Rock Band is.

Eshleman says the biggest decision in the design of the teen room was whether to include books in it. “We insisted on bringing down the books [from the seventh floor],” she said. “The designers and funders thought that was just going to deaden the space.”

The library won that battle, and now the books have their place. “Book circulation [of the teen collection] has gone up about 500 percent since the space opened,” Eshleman said. “You see teenagers browsing the stacks and often pulling books from a cart, or quietly reading on a big bean chair.”

Teenagers also use the space to practice music, something for which Marcus Prince, a 17-year-old high-school senior, is particularly grateful. His hip-hop band, “Instrumentality,” records and plays regularly in the lab.

“My band doesn’t have a place to practice, so we come here, and it’s like, ‘hey, play more music!’ ” Prince said. “They don’t mind at all.”

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