I was fortunate to have been invited to participate on a panel at the Knight Foundation Library Learning Seminar, part of the Foundation’s Library Initiative, in Miami last week. I was invited to discuss national digital literacy initiatives and the opportunities such initiatives could provide libraries. Returning to February in DC has left me longing for the 84-degree sunny weather with a gentle ocean breeze… But what I actually returned with was reminder that libraries and the librarians who staff them truly do have the ability to be a transformative power in their communities.
The theme for the 2012 library conference was “Re-visioning the Library of the Future,” and much of the day and a half conference challenged attendees to tie their services to supporting individual and community transformation.
My personal transformation began during the opening session field trip to Miami’s North Dade Regional Library to hear about and view the branch’s newly established YOUMedia Miami center which was funded by the Knight Foundation in the fall of 2011. Being familiar with Chicago Public Library’s YOUmedia center, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. Hmmm…
What was transformational about the experience was seeing the philosophy of learning supported by YOUmedia in action. So often we talk about the importance of creating meaningful learning experiences for young people, the eventual positive impact engaging curriculum will have on their lives, the way collaborative learning will lead to good jobs and civically minded adults. I sincerely believe these things to be true, but have not often seen a program that successfully navigates the spaces between the pedagogy and the reality of what teens are doing and what they care about.
The teens working in the North Dade Library graciously allowed us into their space to be witness to an incredible energy and creativity. After an initial embarrassment of being “observed,” two teens recording their singing (a capella) explained to me what they were working on and their plans for adding a beat underneath the singing. Another teen was adding her own writing to some song lyrics and putting it all to video. At another table, two teens were working on creating a movie with what looked like images they had taken from around the community. They were busy adding music to the background while a center’s mentor was explaining how to find music clips that would match the mood of the images.
Describing the work going on in flat text does not capture the multi-layered richness of the experience — both my experience and those of the young people who were busy creating. What I thought at the time was how extraordinary and how profoundly ordinary the experience must be for the teens. I do not know whether they had other opportunities to work with technology such as what is available in the YOUmedia center. Whether they did or did not does not diminish the powerful yet seamless learning that was apparent in my brief visit. While the final products will no doubt be wonderful and pieces of art to be proud of, I believe the real gift of the space occurs during the creation process itself. The young people at work in the center were using the technology to create personally meaningful products, but the technology itself was not the focal point of the learning experience. There was a sense of community, of collaboration, and of trust being built that appeared to be a by-product of the experience but instead will likely will be the long-lasting benefit brought to these teens and their communities through their participation in the YOUmedia center.
Such opportunity is unfortunately not widely available, although efforts are currently underway to provide more communities with similar YOUmedia programs through a collaborative effort of the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Where these spaces are in play, they deserve to be held up as paradigms of personal and community transformation. We owe it to ourselves and our communities to find ways to enable this kind of creative and collaborative work throughout our library services, from early learning to social cataloging to maker spaces. This is the future of libraries.
Assistant Director, OITP