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How libraries are expanding the frontier of digital technology

The American Library Association’s (ALA) Program on America’s Libraries for the 21st Century (AL21C) monitors and evaluates technological trends with a view to helping libraries identify ways to better serve their patrons in the digital world. In the interest of supporting AL21C’s mission to scour the technology horizon and share these trends in a library context, I recently attended a panel discussion at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. on the future of the innovation economy. The panel, which was comprised of six tech industry leaders, spent a great deal of time talking about the transformative power of “smart” technology. Their discussions highlighted the fact that everywhere we look, some ordinary human tool is being “animated” by digital processes. This trend is important because it means that a growing number of tools we have traditionally used to interact with the world can now also help us make sense of the world.

As all of us in the library community know, libraries are getting “smarter.” New broadband-enabled video equipment in libraries can virtually transport students to museums and other educational institutions located in other cities, states and countries; new printing technology can help innovators bring their designs to life; and new computer software can provide jobseekers with interactive skills training.

The longer the digital frontier continues to expand, the more tempted we may feel to embrace the notion that it is our manifest destiny to live in an ever “smarter” world. In reality, however, we can only sustain our current rate of progress if we take steps to ensure that young Americans are being furnished with the skills they need to become the digital innovators of tomorrow.

During this week’s discussion at the Bipartisan Policy Center, Weili Dai, president and co-Founder of Marvell Technology Group, suggested that the key to preparing our students to take the reins of the “smart” revolution is to rethink the traditional roles of computer science and math in American education. She called high-level computer code “smart English,” and “the language that facilitates our lives,” and advocated for making computer science education universal.

As policymakers debate the merits of curricular reforms, libraries are creating more opportunities for our patrons to gain coding skills, in addition to other 21st Century digital literacy competencies. Recently, the Denver Public Library’s Community Technology Center participated in the Hour of Code, a nationwide program that offers instruction in JavaScript, Puzzlescript, Arduino and more. The Chattanooga Public Library ran a four-week summer camp last year which offered students an introduction to HTML, Python, CSS and the science of robotics. Children’s and school librarians also are exploring ways to bring coding skills to ever-younger audiences.

The ALA is excited about the role of libraries in America’s digital future. If, as Dai says, computer code is the language of 21st Century progress, then libraries are already taking steps to ensure America’s continued leadership in the global innovation economy.

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Charlie Wapner

Charlie Wapner is an information policy analyst for the Washington Office.

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