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Library youth and tech leaders on the Hill: We build a bridge between knowledge and passion

Participants in ALA's June 2015 Caitol Hill event on youth and technology.
Participants in ALA’s June 2015 Capitol Hill event on youth and technology. Left to right: Nicola McDonald, Jesse Sanders, Mega Subramaniam, Sari Feldman.

“Libraries are often the sole or primary technological access point for their communities,” said U.S. Representative Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) yesterday, kicking off a Capitol Hill event exploring the role of libraries in preparing children and teens for higher education and the workforce. In my childhood, “I went to the library every day. It opened up worlds I didn’t even know existed.”

Co-hosted by the American Library Association’s Washington Office and Rep. Fudge’s office, the event, entitled, “Kids, Learning, and Technology: Libraries as 21st Century Creative Spaces,” convened library leaders in the youth and technology space to discuss strategies for advancing digital literacy, critical thinking and creative expression through technology-driven programming and services.

Congresswoman Fudge’s powerful words at the outset of the event set the tone for the panel discussion to follow. Moderated by ALA President-elect and Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Public Library (CCPL) Executive Director Sari Feldman, the discussants included Nicola McDonald of the New York Public Library (NYPL), Jesse Sanders of CCPL’s Warrensville Branch, and Professor Mega Subramaniam of the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies.

Together, the panelists’ remarks painted a picture of the library as an equal-opportunity on-ramp to the technology economy. Nicola McDonald outlined how NYPL helps young people build science and tech skills through gaming and hands-on community activities; Jesse Sanders explained how his library offers young people digital tools that foster creative, collaborative learning; and Mega Subramaniam described school libraries as unmatched in their ability to help young people build digital skills through personalized learning opportunities.

ALA President-elect Sari Feldman, Congresswoman Marcia Fudge (D-OH) embrace.
ALA President-elect Sari Feldman, Congresswoman Marcia Fudge (D-OH) embrace.

The panelists all made clear that the library’s role in preparing young people for the future extends beyond providing access to digital technologies and critical STEM information. Access is only part of the picture. At the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies, a program that simultaneously fosters literacy and scientific understanding among inner city Washington D.C. middle school students – known as Sci-Dentity – goes beyond simply presenting students with information in a textbook. The program encourages students to read science fiction books, watch science fiction movies, play interactive science games, and then write their own stories based upon their experiences. Similarly, a photography program at Brooklyn Public Library does more than provide patrons with informational resources and access to a camera – it also encourages patrons to take pictures in the community, and then present their work at a local art gallery.

The key is that in their efforts to help young people build critical skills for education and the workforce, school and public libraries don’t just provide learning opportunities, they provide connected learning opportunities. Other learning institutions may have informational resources on STEM topics; they may have a 3D printer or a CNC router. But, unlike libraries, they don’t provide environments in which young people can build skills through the use of these resources and technologies by pursuing their own personal interests.

Event participants in front of the U.S. Capitol.
Event participants in front of the U.S. Capitol.

What yesterday’s event made clear was that libraries help young people build a mental bridge between knowledge and passion. Libraries and librarians don’t just connect children and teens with important information. We help them understand how they can use that information to become exactly who they want to be. For libraries to continue to be youth education leaders, we must continue to help children and teens arrive at this understanding. As the ALA Washington Office ramps up its work on youth and technology, our members and staff will advocate for policies, programs, and initiatives that help libraries play this important role.

ALA thanks Venicia Gray of Rep. Fudge’s office for her hard work leading to this successful program, including a Congressional meeting room packed to capacity. Jessica McGilvray and Marijke Visser of the Washington Office orchestrated the event for ALA. The ALA Washington Office thanks YALSA for its assistance in enabling Nicola McDonald’s appearance at this program.

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Charlie Wapner

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

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