Urban Libraries Conference Highlights STEAM for Kids, Programs for Adults, and DC Makers in Residence

Despite the advent of Google and other tools that have simplified access to information, public libraries have maintained their relevance by responding to complex problems within their communities, said David Lankes, professor and Dean’s Scholar for New Librarianship at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies, during his keynote address at the the fourth annual Urban Libraries Conference on May 6 at the Brooklyn Public Library’s (BPL) central branch. Lankes elaborated on this thesis throughout his “Rocket Science Is Easy” presentation to kick off a day filled with presentations and discussions on current issues affecting urban libraries.
The Urban Libraries ConferenceDespite the advent of Google and other tools that have simplified access to information, public libraries have maintained their relevance by responding to complex problems within their communities, said David Lankes, professor and Dean’s Scholar for New Librarianship at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies, during his keynote address at the fourth annual Urban Libraries Conference on May 6 at the Brooklyn Public Library’s (BPL) central branch. Lankes elaborated on this thesis throughout his “Rocket Science Is Easy” presentation, distinguishing between simple problems, complicated problems, and complex problems. With simple problems, an expected outcome is known, and the process for achieving that outcome is known. For example, despite its idiomatic use, “rocket science” relies on a foundation of equations that enable highly accurate targeting of rockets. With complicated problems, he said, the expected outcome is also known, and the process for achieving that outcome is discoverable. Lankes used Google as an example. “Google is solving a complicated problem, and it’s doing it extremely well. And when people look at what Google does, we get sort of scared, sort of awed by the…complicated-ness of the problems they’re solving.” Google’s PageRank algorithm revolutionized search engines by analyzing the number and quality of links to a website to determine a website’s importance. Lankes explained that while it is certainly impressive that the company has continued to scale as the Internet has grown, this basic concept still underpins Google’s search tools. The company’s “infrastructure is astounding and a marvel of engineering…in terms of computer technology, in terms of power utilization, in terms of network bandwidth, in terms of software, it’s a marvel,” Lankes said. “But it comes down to something very simple. That entire infrastructure is built to do” PageRank. Too often, people inside and outside the library field equate technology with the resolution of complex problems. But Lankes argued that complex problems are defined by outcomes that are emergent, and processes that are variable—something he described as more akin to hurricane forecasting than accurately predicting the trajectory of a rocket. With libraries, addressing ongoing issues such as community literacy, helping people transition to new fields of work in the STEM economy, and educating patrons about online privacy are just a few examples of the complex problems with which libraries are currently grappling. “As libraries, we have moved from a complicated access problem—how do we organize large volumes of materials for indexing and browsing and searching—to complex problems. How do we get people into conversations and learning situations?” Providing the tools to help people and communities build knowledge and address complex problems is a powerful thing. “Ultimately, the most complex problem that we solve is empowerment. That is to give people power. And you do not give people power unless you have power to give.”

Lit Up

Libraries can also enhance their communities by providing opportunities for people to connect through fun programs and events, as librarians Megan Biggins, Kate Oberg, Nico Piro, and Karen Sullivan discussed during their “Shake It Up, Mix It Up, Dance It Up,” session, which covered the Lit Up: Literary Style in Arlington series of programs that they have developed for 20- and 30-something patrons at the Arlington Public Library (APL), VA. Many young professionals in the Washington DC metro area are transplants from other cities, and they’re often looking for ways to meet new friends, Biggins explained. The library saw an outreach opportunity and, with the help of funding from the APL Friends group, created programs suited to a variety of different personalities. These now include an annual literary themed ball with live music, a monthly Books on Tap book club that meets at a local gastropub, a “strange lands” sci-fi book club that meets at a coffee shop, quarterly “nerf nights” and annual “late night recess” games events at the library, a “shut up and write” series for aspiring YA authors, strategy gaming events, and a commuter book club. The programs have proven to be a great way to raise visibility for the library and get feedback from a demographic that is often difficult for public libraries to reach. In their presentations, Biggins, Oberg, Piro, and Sullivan gave the audience several pointers for setting up these types of programs. For example, they were surprised by the social media backlash against events like late night recess. So they began emphasizing that funding for that event was provided by the APL Friends group. As the events became more popular and drew local media attention, some library staff felt left out, and the group realized that internal communication about events and planning needed to be enhanced to ensure staff buy-in. Separate events, such as family game nights, were created to set a clear distinction between programs that are exclusively for adults and programs for parents and kids. And patrons can get burned out on any specific type of event. If attendance is lagging for a program that was once a hit, it may be revived by less frequent scheduling.

STEAM for Kids

STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) education programs have become a hot topic in the library field, and Alessandra Affinito, a librarian at the New York Public Library's Chatham Square branch in Manhattan's Chinatown neighborhood, discussed how the library is successfully engaging young kids with inexpensive science experiments. “It’s not that public schools don’t have enough science [education]. They have plenty, but a lot of them don’t have the budget or one-on-one time to devote to kids’ science experiments,” Affinito said. “If it’s in the curriculum, especially if it’s in common core, they’re rushing through it. They’ve got to hit this point, this point, and this point, and then move on to the next thing.” With simple experiments, libraries can offer kids the opportunity to explore scientific concepts in a fun and low-stress environment. A variety of experiments are available on sites such as sciencebob.com, pbskids.org, scholastic.com, and sciencekids.co.nz. Affinito suggested an hour-long class format that includes a brief 15-minute lesson to explain the experiment, 30 minutes for the experiment, and then 15 minutes for individual exploration. Originally, she tried using the last 15 minutes of each program to have groups of kids discuss what had happened during the experiment but “that never works. Once you get kids excited about doing science experiments, they will go and go, and to take the stuff away from them and ask them to talk about vocabulary words? It’s terrible.” Instead, during the last 15 minutes, the instructor can help kids one-on-one or the kids can tweak their own experiments individually or in groups. For example, in a simple experiment that involves making silly putty out of all-purpose glue and starch, kids might try adding more starch or more glue to see how this impacts the putty’s consistency. Affinito also said that failed experiments can make kids curious, and motivate them to work with a teacher to figure out what is going wrong.

DC Makers

Concluding the conference’s auditorium sessions, artists Billy Friebele and Michael Dax Iacovone discussed their work as the first “Makers-in-Residence” at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial branch of the District of Columbia Public Library (DCPL). Funded by the DCPL Foundation with support from the Friends of Tenley-Friendship Neighborhood Library, the program began last fall. Current projects include the “Whisker Bot,” a roaming robot that Friebele built with an Arduino and Parallax kit, and a Star Wars–like hologram projector that Iacovone built with plexiglass using the library’s laser cutter. The two also host workshops on 3-D scanning and printing, and a “Walking as Drawing” workshop where they worked with patrons to create interactive, GPS-enabled drawings while exploring the neighborhoods surrounding library branches. The two artists had worked with DCPL before. Six years ago, the library hosted their “DC Photo Grid,” a crowdsourced public archive of photos taken in locations throughout the city. “We had this show in the lobby of the MLK library, and it was really an amazing experience for us,” Iacovone said. “Because what we didn’t realize at the time was that when you’re an artist working in galleries, you’re really preaching to the choir. The people who go to galleries are other artists and people who are already patrons of the arts…. The MLK library is essentially the most public space that’s indoors in the city—it’s the most democratic venue…. And the wonderful part of showing a work in a public space is that instead of being treated as artists…people would just come and talk about [the project]. It’s just a great experience.”

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.


RELATED 

TOP STORIES

LIBRARY EDUCATION

Kids are using VR to explore worlds and create new ones

COMMUNITY FORM

Kids are using VR to explore worlds and create new ones

COLLECTION DEVELOPMENT

Kids are using VR to explore worlds and create new ones

Get connected. Join our global community of more than 200,000 librarians and educators.