MIT Media Lab Collaborates with Public Librarians

The MIT Media Lab has expanded beyond academic and corporate collaborations to join forces with public libraries for the Public Library Innovation Exchange (PLIX), coordinated by the Media Lab Learning Initiative and MIT Libraries and supported by a grant from the Knight Foundation.

Playtest workshop  hosted by Richland Library's Jordan Morris and Cecil Decker and Media Lab graduate student Kreg Hanning at the Lifelong Kindergarten lab space at the Media Lab with local educators and other Media Lab researchers.
Photo credit: ML Learning Initiative

Since its inception in 1980, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab has produced cutting-edge interdisciplinary research, working with partners ranging from IBM to LEGO. Recently the Media Lab has expanded beyond academic and corporate collaborations to join forces with public libraries for the Public Library Innovation Exchange (PLIX). Coordinated by the Media Lab Learning Initiative and MIT Libraries, and supported by a grant from the Knight foundation, PLIX matches Media Lab student researchers and their projects with public library partners to address challenges in the libraries’ communities. The long-term goal is to develop sustainable, innovative products that libraries nationwide will be able to implement, along with a platform that will expand the work beyond the Media Lab and foster “a community of creative collaboration.” Each joint project is reinforced through a residency exchange, where the Media Lab researchers and representatives from the partner library travel to each other’s institution for two to three days at a time to enable in-depth work, design collaboration, and development. The PLIX website will document the projects and offer resources for other libraries to implement them, including how-to guides and kits developed specifically for public libraries. PLIX will also host online events and virtual hangouts for librarians and Media Lab researchers to develop and demo tools, as well as providing a forum for ideas, with the goal of building a community of collaborators. The Media Lab has long been interested in what it calls “disruptive technologies that happen at the edges”—mixing and matching different areas of research and technology to solve real-life challenges with the help of community input. PLIX’s focus, explained Media Lab director of learning innovation J. Philipp Schmidt, is to connect the Media Lab’s research, predominantly in learning, to communities it doesn’t ordinarily reach, "to go out into the world and be used by as many people as possible. This idea of deployment is very much part of our DNA, and working with public libraries to get our projects and technologies out to the world is something that's very natural for the Media Lab."


Schmidt first became aware of the power of public libraries as partners through his work with Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU), a program that brought online learners together for support in public libraries. P2PU was awarded Knight Foundation News Challenge on Libraries funding in 2014, and launched its pilot project in two branches of the Chicago Public Library (CPL). The Media Lab had collaborated with CPL on other projects as well, such as Learning Beautiful, Montessori-inspired toys for teaching children computer science and design principles. "Working with the librarians was so interesting for us because they added a dimension to what the Media Lab does,” Schmidt told LJ. Traditionally, he said, “we're very good at technology innovation, doing applied science, working with large companies.” But Media Lab student researchers come from a variety of backgrounds, and many have interests ranging from the arts to community organizing, as well as technology and science. “When we reached out…and said, ‘We're building this relationship to public libraries, is anyone interested?’” the response was very positive, Schmidt recalled. “A lot of students came forward and said, I'm working on this project and I would love to work with a public library to see how it could be deployed, how public libraries might want to use my research—but also just [to see] how people use this technology who are not already super plugged in at MIT or Stanford, making sure that technology has value in people's lives." Libraries queried about the PLIX concept were enthusiastic as well, said Schmidt, largely because of the collaboration aspect. "We're not a vendor trying to sell the library something. We are genuinely interested in developing these programs together and seeing how they could be used in the library, how they will change in the library, and…how they could be sustainable in scale." Schmidt also received a thumbs-up from the Knight Foundation in the form of a $250,000 innovation grant in March 2017.


PLIX identified libraries that would be a good fit with existing Media Lab ventures, “matchmaking the right librarians who were already interested in working in the spaces that the Media Lab projects were in," noted Media Lab learning initiative manager Katherine McConachie. The first cohort was announced in mid-February. It includes the Akron­–Summit County Public Library (ASCPL), OH; Boston Public Library (BPL); Cambridge Public Library, MA; Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, NC; Richland Library, SC; Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP); and St. Paul Public Library (SPPL), MN. More partnerships are in the works, with an eye toward smaller libraries—such as a possible collaboration with the Medicine Spring Library at Blackfeet Community College in Browning, MT—to ensure that projects work on both a large and small scale. There is no cost on the library side, other than staff time, and PLIX often provides any raw materials. “In exchange, what we're asking from them is that they help us document what they're doing so that we can share it with other libraries,” said Schmidt. Current projects include ScratchX, a collaboration with Richland Library on extensions for the Scratch programming language for novice users that would enable real-world applications like robots, interactive storytelling, or low-cost sensors. Richland librarians Jordan Morris and Cecil Decker spent time at MIT in January, and in turn welcomed graduate student Kreg Hanning, a member of Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten (LLK) research group and Scratch team, to test-run workshops in Richland in March. Another project,, developed with SPPL, is a suite of tools that focus on data visualization to help communities tell stories—“not a data program for technical people,” explained Schmidt, “but for people who have something to say and for whom data’s a tool that they could use to say it more effectively, or in a different way.” ­BPL has partnered with Media Lab’s Laboratory for Social Machines on Playful Words, tools that help children to develop skills in self-expression, literacy, and dialog through written language, pictures, and stories. The project also allows a glimpse into the software’s back end to track children’s literacy progress. Librarians, parents, or teachers “can identify problems that [children] might be having, or milestones that they've achieved…without needing to test them all the time,” McConachie explained. “It's just embedded in the play."


ASCPL's food computer

The MIT Media Lab Open Agriculture Initiative (OpenAg) is working with ASCPL and FLP’s Culinary Literacy Center on an MVP (Minimal Viable Product) 1.0 Personal Food Computer—a tabletop-sized growing chamber that uses robotic systems to control and monitor climate, energy, and nutrients to provide controlled environment agriculture technology. Variables such as carbon dioxide, air temperature, humidity, dissolved oxygen, potential hydrogen, electrical conductivity, and root-zone temperature can be controlled and monitored within the growing chamber to produce differing growing “recipes” for various types of plants. The food computer, essentially a PVC and foil box, runs on a Raspberry Pi and Python code brain, the code for which is located on GitHub. ASCPL director Pam Hickson-Stevenson first got wind of the Media Lab exchange at the June 2017 NextLibrary conference in Aarhus, Denmark, where she attended a session on PLIX led by Schmidt. His description of the food computer sparked her attention, she told LJ. “It was fascinating to me to think of an affordable way to grow food, and it…was a particularly compelling argument for us to be a partner with the PLIX folks.” ASCPL features number of food-centered initiatives including seed sharing, a farmer’s market, participation in a local food drive, and indoor gardens; the Green Branch Library throws a yearly pizza party with toppings made from its “pizza garden.” Hickson-Stevenson sat down with Schmidt and explained why the library would be a good fit for the project, and he agreed. Akron wasn’t a city the Media Lab had traditionally partnered with, Schmidt noted, but working with ASCPL has been one of its most “fun and productive” relationships. As soon as the library partners received the shipment of Food Computer components, the team dove in and tackled the project. “They figured it out themselves,” Schmidt told LJ. “There wasn't even documentation for libraries yet. They just went into the community forum of that project, asked questions, and went ahead and built their own food computer.” With a few conference calls between Akron and PLIX, library staff got the food computer up and running. “I'm not sure they even called on our own IT staff,” recalled Hickson-Stevenson. “They went through one or two trial runs back in the workroom…. But it is now out on the public floor and we have customers who like to stop by and see what's going on." So far the food computer has produced a lettuce crop, which turned out well—if not yet bountiful enough for a dinner. The team at ASCPL, however, took it on themselves to test their product, and gave it their approval. “I think the staff...felt that it was their duty to make sure that it tasted good," Hickson-Stevenson told LJ. While the library’s food computer isn’t large enough to feed a neighborhood, she hopes that it will spark interest within the community, and staff members have planned programming around it. “We're just really excited about the possibilities. It's cool to be selected to do something like that, and…I know the staff have really gotten a charge out of being involved in it and showing it off to the customers." In addition, Hickson-Stevenson would like the library’s work to be useful to Media Lab students. "The researchers will see a real life application—in our case in an urban library setting that is a food desert—and how what they do at a…theoretical level can actually carry through in real life, and hopefully have a positive impact on the lives of people." She added, “A public library growing food? Why not? We touch people's lives all the time. What a foundational need this is, to look at how we can improve people's access to fresh food." Starting small benefits everyone involved. While PLIX can only invest in a small number of projects to begin with because of the time investment required, Schmidt hopes to eventually reach many more libraries. The next stage for the partnerships will be a series of webinars for Media Lab researchers and librarians to discuss their projects, and where other libraries can ask questions and share their own stories. “It's really about building a community of people who are interested in taking some of these ideas and using them in their local libraries,” said Schmidt, “and sharing with each other what they're learning in the process, and supporting each other."
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