Teenagers, libraries, digital media, and learning

digital media

Mentor-led digital lab at Howard County (Md.) Public Library

To many grownups, teenagers always seem to be goofing off with various electronic toys: cell phones, music players, game consoles, portable computers, and the like. Teenagers certainly consume a lot of digital media. Libraries are discovering that this same passion for digital technology can help develop creativity and critical thinking skills.

In November 2011, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, along with the Institute of Museum and Library Services, made grants of $100,000 to twelve museums and libraries across the country to develop digital learning laboratories for teenagers. They will announce another round of grants in November 2012.

Chicago Public Library’s YOUmedia

Chicago Public Library’s YOUmedia inspired the grant program. It is a special space where teenagers can use equipment provided by the library to create the same sorts of media that they consume. Creativity requires the development of certain skills.

Digital creativity, of course, requires digital skills. But creativity has always required a variety of intellectual, social, and emotional disciplines. The electronic age has not changed that fact at all.

It doesn’t work to plan a new program for a particular constituency and then dictate how it has to work. Development of YOUmedia has required some cultural adjustments. The YOUmedia space cannot enforce traditional library rules about food and noise levels and at the same time maintain a vibrant community of teenagers.

The entire concept of YOUmedia also requires access to and participation of the entire library to make it work. It is not a place for segregating either teenagers or their interests and learning style.

Sooner or later, the library will shape the teenagers’ behavior, but the teenagers will shape the library’s culture at least as much. That will result in short term discomfort and long term continued relevancy for the library as a whole.

Over the years, YOUmedia has started numerous separate projects. Some of them have continued for quite a while. The center has issued a literary magazine for a year and a half and a gaming podcast for three years. The longest-lasting programs have all come from the teenagers’ initiative, not from the library staff.

The key to learning

All the institutions that received the IMLS/MacArthur grants visited Chicago’s YOUmedia to observe first hand how it worked. They spoke with numerous participants and noticed that none of them talked about the technology. Instead, they talked about their relationships with mentors.

What a concept! It’s too easy for the public, and perhaps even library administration, to see libraries as collections. Nearly everyone knows that libraries are more than collections of books. They house all kinds of things, including computers and a variety of other electronics.

It’s not necessary to have any one kind of thing in the collection to have a library. The only thing a library must have to be a library is librarians.

The Chicago Public Library librarians have recruited artists in various media to serve as mentors for teenagers interested in music, poetry, dance, film, gaming, etc. They have provided for these mentors to receive special training in working with teenagers both individually and in groups.

YOUmedia participants have also worked directly with local business people when a project demands it.

Now other libraries and museums have received grants to design their own programs and spaces for teenagers to use digital technology for learning and creativity. The first round of grantees include institutions from Philadelphia to San Francisco.

Perhaps someone will think to explore how technology and mentoring relationships can energize interest in more classical education–liberal arts and science–along with the trendiest aspects of popular culture.

Photo credit: Some rights reserved by Howard County Library System.
Source: Geek out: digital learning labs convert consumers into creators. / By Greg Landgraf. American Libraries (September 10, 2012)


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