Why Libraries Are More Important Now Than Ever

It’s almost 4 p.m. on a November Monday, and a very un-library-like scene is unfolding inside Chicago’s Harold Washington Library teen center.

Rap and pop music bump from a set of speakers, as teenagers released from schools around the city funnel into the center and settle in for the afternoon. Some gather around the TV to play the newest NBA video game; others spread out to utilize the center’s vast resources.

At one table, an aspiring fashion designer learns how to use the sewing machine from a library mentor; at another two teens are studying.

Inside the same music studio where Chance the Rapper got his start, another student is learning how to podcast. Throughout, teens are laughing, chowing down on cookies or, simply, hanging out.

In most libraries, this type of behavior would be met with a derisive, “Shhh!” But here, at the YOUmedia center inside Chicago’s flagship library branch and at 12 other YOUmedia branches around the city, it’s encouraged. This center, Chicago Public Library commissioner Brian Bannon believes, is part of the future of libraries.

“What we’re trying to do in this space is to help teens—and all people in our community—be exposed to the rich information of our day, so we can support them, and grow our community and economy,” Bannon said. “We’re creating a space to capture their imaginations that they don’t come across in educational spaces.”

Chicago Public Library partnered with the MacArthur Foundation to launch YOUmedia in 2009 as a way to engage teenagers at the library. The space is equipped with a music studio, digital cameras, 3-D printers, loads of computers and, of course, books. It’s all self-driven, but there’s a staff of mentors and librarians ready to help.

The loose atmosphere is based on University of California, Irvine professor Mizuko (Mimi) Ito’s study that found teens engage with digital media by “hanging out,” “messing around” and “geeking out,” as she puts it. Teens can “hang out” at the center by playing games or relaxing, but mentors are there to help them “mess around” or learn how to use new tech and gadgets, and “geek out” or dive deeper into passionate projects, like music production, designing a float or writing poetry.

“I’m glad (the library) has something like this. It’s inspiring,” said 19-year-old Kalon McClelland, who aspires to be a fashion designer. “It gives me hope that I can do greater things, because they give me the tools right there where I can craft my greater things.”

As a result, the library has grown in popularity among teens, with 45,619 visitors to the YOUmedia center in 2016, according to CPL statistics. The library system even doubled-down with a 3-D printer and design section for adults called the Maker Lab. It’s cultivating a new generation of library goers.

Read the full article at SDPB Radio

image//YOUmedia Chicago flickr





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