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Public Libraries Transform: Edutainment or New Modes of Learning?

September 4, 2012

By Brenda Taylor

Image copyright, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

Yesterday I began reading The Evolution of Library and Museum Partnerships: Historical Antecedents, Contemporary Manifestations, and Future Directions (Dilevko, Juris and Lisa Gottlieb. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2012). In Chapter 2 (“Museums, Libraries and Postobject Roles”) the authors say that libraries and museums are transforming themselves into “edutainment” venues in an effort to attract people and revenue. “To be sure, libraries have a long tradition of both adult and children’s programming, but in the postobject world, library activities are selected with an eye toward showcasing an institution’s “entertainment value.” In the long run, there is a good chance that the notion of entertainment value will, quite simply, become the library’s raison d’être.” (p.26 of ELMP)

Is this true? Are libraries desperately offering entertainment in order to bring in the bodies and the money? Or are they providing new and enjoyable ways of learning and creating?

I’ve been part of the library world for more than 10 years and have been researching trends in public libraries for the past six months or so. From the evidence I’ve seen, I do not think that public libraries are becoming edutainment centers. Yes, libraries are transforming themselves, but their aim, as always, is to serve their clients’ and their communities’ knowledge needs. Those needs have changed and expanded with the burgeoning of new technologies and collaborative/participatory media, and the disintermediation of cultural production. Public libraries are providing access to information via more platforms (paper, ebook, web), and they are redesigning their spaces and programmes to make it easier for their patrons to access multiple types of information, collaborate with others and create new knowledge. None of this strikes me as “edutainment.” Especially exciting are the initiatives that engage children and youth in exploring the creative arts and the sciences. I’ve provided a few examples below – judge for yourselves and let us know what you think!

Chicago Public Library: YOUmedia

“YOUmedia is an innovative, 21st century teen learning space housed at the Chicago Public Library’s downtown Harold Washington Library Center. YOUmedia was created to connect young adults, books, media, mentors, and institutions throughout the city of Chicago in one dynamic space designed to inspire collaboration and creativity.”

This 5500 sq. ft. space in the downtown branch of the Chicago Public Library provides teens with access to laptops, video games, wii, a recording studio, a performance space, and the ability to borrow digital equipment for personal use [information from TEDxRainier talk cited below]. As Chrystie Hill, director of community services for the OCLC’s WebJunction, a learning community for public library staff, says in her moving TEDxRainier talk, “in this library, the skills required to participate in a digital age as a worker, or as a citizen – things like generating content and critiquing it, not just consuming it – are not only valued, they’re actually instilled.” [“Libraries Present and Future,” TEDxRanier 2010, http://tedxrainier.com/2/speaker_hill.asp]

Skipton Public Library (England): Library Songwriters – Skipton Rewind Club

“‘Library Songwriters: Skipton Rewind Club’, offers teenagers the chance to meet with library staff and a youth worker to develop their song writing skills, using the library as a cultural centre. However, with hard work and dedication from all of those involved, it has done much more than that. The project has encouraged continued engagement with the public library, curbing the decline that usually occurs when children enter secondary education. But song writing and library use is only part of the story. Skipton Rewind Club provides youngsters with a safe space to build their confidence and friendships and through developing and delivering their own events, the teenagers learn vital transferable skills that will help them in an increasingly competitive jobs market.” [from “Libraries hit a high note”, CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals),
Chartered Institute of Library and Information
Professionals Chartered Institute of
Library and Information,
Professionals, 26/06/2012

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh: The Labs

“The Labs is Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s digital media lab – a free space for teenagers to geek out at the Library! If you’ve ever wanted to make a movie, learn photography or create your own music, this is your chance. You can do all that and more at your local learning lab!” … “A Digital Media Lab is a place full of computers and other technology where people are encouraged to learn and create. The Labs is a free space and available to our teen library users. You can drop by to learn from one of our Labs mentors – experts in various forms of digital media and expression, or just mess around with the equipment and learn on your own terms.” http://www.carnegielibrary.org/teens/events/programs/thelabs/ [see also “The Labs @ Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh: QuickFLIX Workshops and Contest,” an article describing The Labs’ most recent program, at the wonderful The Library as Incubator Project blog http://www.libraryasincubatorproject.org/?p=5975]

Queen’s Borough Public Library (New York City): Children’s Library Discovery Center

“The Children’s Library Discovery Center which is now open includes hands-on interactive exhibits and learning labs to enable children ages 3-12 to find information and to inspire interest in books, reading, and learning while discovering the joy of scientific exploration.”

Image copyright, Queens Borough Public Library

This 14,000 sq. ft. center provides a colourful, interesting mix of books, exhibits, and activities aimed at engaging children in learning about math, science, engineering, and technology. “In addition, it is a multi-lingual learning environment with resources for school work, pleasure reading and lifelong learning. Children can learn about the geography, history, and culture of the places from which they come.” http://www.queenslibraryfoundation.org/site/PageServer?pagename=qlfbrand_cldc

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Ngaire Blankenberg

About The Author

Ngaire Blankenberg is internationally recognized for her work planning innovative cultural spaces. As European Director and Principal Consultant at Lord Cultural Resources, Ngaire advises the private sector, governments and museums throughout the world on ways to develop their cultural assets for public benefit.

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The views and opinions expressed by the contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lord Cultural Resources and its affiliates or subsidiary companies. Any reviews or critiques offered on products or services have not been paid for and are the opinion only of their author.