Annual Forum Highlights
More than 200 people from 80 member libraries of the Urban Libraries Council (ULC) gathered in Chicago in late June for the 2013 Annual Forum, an event focused on libraries at the center of learning. “Libraries lead learning,” ULC CEO and President Susan Benton said as she opened the forum. “We are the center of learning in our community. People rely on us at every age and every stage.” Executive Board Chair Joan M. Prince reinforced the theme, pointing out that those who visit the library expect more than books. They’re also looking for new technology, information on jobs and space to convene and create.
Keynote Presentation: Diana Rhoten
In her keynote address, Diana Rhoten, chief strategy officer of Amplify, hammered home this theme. She urged leaders to move away from the traditional thinking about the library as a quiet place to acquire books and instead embrace a “Youth(full) Library.” The dimensions of that approach include:
- Reimagine space to allow teens to hang out, move around, even lie down.
- Revise the types of experiences at the libraries, including contests, quests and costume parties featuring characters from books. She urged librarians to allow teens to lead activities or teach each other. And she cautioned that there will be noise.
- Provide experts and mentors, such as performance artists and education students, who can teach kids new skills.
- Rethink content and resources with an eye toward the type of genres that 21st century libraries should offer. The content shift should also include providing games, given the research that shows a connection between game playing and improvements in reading and writing.
Rhoten was particularly emphatic about providing games, saying that schools rarely have the time or capacity to allow students to learn this way. “I think the opportunity for libraries to do something is tremendous,” she said.
After Rhoten’s speech, participants broke into small groups to discuss what their libraries are doing to engage youth.
Connected Learning: Libraries and Communities
Connie Yowell, director of education at the MacArthur Foundation, led the next discussion on Connected Learning: Libraries and Communities. Yowell described how the foundation had shifted its focus from traditional school reform to institutions that can adapt more quickly and provide students what they need. “Libraries are one of the most adaptive, responsive partners in connected learning for kids,” Yowell said. She suggested that more federal money should flow to libraries for the work they do with youth.
Key to the connected learning approach is making sure that learning is relevant to students. That requires finding out what their interests are and providing the space for them to explore these interests. “We need to create spaces for kids to be with peers and let them hang out and mess around together as peers. Libraries are fundamentally wonderful hangout spaces.” They can also be sites of production and participation, as well as helping students cultivate online networks of information.
She urged libraries to provide:
- Mentors to help students develop their interests.
- Badges to mark the progress they’ve made.
- Pathways to improving skills and an understanding of how this progress can have a real payoff in higher education or career settings.
Yowell’s comments were followed by a discussion among three public library officials: Cleveland’s Buffy Hamilton, St. Paul’s Kit Hadley and Chicago’s Andrea Saenz.
Saenz described how the Learning Lab in the Chicago Public Library provides a great entry point for many youth who come to the library. Its maker space will include laser cutters and 3D printers. Hamilton told how the Cleveland Public Library is capturing the energy and optimism of the city.
Hadley described a robust partnership with the city’s recreation centers, which includes sharing data to see the impact and opportunities. “We’re trying to take steps to take a scattered, ad-hoc world for youth and make it more systematic,”
Shifting the Culture: Owning Learning in New Ways
After lunch, the conversation expanded beyond the world of libraries to explore approaches to learning in different organizations. Jane Werner, executive director of the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, described how her institution has created a maker space and joined with other community institutions to provide a continuum of experiences for young people. Her museum works with researchers from a local university to develop information on what sort of learning is happening. Martha Lavey, artistic director of the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, told how the theatre’s youth program helps mentor kids and develop their interests.
Pam Sandlian Smith, director of Anythink Libraries in the Rangeview Library District in Colorado, talked about “inventing experiences for learning.” In one instance, the facilities manager brought in some eggs, allowing patrons to watch chicks hatching. As many as 4,000 people showed up to see chicks, and gain new information.
Keynote Presentation: Milton Chen
The afternoon’s keynote speaker, Milton Chen, senior fellow and executive director emeritus of the George Lucas Educational Foundation, continued the theme of learning outside traditional venues.
Chen, who got his start working with Sesame Street, told how kids once watched four hours a day of television. That hasn’t changed much, but they spend another three hours a day in front of computer or mobile screens. “Our job is to cutback on the total screen time and devote more of it to learning,” Chen said.
He quoted William Butler Yeats as saying, “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire,” and asked the audience “What does it take to light the fire for every student?”
Libraries, he said, offer opportunities for “free choice learning,” a chance to explore their interests. They also provide a venue for students to learn from each other and work together. “In the past, that used to be called cheating.” He asked if libraries could become learning exchanges, where one person could teach a particular skill and learn one from someone else. “Let’s just realize we’re living in the age of the greatest expansion of the world’s knowledge,” he said.
Day 2 of the Annual Forum began with a State of ULC overview provided by Chair Joan Prince that included information on ULC programs, its strong membership and finances and a preview of the upcoming Partners Conference. The members then elected a new executive board, including the new chair, Melanie Huggins.
Melanie Huggins then announced the 2013 Top Innovators, adding that, “There’s not a library in this room that is not an innovative, ongoing learning library.”
The winners include:
- Learning: Howard County Library System (MD) HiTech: The Road to a STEM Career
- Civic and Community Engagement: Los Angeles Public Library (CA) Your Path to Citizenship Starts at the Los Angeles Public Library
- Collections: Nashville Public Library (TN) Limitless Libraries
- Customer Experience: Calgary Public Library (AB) Grow a Reader Early Literacy App
- Economic and Workforce Development: Saint Paul Public Library (MN) NorthStar Digital Literacy Project
- Health, Wellness and Safety: Pima County Public Library (AZ) Library Nurses Program
- Operations: New York and Brooklyn Public Libraries (NY) BookOps: Shared Library Technical Services
- Organizational Change and Strategic Management: San Francisco Public Library (CA) Community Impact through Renewed Engagement
- Positioning the Library: Free Library of Philadelphia (PA) Flying High: Library of Philadelphia Touches Down in the International Airport
- Sustainability: Sacramento Public Library (CA) Read and Feed: Partnerships for Building Healthy Communities
A new category, Serving Communities in Crisis, had three winners:
- Johnson County Library (KS) A Conversation about Sandy Hook
- Queens Library (NY) Queens Library Responds to Hurricane Sandy
- Poudre River Public Library District (CO) Libraries as First Responders
In addition, ULC presented the Urban Player Award to Susan Adkins, board member of The Seattle Public Library Foundation (WA) and the Joey Rodger Leadership Award to Corinne Hill, executive director of Chattanooga Public Library (TN).
It Takes a Village: Community Approaches to Learning
The membership meeting was followed by a lively discussion about how libraries can work across the community to enhance learning, particularly in the early years and the summer months.
Susan Hildreth, director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), discussed the organization’s partnership with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading (GLR), which is working in 134 communities across the country to increase the number of low-income children who read proficiently by the end of third grade. IMLS released a report last month, Growing Young Minds, which highlights strategies and promising practices to improve early literacy.
Ralph Smith, managing director of the GLR Campaign, acknowledged the role that libraries play in this work. “Schools are not going to be able to do it alone, and the rest of us have to get off the sidelines and into the game and help kids,.” he said. “This is the work that libraries have been doing for a very long time. The question is if we can do it more intentionally and more strategically.”
He urged libraries to take advantage of the “uncontested space” summer affords for working with children and to rebrand summer, “not as vacation, but as an opportunity for nutrition, fitness, learning and service.”
Gary Huggins, CEO of the National Summer Learning Association, stressed that low-income children lose two to three months of reading skills over the summer and said libraries can help stop that summer slide.
As the panel discussion ended, Hildreth shared the news that IMLS was entering two partnerships with other federal agencies:
- An agreement with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will support the role libraries play in helping immigrants gain citizenship.
- An agreement with the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services will ensure that libraries are provided the information needed to secure health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.
The members then broke into smaller discussion groups, prior to adjourning the Annual Forum.