An Exchange Program for Public Librarians

ML Learning Initiative

By Helen Bailey and Katherine McConachie

Media Lab researchers are teaming up with public librarians to design new projects and programs for libraries

Here at the MIT Media Lab, we are *big* fans of public libraries.

Which is why we’ve recently announced the Public Library Innovation Exchange (PLIX). This project, run by the ML Learning Initiative and supported by the Knight Foundation, aims to foster a community of collaborative innovation—where librarians and Media Lab researchers work together to identify community challenges, dream up new ways to address them, and create easy-to-use programs that offer public libraries new ways to support their patrons.

We have found that bringing librarians and Media Lab researchers together face-to-face is an important first-step to build trust and collaboration. That’s why a core component of PLIX is a series of residency exchanges, where public librarians and Media Lab researchers team up to work on a project together. This format allows us to spend time in the other’s context and to better understand how we can collaborate and how our different institutions work.

Today, we are very excited to announce our first cohort of five residency exchange teams, with Media Lab researchers from five different research groups and librarians from Akron, Boston, Cambridge, Charlotte, Columbia, Philadelphia, and St. Paul.

The first visit of these residency exchanges happened in January, when we welcomed Jordan Morris and Cecil Decker—two librarians from Richland Library in Columbia, South Carolina—to the Media Lab. They’ve teamed up with Media Lab graduate student Kreg Hanning to design hands-on workshops to engage young library patrons in physical tinkering.

At the Media Lab, Kreg is a member of the Lifelong Kindergarten (LLK) research group and Scratch team. Scratch, a visual programming language and online community for kids, embodies the LLK mission to design systems that support creative learning through play. Kreg’s research, in particular, has been focused on designing tools that create bridges between creativity on the screen and in the physical world—using something called Scratch extensions. At Richland Library, Jordan and Cecil coordinate and offer programming in the makerspaces at the library’s main downtown location—helping any patron bring their ideas to life with making and technology.

Together, this team is building on their collective experience to design workshop activities that introduce tinkering with physical electronics to novice programmers, using Scratch extensions and basic materials, like micro:bits and craft supplies. These workshops are being designed specifically for the context of a public library, and have the goal of introducing more young people to electronics as a medium for creative expression.

While the team was together at the Media Lab, they refined their initial designs for a workshop and playtested it with a group of local educators and other invited participants. Much fun and creativity ensued, and participants constructed a wide range of projects, from interactive gnome gardens to a conductive catch game!

Jordan and Cecil will be running the next iterations of the workshop with their community in Columbia over the coming weeks, and Kreg will be visiting them in late March to further refine the workshop format in the context of their library.

Introducing the PLIX Residency Exchange Teams

Over the next few months, similar collaborations will be happening between our five residency exchange teams—and we can’t wait to see what they come up with.

Scratch Extensions and Richland Library

As detailed above, Kreg Hanning, from the Lifelong Kindergarten group, and Jordan Morris and Cecil Decker, from Richland Library in Columbia, South Carolina are teaming up to design physical tinkering workshops for library makerspaces using Scratch extensions and micro:bits.

Playful Words and Boston Public Library

The Playful Words team from the Media Lab’s Laboratory for Social Machines is working with Boston Public Library to better understand ways that SpeechBlocks and other playfulliteracy tools can be integrated into storytime with children and families. and Saint Paul Public Library is a suite of simple tools and activities that make it easy to work with data in fun ways, so people can learn how to find great stories to tell with data. Rahul Bhargava, one of the co-creators, is collaborating with Saint Paul Public Library to experiment with incorporating these data literacy resources into existing library programming.

OpenAg, Akron-Summit County Public Library, and Free Library of Philadelphia

The MIT Open Agriculture initiative is collaborating with the Akron-Summit County Public Library and the Free Library of Philadelphia, to build MVP 1.0 Food Computers and co-design and test user-friendly workshop and activity materials in support of existing food and agriculture initiatives at each library.

Space Exploration Initiative, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, and Cambridge Public Library

We’re also exploring an exchange between the Media Lab’s Space Exploration Initiative, Cambridge Public Library, and Charlotte Mecklenburg Library. This team is hoping to build on STEM and climate-related outreach programs that the Space Initiative has been piloting with Boston-area youth. Together, they aim to create materials and workshops for libraries to engage community members with space exploration technologies and STEM learning. The details of this residency exchange are still in development, so stay tuned for updates!

Sharing and building on the outcomes of these exchanges

In addition to organizing this set of residency exchanges, the PLIX project will support the documentation of projects that are being co-developed through these collaborations. Facilitation guides and materials that make it easy for these activities to be used by other libraries will be available on our website. We also plan to run a series of online events to connect interested public librarians with our team, Media Lab researchers, and each other!

Our hope is that these projects are exciting to librarians and patrons in public libraries across the country (and world), and we aim to support a community of librarians who are adapting these programs to the interests and needs of their local communities. We are also excited that these collaborations with libraries offer the Media Lab a better way to connect with communities we may not otherwise reach.

This post also appeared on Medium.

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