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Libraries Create New Learning and Engagement Opportunities - Case Study

Many public libraries are leading the way in transforming how the library serves the community and the community interacts with the library and one another. The following case examples show how some top innovators are putting the resources of the library and expertise of librarians together to create exciting new learning and engagement opportunities for people of all ages in their communities.

The Calgary Public Library’s Grow a Reader app takes the fun, interactive contents from popular early childhood literacy programs and delivers it to parents via their mobile devices. Parents who aren’t able to attend programs with their toddlers can use the app to try out literacy skills and behaviors at home. Grow a Reader, which was designed by the library’s Virtual Services and Children, Teens and Families departments with involvement of a video production company and an app developer, features 35 videos starring 10 library children services staff. The app can be updated easily by library staff so that vendors aren’t needed on an ongoing basis. Calgary has a rapidly growing population and an ongoing “baby boom.” In less than two months, the Grow a Reader app was downloaded 1,200 times. It has also made some library staff popular stars among young readers. One toddler seemed mesmerized by his teacher during a parent-child Mother Goose session because, his mother said, he enjoys watching the videos on mom’s phone and recognized one of the library stars!*

Chattanooga, Tennessee is a mid-sized city that was the most industrialized location in the U.S. South and as result was designated the “dirtiest city in America” in the 1960s. Since then, building on what it sees as a history of innovation and a comparatively well-functioning civic culture, the city’s public and private leadership have worked hard to revive the city.

From 2009 through 2011, Chattanooga’s municipally owned electric utility built out the first full gigabit network in the U.S. The city’s mayor, Ron Littlefield, Chamber of Commerce leaders and executives of local foundations took this as an opportunity to redefine the image of the city as GigCity – a post-industrial hot spot. Given his background as an urban planner and economic development director, Mayor Littlefield emphasized entrepreneurship and the knowledge economy, built on the foundation of the gigabit network.

As this was going on, the Mayor realized that the public library was not fulfilling the role it could in this new knowledge economy. He worked with the board of the library and especially one of its members, Tom Griscom, to make necessary changes. Griscom was the publisher and executive editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press until 2010. He saw the dramatic changes that technology and the Internet had wrought on his industry and was determined that the public library would flourish in the face of the challenges the digital age posed to its role in the community.

Littlefield and Griscom had a series of library board meetings focused on the future of libraries and the city. One result of those discussions was the appointment of Corinne Hill as head of the library in 2012. Hill and her team began to convert this old institution into a GigLibrary.

What had been a poorly used space in the main library, its fourth floor, was converted into a location for entrepreneurs, innovators, techies and other creative members of the community to share ideas and build businesses. In 2013, the library hosted an event on 3D printing and other technologies that attracted more than 1,200 people. The fourth floor then became a “gig-powered” maker space. The city’s GigTank Demo day was also streamed live from the fourth floor and included the work of digital artists who used the library as their creative studio.

These efforts have made the library essential to the future movers and shakers of 21st century Chattanooga, who previously hadn’t thought of the library as an institution that was even relevant to them.  —NORMAN JACKNIS

The Howard County Library System’s HiTech digital media lab is designed to open doors and opportunities to the region’s teens. HiTech delivers cutting-edge science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education using hands-on technology projects, experiential learning and peer-to-peer communications. Envisioned as a launching point for the STEM career pipeline, HiTech focuses on producing the next generation of scientists, mathematicians and engineers to meet the needs of the region’s highly- skilled job market. The curriculum includes both self-paced and structured learning opportunities divided into four modules that emphasize interaction, improvisation, invention and instruction. The HiTech Academy component focuses on teens who are interested in pursuing higher education in science, technology, engineering or math by providing instruction, site visits to STEM work environments and attendance at college-sponsored STEM sites.

Since HiTech’s launch, more than 2,000 teens have participated in a wide range of classes, created a mobile game that was released in 2013 and has been downloaded 5,000 times around the world, and worked on the library’s Choose Civility e-book featuring their own stories and photos.*

Healthy L.I.F.E. is the Houston Public Library’s (HPL) health-based literacy initiative designed to empower and equip families with information, resources and tools needed for healthy living.

With 66 percent of adults and 34 percent of youth in the Houston area overweight or obese and one in five Harris County adults lacking basic literacy skills, the library leveraged its status as a trusted learning resource to tackle a significant community health education challenge through a family-learning model. Healthy L.I.F.E. offers regularly-scheduled events to help parents and children learn together about healthy lifestyles, stress-free living, school success and healthy eating while also getting access to free community resources that support better health. The events are held at branches that serve low-income populations, have positive relationships with schools and community groups, and experience high-demand for and interest in family-centered programming.

Since its creation, more than 50 agencies have worked with the library to contribute information, resources, and services to more than 3,100 families including 50,000 pounds of fresh food distributed to needy families by the Houston Food Bank, along with 3,000 nutrition and fitness books and DVDs. Among participating families surveyed, 80 percent have committed to changing their lifestyles and improving their own healthy-living behaviors.*

The San Francisco Public Library initiated a comprehensive team-driven research process to renew and refresh community connections in five city neighborhoods. The process combined the library’s award-winning GenPL emerging leaders program with its commitment to forging deep and sustained community impact. The emerging leaders, who come from all parts of the library system (pages, librarians, paraprofessionals, security staff, custodians), brought broad thinking and new perspectives to the effort. From walks in the neighborhoods, to ride-alongs with police, to interviews with community members, the teams spent three months gathering data and then presented their findings to community members and library staff in their assigned service area.

The recommendations, some of which are already in progress, ranged from branch-specific modifications to system-wide changes including:

  • A new Community Programs and Partnerships division that combines youth service and community engagement
  • A branding project to tie each branch to neighborhood identities
  • Enhanced service promotion with community agencies such as GED and English as a Second Language providers and local farmers’ markets
  • Multi-lingual library orientation programs and a multi-lingual, real-time reference service
  • Expanded off-site services including a technology bookmobile, pop-up libraries and classes in community agencies*

* ©Urban Libraries Council, Top Innovators. Edited and reprinted with permission.