I was recently able to represent ALSC at the Public Libraries & STEM Conference in Denver, CO. The conference was kept very small–around 160 people total–and thus was very concentrated, with plenty to learn from and discuss with colleagues from libraries, STEM organizations, and other institutions with missions for informal learning. And while the small size necessary means that the participant pool was limited, the takeaways weren’t. I particularly want to share with you one of my major takeaways: the library as a single element in a larger learning ecosystem.
Note: I tried visual note taking at this conference. Since my handwriting isn’t always great, I’m transcribing text in the captions of images.
Here’s what I learned and have been itching to share:
There were several goals of the Public Libraries & STEM Conference, but one in particular resonated with me immediately: to figure out what STEM/STEAM in public libraries could/should look like in our age of technology and innovation. What is the library’s role now, and what should it be? It’s within our collective power to create a framework for STEM in public libraries.
That said, while we, libraries, can certainly make some decisions and create some practices around this (or any other) topic, it’s imperative that we recognize that we are NOT the only institutions with a vested interest in STEM learning and experiences. Yet if we think of ourselves as wholly separate from other organizations even when they possess similar goals to our own, we’re muddying the waters. Or, rather, as Marsha Semmel (formerly at IMLS) shared from an organization called FSG, each individual organization is moving in its own direction. It’s a little bit of chaos, no matter how well intentioned. But when we collaborate, however–and this is meaningful collaboration, in which we set a common goal and common pathways to achieve it–we can actually accomplish meaningful progress and change.
An integral part of meaningful collaboration: trust, said Marsha Semmel. If we observe together, learn together, and act together out of a trust that we truly are working toward a shared goal, we can accomplish transformative change much more quickly than independently, or even working parallel to one another.
Part of developing that trust is recognizing that we as libraries are a single aspect of a larger learning ecosystem. When it comes to STEM learning for youth, we fit into a larger puzzle of groups and individuals supporting students. Ellen Lettvin, of the U.S. Department of Education, emphasized some of those other players in this ecosystem, including students’ families; their schools; their out-of-school programs and activities; community businesses; institutions of higher education; and STEM-rich institutions, of which libraries may be one.
Why do we need to recognize that we’re part of a larger learning ecosystem? John Falk, from Oregon State University, has researched this very topic, and has oodles of evidence supporting the fact that all of those experiences that youth–any age person, really–have out of formal school contexts are more and more important to overall STEM learning. Schooling isn’t sufficient in and of itself.
That’s because, says Falk, learning is continuous and cumulative. It happens all the time, and it constantly builds on what a learner already knows. There is no place or situation that is not ripe for learning. As such, if the library is a place people spend time, the library is necessarily a learning place.
Now, we know this. We know that libraries are institutions of learning. But in what capacity? Are we mostly places of individual discovery? Of information support? What if we really embraced that concept of library as learning place to its fullest extent and intentionally and proactively support the public who use us? We could be intentional hubs and hosts of STEM learning–or, truly, any type of learning that our communities need.
David Lankes, from Syracuse University, was careful to emphasize, however, that our being hubs and hosts of STEM learning does NOT necessitate that we ourselves be the be-all, end-all experts. Should you tap staff expertise and interests in creating STEM programs and services? Absolutely. But remember that whole bit about collaboration for collective impact? Here’s where it really comes in. There’s a very legitimate school of thought that says that libraries’ best role in supporting STEM learning, across the board, is to meaningfully collaborate with organizations who are unequivocal experts in STEM so that we can connect our patrons directly to the experts. We are mediators, introducers. That makes our capacity so much greater than it could ever be on our own.
This sentiment was echoed by Sharon Cox, from the Queens Library Discovery Center. It’s an entire library dedicated to children’s STEM learning and exploration, and even with that mission, focus, and staff expertise, they add huge value to what they are able to bring to their community through partnership with organizations who are expert in STEM and whose goals align with the library’s. As libraries, we’ve always thought of ourselves as the people who connect our public to the resources they need. This type of collaboration means that the definition of “resources” our public requires may very well include organizations other than our own.
Or, in other words, we continue to do what we do best and then connect our patrons to the rest of what they way. That was the overarching sentiment from Lee Rainie from Pew Research Center–that libraries are strongest not because they can do everything, but because they can connect you to people and organizations who can.
So if we’re deliberately not doing everything, and we’re also going to best support our patrons’ STEM learning through collaborating with expert STEM learning organizations, how do we collaborate? Dale Creedy, who works at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and is a collaborator with the Free Library of Philadelphia to offer a LEAP into Science program, says that the first step in cultivating collaboration is to reach out to other organizations and straight up have a conversation. Your intent: to identify what, if any, are your shared interests and goals. If you determine that you don’t have sufficient shared interests/goals to merit the time and resources that would go into a formal collaboration, it’s no real loss–you now know more about the organization and can better identify when to direct your patrons to them. But if you do have sufficient overlaps in your interests and goals, the foundation is primed for you to work together. Now you can shift your conversation to what, specifically, your shared goal is, and how you might reach it together.
This type of conversation can actually be a little clumsy for libraries. We tend to think in terms of the library being the sole solver of a problem, rather than just one player in a larger solution–that’s according to Miguel Figueroa from the Center for the Future of Libraries at ALA. Collective impact necessitates that libraries be part of a collective solution, which may require a bit of a mindset shift.
So what to do to enact that mindset shift, to form those meaningful collaborations? Dr. Scott Sampson, Vice President of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (and also Dr. Scott the Paleontologist from Dinosaur Train), gave some suggestions in the form of a few progressively-more-involved strategies. Starting small, figure out how to bring people to libraries, and vice versa–that is, how to bring libraries to people. Where are the people in your community who do not come to the library? What spaces do they tend to use? Figure out collaborations with those places to bring the library to them.
Next in the spectrum is re-envisioning the library with the input of the community. We tend to get into a library echo chamber and create new programs and services based on what other libraries are doing or what we think would be appealing to the community. But that’s not the same thing as asking the community what they need the library to be. It could be through surveys, focus groups, inviting a cultural organization to the space… the possibilities are endless, and the results fruitful.
Last on that spectrum is actively participate in a robust learning ecosystem. Sound familiar? It should, and the concept is repeated here because it is so important. When we work on our own, we are limited to reaching the people we personally serve. But when we are part of a larger ecosystem, however, we not only draw on the strengths of fellow elements in the ecosystem but we draw from the people they reach as well. Maybe a person child will just never come to the library; that’s just the reality of their life. But they do go to school and out-of-school activities. So if the library is part of a learning ecosystem that includes that school and those activities–if we collaborate with them–we do reach that child in a fundamental way.
Dr. Sampson’s best suggestion for a model for collaboration comes from the Heart of Brooklyn, a cultural partnership involving the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Brooklyn Children’s Museum, Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn Public Library, Prospect Park, and Prospect Park Zoo. Their method: Install a collaboration team whose first task is to find a common goal that al of the partners can get behind. Then listen to the community; is your goal their goal, too? From there, the partners and the community can generate ideas for collaborative programs and services–these should be in play with one another, building off one another, not simply a list of isolated programs that take place at isolated institutions. With those ideas in mind, it’s time for the collaboration team to prioritize and implement select programs. Obviously there will also need to be some evaluative piece after this implementation, but that’s a bit beyond the main takeaway of this post: collaboration.
And collaboration is vital for transformative, dynamic support of STEM learning by libraries. Yet many of the smart people at this conference indicated that, right now, collaboration–and the vision of collective impact that can inspire and support it–is in short supply. We need to recognize that libraries need not go it alone when it comes to supporting STEM. That is not to say that we shouldn’t invest in doing some STEM programing and providing relevant services ourselves; it is just to say that we can do so much more when we collaborate with others who also aim to support the STEM learning of our communities.
That vision of what we can do together is huge.
The collective impact we can have when we collaborate meaningfully is massive.
And what, after all, is our overall goal as libraries if not to support our communities in transforming their lives?