When Megan Lotts sat down to work with LEGO bricks for the first time at the March 2014 i2c2 Conference in Manchester, UK, more clicked for her than just the plastic bricks. Once she returned from the conference, Lotts—arts librarian on the research and instructional services library faculty at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ—sourced 150 pounds of discarded LEGO bricks and installed a LEGO station at the Rutgers Arts Library. There, for the past two years, students and faculty have gathered to work through logistical problems, de-stress, and simply play. Lotts offers LEGO workshops, uses LEGO bricks in course assignments, and has taken a sabbatical to bring them on a 6,000-mile road trip to universities across the country to demonstrate the Making power—and the joy—LEGO bricks can bring to an academic library.
LJ: How did you get interested in LEGO to begin with?
Megan Lotts: I was invited to present a paper at i2c2…about Making and Maker spaces. I got to the conference and they asked me, “Do you want to be part of the LEGO workshop?” I [said], “I don’t know what that means,” and they said, “Do you like to have fun?” I spent the next two hours playing with LEGO [bricks], solving problems with about 25 other people from different countries. The whole rest of the trip…I couldn’t stop thinking about those darn LEGO [bricks].
My significant other work[s] for a very large international junk-removal company, and I called him and said, “Listen, do you think you could get your hands on some LEGO [bricks]?” Within about two weeks he brought me home 150 pounds of LEGO [bricks] that nobody wanted.
One of the facilitators at the i2c2 Conference gave me all her information [about] LEGO Serious Play, which this is based off of. I started running some workshops here with our faculty and staff, and then I thought: there’s more to this—how people were learning, and the things that people were saying after these workshops. Big university libraries like Rutgers, it’s hard to not be siloed. This was finally a way to bring people together, and they were laughing and having fun. I was working with a student that summer, and I said, “Let’s just put some LEGO [bricks] in the middle of the library and see what happens.”
And here we are, two and a half years later, about 45 outreach projects later, I’ve written three papers, the chapter [“Legos in the Library,” chapter 11 in The Maker Librarian’s Sourcebook, upcoming from American Library Association, fall 2016]. It’s just blown up.
What do your workshops involve?
A typical workshop is about an hour and a half long. The first project is to create a model about yourself, who you are. That warms them up. And then when they start to think a little more conceptually, [I say], “Tell me about an issue that you’re dealing with at work, or what’s the best thing about your library.” But the hardest challenge…is the third. They have to create a model about a challenge that they’re [facing] in their workplace. I tell them they may only use 15 LEGO [bricks] for this particular challenge, and they find their 15 LEGO [bricks]—they have a minute to do it—and then right before they start working, I make them all hand their LEGO [bricks] to the person to their right. Half the time some people will even already have started. People then start to think about this notion: you’re passing your skill set to the right. How is that different from any committee that you’ve ever chaired, or any workshop that you’ve ever been to? You don’t know who’s at that table. You can’t possibly know someone else’s skill set. You figure out how to make it work for you. The final project they do is a group project.
Was it difficult to get buy-in from your administration for this kind of program, or were they on board with the idea from the beginning?
You know, I don’t know that they ever really were, per se. I just started doing this, I had the materials myself. I certainly have gotten a lot of naysayers saying this isn’t serious research. But now that I’ve had…papers come out, and I presented at 20 or 30 cities last year, people hear about what I’ve been up to they [say], “Tell me more—can you come to my school? How can you help us make this happen?”
I think what’s really attractive and interesting about these projects is I’ve done something for little to no money, and I’ve made an enormous impact. That’s something that’s fascinating [to people]—what else could we do with crowdsourcing materials? What else do we have lying around the library or in somebody’s attic that they don’t want? I want people to be innovative in their own work as a librarian, as a teacher, as a faculty member.
How do LEGO bricks help students and faculty in practice? How do they help the library?
I did a really interesting workshop with the Rutgers academic coaches. They were having issues connecting with their students, and we basically spent two hours playing with LEGO [bricks], talking about what’s possible in the library. At the end we created a set of posters that they’d be able to put in their cubbies and cubicles about the library, so they could be a starting point or kind of an icebreaker for some of their students. I think part of working with the LEGO [bricks] is the mindset that it gets you into, thinking creatively, and suddenly you’re having fun and you forgot you’re actually doing work. That’s when the magic happens.
We do stressbusters every semester, like most libraries do, and I finally said to someone one day, “you know, I don’t know about anybody else, but I am just as stressed as these students.” So we decided to have a stressbusters event [for faculty] over spring break. We got candy and cookies and put the LEGO [bricks] out, and about 60, 70 library faculty and staff showed up, and the models that they created were incredible. I thought that was an interesting in-house way to say, “Take a break. Come chill out. Talk to your colleagues. Make something together, or eat a cookie and watch someone else make something.”
This is what libraries really want. We want to engage. For me the LEGO [bricks] have been brilliant because they’re the same skills that we use when we research—[they’re] creative thinking skills, problem solving skills. And I find that now my students are honing these with the LEGO [bricks] they’re more prepared to search for library resources.
When I’m working with students I teach them what’s possible in the library, how to find us, how to contact us, and then we can figure out what they really need. I think it’s important with those freshman students, because they’re going to spend four years here. Those kids—they know me, they know I have candy in my office, they know I have Kleenex in my office. One of those two is going to serve them well. Sometimes both.
I love what I do. I’m a people person, I have good outreach skills, and I want people to understand the value of what we’re doing here. And why we’re relevant. Why you need us. Because I’m tired of hearing, “Oh, Google—we don’t need librarians.” You need us more than ever now.
What kinds of outreach have you done for the program?
I was on sabbatical this time last year, and [my partner and I] loaded up our little Ford Escape with a hundred pounds of LEGO [bricks] and our two dogs, and traveled around to 19 schools and did 20 workshops—all major public research universities—and just shared this with people.
These [LEGO bricks] travel, and that’s also an important thing—as an academic librarian I’m part of an enormous community in New Brunswick, and we’re not just for academics. We’re a public university. Anybody can come to us.
I get people all the time saying “We want to do it! How do we do it?” I just tell them, “All you really need is a shoebox full of LEGO [bricks] and some people. The more LEGO [bricks] you have, the grander you can make it. But it doesn’t need to be much.”
What are some other projects academic libraries are doing with LEGO bricks?
At Virginia Commonwealth University, they use LEGO [bricks] for their open access week. They used them to get people to think about reuse, remix, building on, and those concepts—I thought that was a brilliant way to get people to think about it.
MIT has a [LEGO] replica of Kendall Square and they project data on it so they can understand how to have better roads, how that physical space works. Rhode Island School of Design had an incredible project they did a year or two ago. They wanted people to start thinking about play and praxis and theory.
Are children welcome to come in and play at the LEGO station?
We have lots of events that have invited kids, specifically the Maker space events. The whole state of New Jersey did the first Maker Day a year or so ago, and one of the parents’ comments to me was, “You were the only person who had things that little kids could actually do.” These little kids were laughing so hard, and then crying leaving the Art Library because they were having so much fun. And you know, this is retention at its finest. All you need is some little kid to be in that library saying, “When I go to Rutgers someday…”
In the summer months the faculty members that have their kids all summer just schlep them over to the table and let them be. We’ve had two or three people call about birthday parties, but no one ever came after we explained that we’re a library and it wouldn’t be appropriate to have soda and pizza.
What if somebody wants to donate some LEGO [bricks] to your library?
Send me an email.