February 16, 2018

OITP Hacks the Culture of Learning in the Library | ALA Annual 2015

Maker Space open house @ NYSCI Photo by Nick Normal

Maker Space open house @ NYSCI
Photo by Nick Normal

While the American Library Association (ALA) Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP) is largely concerned with policy on the legislative level, an OITP-sponsored program at ALA’s 2015 annual conference, Hacking the Culture of Learning in the Library, focused on what libraries themselves need to know to function as outside-the-school-walls learning zones. Moderator Christopher Harris, school library system director at Genesee Valley Educational Partnership and ALA OITP Fellow for Program on Youth and Technology Policy, began the interactive session by noting that public, school, and academic libraries have a great opportunity to frame a common theme to work around—Libraries Are Education—and set about exploring some of the issues at stake.

The session launched with Harris’s question, “What’s the deal with libraries and informal learning?” Panelists Erica Compton, project coordinator for the Idaho Commission for Libraries (ICL); Megan Egbert, youth services manager at Meridian Library District (MLD), ID; and Connie Williams, teacher librarian at Petaluma High School (PHS), CA; each weighed in from very different vantage points, but all shared the same message.

As trusted sources in every community, Compton said, libraries level the playing field. The instruction that children and teens receive during school hours is one component of their education, but “there is a huge amount of time out of school, out of formal education, that’s out there for us to take advantage of.” Egbert recalled a discussion during a training session devoted to story time for English language learners, about the “word gap”—the difference between the number of different words children from poor, middle-class, and affluent households hear in school, at home, and on TV. During the summer, those from well-off homes had access to “educational language” at camp, on trips to museums, and so forth; for low-income children, that need is often only filled by the library.

Williams echoed the sentiment. As a teacher librarian, she felt that the continuum from “short”—i.e. school—classroom to library classroom had the power to mirror what a rich home environment would look like, providing access to literature, museums, Maker spaces, and discussion. “So it’s not the short classroom and the large classroom,” she said, “it’s all one classroom.”


Borrowing a term from the startup world, Harris asked the panelists how they saw libraries meeting the need to pivot, to be flexible under pressure when it came to meeting educational needs—“When you run out of solutions, what can you do before it all goes up in flames?”

“We’ve had to pivot quite a bit,” said Egbert. MLD committed to three years of staff training for a Maker space—but as the program progressed, even though “it was really cool on paper,” the library system was unable to find the space to house it. This forced the system, she said, to embrace the Maker mentality further; without a dedicated location, MLD has adopted a variety of different Maker programs, one-on-one sessions, and collection components such as circulating Maker, Raspberry Pi, and Arduino kits. That way, Egbert explained, “You can let that curiosity fuel your education at home or at the library.” Another aspect of the pivot, said Williams, is the need to work with the differences between what public and school libraries can provide. In Petaluma, the town library collaborated with two high schools, providing “little things like making public library databases available by direct links to school libraries with a library card…. Things that seemed pretty basic, but in California we’re starting at the very bottom.”


In his district, Harris noted, the schools are better funded than the public libraries. However, both need to be provided for: “If we put out a national two-pronged approach, we can reach the most students and do the most good,” he said. But how can you show funders that learning is taking place?

Now in year three of its “Make it at the Library” program, ICL has learned a lot about the ins and outs of assessing Maker programs, said Compton. While the system had some good ideas, “Nothing has really worked well and that’s the honest truth.” But after speaking to people in the same position all over the country, Compton realized that it’s a challenge everywhere. How can libraries assess informal learning and Making, she wondered—especially in a library setting where there’s not consistent attendance? Library administration can see skill growth and teen participation, which is good, but they need qualitative information that they can work with to measure intangible results like the problem-solving skills known as “grit”—“Are they learning persistence, that they can fail and fail forward?” Accurate metrics for Maker programs will have to be developed over time, Compton believes, perhaps using video. Egbert, who also spoke of the way Making activities foster grit among children, will be piloting a system of self-evaluation at an upcoming Maker camp and beyond.

“I think we as a nation have to get over our assessment lust,” added Williams. Test scores are the bottom line of what’s considered valuable in the education world, she said, so if sending children to a public library Maker space can show a rise in scores, then that will be the assessment that people value. As far as “grit” is concerned, there is no consensus on what is considered assessable; funders need to know something more than how many kids show up.

Compton also stressed the need to be flexible in redefining and expanding learning outcomes. ICL will be piloting two school libraries this year, and is asking teacher librarians to work with classroom teachers to help them complete their common core requirements. “We can’t ask teachers to do more,” she said, “so what we need to do is find ways to provide support to them.” Williams pointed out that many classrooms can lend themselves to a learning commons approach without changing much infrastructure. “We’re not asking teachers to do more,” she said, “we’re asking teachers to do things differently.”


During the Q&A period, the issue that clearly concerned most audience members was how to do the most with minimal space and money. To that end, Compton spoke about the Children’s Innovation Project in the Pittsburgh, PA public schools. Many of the project’s components cost little and have turned out to be more powerful than expensive, technology-rich elements. “You can do unbelievable things with broken electronics and take-apart activities,” she said. The project, now in its sixth year, has developed kits for libraries made up of simple materials such as wooden circuit blocks.

If you do have money to spend, said Egbert, spend it on training rather than things—and not, she emphasized, training in the use of premade components such as 3-D printers, but in the design cycle as a whole: “Get past the Maker space into Maker mentality.” Part of securing funding, she added, is being able to show that the staff will benefit from it. At a recent Maker workshop Williams attended, she told the room, the first full day involved nothing but design thinking, design challenges, and discussions of ways to facilitate informal learning, which laid the foundation for the next few days of training. Focus on supporting staff, she said, not just giving them stuff, and make sure to have a plan in place for whatever equipment you do purchase.

The panel also addressed the need to provide access to STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) learning for women and underserved populations. If you’re trying to target an underserved group, cautioned Egbert, first look at your staff and make sure there is representation. If no members of that demographic among the staff are actively leading sessions, provide the necessary training to change that. “We don’t have to explicitly say, ‘look, this could be you,’” Egbert said, “but kids will make the connection.” She added that children tend to come with preconceptions of what they’re not good at, and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) disciplines can help them out of their comfort zones. Reaching underserved communities means moving out of the library itself, said Compton, suggesting that bookmobiles carry Maker kits. Panelists and audience alike agreed that tapping the community itself for experts to come in and work with children was a crucial resource. “Help kids discover they all have a tribe,” said Williams.

Harris concluded the session by asking the panelists what ALA OITP could do to help their various programs succeed. Egbert suggested that there needs to be a closer examination of the barriers built in to Maker culture. “Technology is scary for people because it’s unknown, so we develop these policies to protect children,” including parental permission policies, she explained. Williams said she would like to see OITP look at assessment tools that would enable libraries and schools to better work with funders. Compton agreed on both notes, with the caveat, “I hate policy.”

Everyone present, however, agreed on the need to keep Maker programming fluid and available to all. “What we’re talking about in hacking culture is cultivating deep passion for learning,” Harris said—“helping teachers, parents, and students get the excitement of learning, move beyond the restrictions of formal classrooms, find new areas to explore, innovate, and deploy new types of learning and understanding.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

The Latest Trends in Library Design
Hosted in partnership with Salt Lake County Library and The City Library—at SLCo’s Viridian Center—the newest installment of our library building and design event will let you dig deep with architects, librarians, and vendors to explore building, renovating, and retrofitting spaces to better engage your community.
Building Literacy-Rich Communities
Hosted by Library Journal and School Library Journal, Stronger Together is a national gathering of thought leaders and innovators from across the country who will share where and how partnerships between school districts and public libraries are having success. Join us May 10–12 at the University of Nebraska Omaha, as we explore the impact these collaborations are having on the institutions, communities, and kids they serve.


  1. STEAM can play a huge role to keeping children from dropping out of school if they find a passion within STEAM to pursue an advance education. Unfortunately, children from a poor background are more likely to drop out of school unless they have a motive to continue their education.