People often think of the library as a place to sit quietly while reading or studying.
But the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is challenging that stereotype by turning the library into a creative hub for teens.
It was the second week of June, and Pittsburgh Public Schools had been out of session for two days. And yet, half a dozen teenagers and pre-teens were sitting around a table, enthusiastically engaging in a lesson about ancient Egypt.
“What do we know about Egypt and why was it such a big deal?” asked Oliva Hric, museum educator with the Carnegie Library of Natural History. “Can you think of anything in the landscape that maybe would make Egypt a really great place to live?”
“Because they were on the Nile River they could have had a good water supply,” answered 12-year-old Jonathan Freeman, clearly familiar with the concept.
Freeman and the other teens weren’t at summer school; they were at The Labs at the Carnegie library’s East Liberty branch.
“The Labs is our digital media lab or learning lab for teens,” said Corey Wittig, digital learning librarian for Teen Services. “It’s everything from maker’s space to a place where teens can record music, work on movies, graphic design, all that kind of creative making experience.”
The table in the teen space was littered with replicas of artifacts housed in the museum’s permanent collection, and the kids tried to guess the purpose of each piece.
“What about this? Do we know what this is?” Hric asked as she held up a small vessel with a pharaoh’s head as its lid.
Winston Bell, 11, ventured a guess: “An urn?”
“Kind of an urn, it has to do with death,” Hric responded, as 14-year-old Matalyn Venturini’s eyes lit with recognition.
“Oh, didn’t they put the body parts in those?” she asked.
“Yeah! So this is a Canopic jar, and what they did was take out the four main organs,” said Hric, as Venturini, Bell and the other students tried to guess which four organs went into the jar.
Carnegie Library teen specialist Andre Costello said the teen programming at the library it wasn’t always this interesting and engaging.
“Whenever I started, it was just regular programming, sort of like adapting children’s programming, using craft supplies and things like that,” Costello said. “Keeping the kids interested in working on something that’s somewhat creative.”
The Egyptian design program also included activities related to hieroglyphs. Labs mentor Jesse Landis-Eigsti led the teens through the creation of their own hieroglyph-inspired coded language. But these kids have a tool at their disposal that the ancient Egyptians never could have dreamed of: the graphic editing software Adobe Illustrator.
“A lot of the stuff is the things that professionals use,” said Simon Rafferty, teen librarian at East Liberty. “PhotoShop, they’re using DSLR cameras, they’re editing films with Premiere and using Adobe Illustrator, and also doing making workshops with robotics and stuff. There are a … wide range of skills that they’re getting that they wouldn’t get anywhere else without spending money.”
The Labs at CLP grew out of a grant contest from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and is modeled after a program at the Chicago Public Library. The Labs will celebrate two years in September, and regular patron Matalyn Venturini said she loves creating computer games and stop motion animation at The Labs. She said there has even been an improvement in the space.
“I remember that there used to be adults at every table, and they were all in the area, and there were so many adults that it couldn’t be for teens,” Venturini said. “I’m glad they really fixed that up. Now there’s a teen specialist that always sits here and says (to adults), ‘OK, there’s lots of tables over there, so go sit there.’”
It’s not just the technology and the space that keeps Venturini coming back, it’s also the people.
“I think it’s very accepting for everybody, and it’s a very open community,” Venturini said. “I’ve very rarely seen someone come and they never came back.”
Winston Bell is even more enthusiastic.
“It’s the best and funnest place!” he said. “And you can use your mind and you can be creative.
Bell is a self-described “book person,” but he said other teens don’t have to share his love of reading to enjoy The Labs at the library.
“If you have anything you want to do, like even make a robot or make stuff out of cardboard and stuff like that, you can come to the open labs on Thursday,” Bell said. “And on Wednesdays, there is always some sort of interesting program. One day we even did soldering. We had to get permission slips, of course.”
In addition to workshops like the one on ancient Egypt, the library offers open lab time, where kids can work on their own projects using the skills they’ve learned in the workshops. Both open labs and workshops are offered at three different locations: East Liberty, the main library in Oakland and the Allegheny branch on the North Side.
Corey Wittig said, by popular demand, they’re gearing up to expand the program.
“We’re planning on rolling out what we’re calling Labs on Location to the rest of our locations this fall,” Wittig said. “We would not be there every week, but we would rotate between all of the different libraries and offer programming.”
One of the ways the library spreads the word about The Labs is by setting up shop during the school year in middle and high school cafeterias, through their Books and More program.
“We have book checkouts, music, an activity often times, and teens can come up while they’re in line or after they’ve eaten and see what we’re up to and they kind of approach us the same way that it happens in the library,” Wittig said.
He said they’re also working to connect with some of the city’s most at-risk teens, by bringing The Labs programming to UPMC’s Western Psychiatric Hospital and Shuman Juvenile Detention Center.
“We try to make it as much alike as possible, I think, because I feel like teens in those locations are already feeling the stigma of being there,” Wittig said. “They want to just feel like a normal teenager, (so we deliver) those services in the same way.”
At the East Liberty branch, as the ancient Egyptian design workshop was wrapping up, Andre Costello said they’ll soon pack up the laptops, move the tables, and transform the area back into regular library workspace.
But soon, he said, the East Liberty branch is getting its own dedicated teen space, which is expected to open this fall.
“All the equipment is going to live in the space and it will be available for kids to mess around and geek out with this equipment when regular labs programming isn’t happening,” Costello said.
He said the expansion of the library’s teen programming is all part of an effort to make the library more than just a repository for information. During his job interview at the library, his prospective boss said something that really struck him.
“She said we’re in the process of changing the way we think about libraries,” Costello said. “Before we thought of them as a pantry, whereas now we’re thinking of them more as a kitchen. So rather than taking the information home and just using it there, you can actually use the library as a place to create.”