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Why Young Learners Don’t Always Go To Libraries For Books, And Why That’s OK With Librarians

This is the third part of a three-part WESA special on public libraries. The first part can be found hereand the second here  

Leaders of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh system say they try to meet the needs of the community. For younger users that doesn’t always involve books.

Teen librarian Sienna Cittadino said she became a librarian because she likes helping people and connecting them to resources that improve their lives.

She makes displays of books she thinks teens will enjoy, but says mostly her job is to be a caring adult for the teens who visit her branch on the North Side.

“I think there’s a lot of education that goes on around soft skills and learning how to co-exist in a big loud space where a lot of different people are coming for a lot of different reasons and learning how to work out anything that might come up in those situations,” she said.  

The teen space at the Allegheny Branch is in a back corner. It’s not walled off, so the sounds of video games, conversations between friends, and teens making music can be heard throughout the library.

“Sometimes after being in school for a full day you do need a little bit of time to just you know kind of zone out for a little bit,” said Kelly Rottmund the Teen Services Coordinator for the 19 Pittsburgh library branches.

“And for some teens that means reading a book, for some teens it means talking to their friends. For some teens it means getting on the computer playing computer games where often they’re problem solving and collaborating with their friends through the computer game.”

Getting Teens In The Door

The system has made a concerted effort to focus on teen services and technology since 2012 when the library began receiving more local tax dollars.

Credit Kathleen Davis
A 3-D printer and Cricut Maker inside the CLP East Liberty’s teen tech space.

Some locations have their own labs: dedicated spaces for teens to play with things like 3-D printers, Photoshop, or a recording booth. Tech kits are also available, including virtual reality headsets and cameras. 

Kristin Morgan, the Digital Learning lead librarian for the system, said the library followed national trends when it started to invest in labs and equipment around 2013.

“There was lots of talk of makerspaces and learning labs and just the value and importance of interest-driven learning,” Morgan said. “So it seemed a natural evolution to build in spaces around that framework.”

The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s five Labs Mentors get together each week to unpack the highs and lows of the past few days.

The time is an opportunity to share insight into technology with each other, troubleshoot and problem solve. The Labs Mentors are in charge of learning tech that’s made available in the library, and support youth programming and professional development for library staff.

Eva Diodati said they’ve been pushing children’s librarians to allow kids to use more expensive music equipment, like the voice transformer, or the Theremin, an electronic instrument that’s played without being touched.

“[It’s] so funny watching a tween playing the theremin, because they’re just reaching into space and making these weird kind of sounds,” Diodati said. “It’s kind of fun for them to discover what makes those kind of sounds.”

The theremin is just one piece of tech that’s available through the CLP system.

The Labs Mentors teach librarians the tech, and then the librarians teach teens if they express interest. This method isn’t perfect, said Morgan.

“At the very basic level, we’re learning alongside with teens to support their interests,” she said. “A teen might want to learn something, and we’re just all in to help them learn that thing even if we’re not the experts.”

On a weekday evening at the Carnegie Library of East Liberty, about a dozen kids and teens are hanging out in the designated “teen space” of the library. Most are doing homework at four-person tables, some are on their laptops. There are big comfy sofas, and a circular tech space in the middle called “The Hive.” One teen is using the recording booth to make music.

Cecil Price III, a senior at Barack Obama Academy, said this is a pretty normal scene for CLP East Liberty. He’s been coming to the branch since he was in kindergarten.

“We get a lot of work, so there’s never a time I’m not at the library,” Price joked. “So this is basically my third home.”

Last year, Price ran for class president and prepared his campaign materials at the branch: his slogan was “The Price is Right When We Unite.” He’s also made posters for other events using the library’s MacBooks and Photoshop. He said for most of his childhood, he didn’t have internet or a computer at home, so he would use the library’s.

“This has been my main source for everything for the last six years or more,” Price said.

His house recently got internet and a computer, but Price said he still comes to the library a lot: because it’s a cool place to hang out.

“For years, my friends and I would meet at the library [for study groups] or on the weekends,” he said. “There’s game day where we have the Wii and X-Box just to play around … East Liberty is amazing.”

Librarian Morgan said even if the advanced technology, like the 3-D printers or the recording booth, didn’t exist, teens would still come to the library.

“Because we have access to Wi-Fi, which is pretty necessary in most aspects of their lives but not something that every teen or person has access to,” Morgan said. “I think that’s one of the big changes in how and why teens are using the libraries.”

Meredith Schwartz, executive editor of the trade publication Library Journal, said the draw of Wi-Fi is not unique to the Carnegie Library system.

“We know anecdotally that it’s one of the most popular and important services,” she said.

According to the Pew Research Center, about 15 percent of households with kids in school don’t have Wi-Fi. That’s a problem, with homework and assignments becoming increasingly digital and kids needing internet access to succeed in school.

“Libraries are doing a ton of things, and they may sound disconnected from each other,” Schwartz said. “But they’re really all unified by this sense of what does the community need, what are resources that make sense for everyone to use.”

Credit Sarah Schneider
Erin Scioli, left, with Jane Swager, 3, and Rowan Frabitore, 3, during story time at the Brookline Library.

Younger Users

Of course, many people still visit libraries for the books, especially its youngest users.  

Erin Scioli is the children’s librarian at the Brookline Branch. She’s often found perched on a kid-sized chair reading a story to toddlers. She asks them questions about the books and sings songs with them.

When she’s planning a story time, Scioli says she thinks about brain development and the five components to early literacy – singing, reading, writing, playing and talking.

“So if you do those five things with your kids when they’re young, they have a good head start when they’re learning how to read.”

Credit Sarah Schneider
Rowan Frabitore, 3, reads a book at the Brookline library.

Scioli has been a librarian for 27 years, and while she plays a role in helping young children develop and learn new things, she says her job has evolved. She sees libraries as multi-purpose places for families with young children to socialize.

“Parents and kids can come and use the library in that way and maybe not even check out a book here. We hope they do, but it’s not necessarily just for books anymore.”

Training Librarians

Some of the country’s first Children’s Librarians were trained in Pittsburgh. Andrew Carnegie established a center that eventually moved under the purview of the University of Pittsburgh. That program was the first accredited library program by the American Association of Library Schools in 1926.

Since then, the profession has changed in many ways. Librarians are problem solvers, researchers and facilitators.

This fall, faculty in Pitt’s School of Computing and Information rolled out a new curriculum for the Master of Library and Information Science degree program. The program has emphasized problem solving, according to Elizabeth Mahoney the chair of the Department of Information Culture and Data Stewardship.

“We give them a lot of tools in which they learn to work with teams they learn to work within organizational structures and they learn to solve problems that today might be obvious to all of us but there will be a problem in five years that none of us can anticipate,” she said.

Students will continue to take traditional courses in reference materials, but the new curriculum will pair groups of students with an organization that needs a research team. For example, the City of Pittsburgh is working with students this semester as they prepare for ways to use 2020 Census data.

“They determine solutions to the information problem and then they actually integrate the solution into that organization's structure,” Mahoney said.

For Mahoney and other faculty in the department, it’s important that students are problem-solvers and critical thinkers. They also spend a lot of time learning to use software, new technology and services that patrons will want to know about.

“We as Librarians spend an awful lot of time learning how to approach problems, how to suss out where the information can be found,” she said. “That makes us look like information gods and goddesses because when you walk to the desk chances are we've already used that database, we've already looked at that book, we already know what's in our collection. That seems very simple, but actually it comes from the activity of learning how to find it on our own first.”

WESA receives funding from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.