Why Libraries Are More Important Now Than Ever

Nov 27, 2017

It’s almost 4 p.m. on a November Monday, and a very un-library-like scene is unfolding inside Chicago’s Harold Washington Library teen center.

Students inside the Maker Lab finish working on a laser-printing project at the Harold Washington Library in Chicago. Photo by Brian Nordli.

Rap and pop music bump from a set of speakers, as teenagers released from schools around the city funnel into the center and settle in for the afternoon. Some gather around the TV to play the newest NBA video game; others spread out to utilize the center’s vast resources.

At one table, an aspiring fashion designer learns how to use the sewing machine from a library mentor; at another two teens are studying.

Inside the same music studio where Chance the Rapper got his start, another student is learning how to podcast. Throughout, teens are laughing, chowing down on cookies or, simply, hanging out.

In most libraries, this type of behavior would be met with a derisive, “Shhh!” But here, at the YOUmedia center inside Chicago’s flagship library branch and at 12 other YOUmedia branches around the city, it’s encouraged. This center, Chicago Public Library commissioner Brian Bannon believes, is part of the future of libraries.

“What we’re trying to do in this space is to help teens—and all people in our community—be exposed to the rich information of our day, so we can support them, and grow our community and economy,” Bannon said. “We’re creating a space to capture their imaginations that they don’t come across in educational spaces.”

Chicago Public Library partnered with the MacArthur Foundation to launch YOUmedia in 2009 as a way to engage teenagers at the library. The space is equipped with a music studio, digital cameras, 3-D printers, loads of computers and, of course, books. It’s all self-driven, but there’s a staff of mentors and librarians ready to help.

The loose atmosphere is based on University of California, Irvine professor Mizuko (Mimi) Ito’s study that found teens engage with digital media by “hanging out,” “messing around” and “geeking out,” as she puts it. Teens can “hang out” at the center by playing games or relaxing, but mentors are there to help them “mess around” or learn how to use new tech and gadgets, and “geek out” or dive deeper into passionate projects, like music production, designing a float or writing poetry.

“I’m glad (the library) has something like this. It’s inspiring,” said 19-year-old Kalon McClelland, who aspires to be a fashion designer. “It gives me hope that I can do greater things, because they give me the tools right there where I can craft my greater things.”

High school senior Kalon McClelland, left, learns how to sew from Harold Washington library mentor Marcus Lumpkin inside the YOUmedia center. Photo by Brian Nordli.

As a result, the library has grown in popularity among teens, with 45,619 visitors to the YOUmedia center in 2016, according to CPL statistics. The library system even doubled-down with a 3-D printer and design section for adults called the Maker Lab. It’s cultivating a new generation of library goers.

A new surge

Libraries’ evolution beyond books has led to an uptick in popularity among the millennial generation. A recent Pew Research Center analysis found that 53 percent of adult millennials 18 to 34 years old utilized a public library or bookmobile in the last year, more than any other adult generation.

Two teens work on computers available at the YOUmedia center at Chicago’s Harold Washington Library. Photo by Brian Nordli.

The growth was attributed to investments in technology, as well as meeting spaces, literacy centers and community group spaces.

The research doesn’t surprise Bannon. He has been working in libraries for more than 20 years, starting with his work at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where they connected libraries across the country to the internet.

He has seen how libraries have worked together and shared information to evolve. CPL’s YOUmedia program has been replicated at libraries across the country, while the Maker Lab model began in a rural library, Bannon said.

“It’s a small field that’s really connected, so we’re constantly sharing what we’re learning and digesting what others are learning, and how to make it work in our own communities,” Bannon said.

The future of the library

To Bannon, libraries will always remain vital because their mission is to provide universal access to education and information, not just books.

Rosalyn Manurung displays her finished 3-D printer project after a workshop at the Maker Lab at Harold Washington Library in Chicago. Photo by Brian Nordli.

Today, information is shared through digital media and technology, and demands for digital books grow. That means less shelf space for paper books and more communal spaces to share ideas and access cutting-edge technology like 3-D printers and virtual reality.

“For us it’s about finding more sophisticated ways of connecting those people walking through our doors,” Bannon said. “Some may walk through to get online, some may come with their baby for story time, others for the YOUmedia space.

“So how can we take a person who walks through doors for one thing, and connect them to a broad range of things they may not know about?”

Ironically, the farther away from the book-centric models the library system gets, the closer it gets to attaining the living laboratory Benjamin Franklin once envisioned for libraries all those years ago, Bannon said.

“We get thousands of people in our doors every single day, and it’s sometimes difficult to make people believe that,” said Matt Jensen, who works at YOUmedia and has been a librarian for 10 years. “It’s like, ‘How many people want books?’ A lot, actually, and there’s an unbelievable amount of resources available beyond that.”

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Brian Nordli is a freelance journalist based in Chicago, where he writes about social issues, immigration and culture. Before returning to his hometown, he worked at a newspaper in Las Vegas covering crime, education and the city’s desert denizens. He recently spent more than a year teaching English in South Korea and traveling Europe and Asia. He hasn’t been able to shake his craving for kimchi since.