Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Equity for Learning: Notes from the Public Libraries & STEM Conference

I'm back again to share my last big takeaway from the Public Libraries & STEM Conference, which I attended in August. As I've mentioned earlier, the conference was small and thus very concentrated. That meant tons of robust ideas throughout the entire 3 days, with lots to chew on and mull over. I've already shared a few takeaways with regard to training and collaboration; today I want to share what I heard, discussed, and thought about programs/services and equity.

To quickly reiterate, one of the major goals of the conference was to help define a new 21st Century vision of STEM in public libraries. For me, it goes without saying that anything having do to with the 21st Century is going to necessarily have a massive amount of thought around how diversity fits in. Our country is getting more diverse, the wealth gap grows, and as public-serving institutions we need to take that into account in what we do and offer.

My three major takeaways from the conference had to do with training (blog post recap here); collaboration (blog post recap here); and equity, which is the topic of today's post.

Susan Hildreth, from IMLS and a fellow of the Aspen Institute, gave a keynote address that focused on the outcomes report of the Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries. The report emphasizes that the future of libraries is intertwined with the library acting simultaneously as people, place, and platform. Libraries are the individuals who make it up and live its values; libraries are the physical spaces they are and offer; and libraries are a platform for those we serve and what they care about.

A problem right now, says Hildreth, is that many of the people we purport to serve do not see us in this way. They may see us as outdated, as so many alarmist "The library is dying because who needs books anymore?!" articles will lead people to believe. They may see us as irrelevant to them and their needs because of their preconceptions about what we do and do not do, whom we do and do not serve. That's a problem, in no small part because we do do so much more than the general consciousness understands. So, says Hildreth, "We need to invent a new nostalgia for libraries, because the existing one is really hurting us." It is up to us to iterate and prove what we do now, whom we serve.

To do that as a profession, Hildreth says, we need to do a few key things. We need to align ourselves with community goals. We need to have sustainability in our communities. And we need to cultivate leadership so that we will institutionally continue to challenge what we are and what we can be.

In terms of relating to our communities and aligning with their goals, I found one particular statement from Lee Rainie at the Pew Research Center to be indicative of the momentum we can seize. According to Pew and its 2015 report which will be publicly released imminently, Rainie said that there is a clear trend of the public favoring making community and learning spaces in libraries by moving some materials out of public view. Think about that. The public is okay with us relocating some materials--not totally getting rid of them, but relocating them--in order to create spaces for community engagement and learning. Frank translation: THE PUBLIC IS COOL WITH US BEING NOT JUST ABOUT BOOKS. Take that, alarmist articles. So how do we respond?

In terms of the learning experiences and programming we offer, we need to recognize that learning is inherently social. People do it together, they do it on their own time, they do it for their own interest and motivations. And they do it in any number of ways.

We at the conference were encouraged to think about this through John Seely Brown's model of the whole person. A whole person is comprised of three parts: a person who knows; a person who makes; and a person who plays. Libraries have arguably always been pretty good at serving the person who knows, but what about those makers and players? Are we serving them? How? And, most importantly, are we actually serving every whole person, or are we primarily serving the whole persons who fit our notions of an exemplary library user?

By and large, I think that libraries--whether intentionally or not--serve a "typical" patron. But this typical patron is not representative of the breadth and diversity of our communities. It was published after the conference, but this piece "Why We Need Diverse Libraries" by Rachel Smalter Hall comes right out and says that libraries are often biased toward serving one type of patron, at the expense and disservice of everyone else. This is where equity starts to come into play.

How can we begin to really reach these underserved communities and underrepresented populations in our service area? According to Maddie Zeigler, an educational consultant to moderated a panel at the conference, we can start to do so through programs that satisfy a few key components. We can build trust with our communities through planning programs with them, as opposed to strictly for them; who better to know what they want and need than them? We can offer family events which allow entire families to participate together, a model that is much more culturally inclusive than a drop-off-your-kid-and-come-back-later model. We can articulate the educational value of our programs, which in turn can equip families of all backgrounds to determine what they want their kids involved in based on the benefits to them. We can also make programs culturally relevant and personally meaningful; why on earth would we ever expect a kid to engage in a program that doesn't interest them, and why would we expect all kids to have the same interests? And finally, we can anticipate and troubleshoot the myriad barriers to participation that many families experience when it comes to library programming. Do you find yourself saying that you only reach a certain population of your community in your in-library programs? That means there are barriers to participation to address.

With these general strategies in mind, it is important to recognize that there is an additional component when it comes to reaching elementary and teenage kids. In order to have positive, productive learning experiences at the library (or in any setting), youth need to be able to pursue their own interests. That means that programs and services have to in some way touch on or include those interests. Youth also need to be a part of creating their programs and program outcomes. I think this goes a step beyond the traditional Teen Advisory Board model, in which teens help come up with program topics that the librarian will inject into a standard program format. Instead, this refers to full-on connected learning, in which learning ties to the unique interests, peer interactions, and academic success of each youth. Connected learning works because youth help set the topics, and the format of programs, and the intended outcomes. It allows everyone to engage, and for everyone to experience positive impact.

The end goal of equity in programming means that we transform some of our own institutional expectations for what our programs do. Instead of offering programs that are nice for our communities, we offer programs that are necessary. Instead of talking about program success, we talk about the significance that the program brings to the lives it touches.

While nice and successful are great things to be, necessary and significant speak to the fundamental importance and value of libraries. That's what I want to be doing. What about you?

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