Sunday, March 29, 2015

Libraries, Innovation, and Our 21st Century Role

Many years ago, I began serving as a judge at the New Hampshire State competition for the Young Inventors Program. It is a wonderful program that encourages inventiveness in young people in grades K-8. It is a perfect place for a curious librarian/archivist to spend some time.

Designed for the classroom and aimed at encouraging K-8 students to "think outside of the box," the Young Inventors Program is structured and developed to encourage all students to participate, including those who may not "fit the mold" for traditional sciences.

Finding a new calling: encouraging inventiveness

This year, I decided to sponsor an award. A Library and Information Services award seemed like a much needed focus area for encouraging invention.

  • First, as libraries across the country build and promote Makerspaces, and with a major project to retrofit my own library for such a space, I want young inventors to dream of going to the library to build,
  • Second, as a school librarian, I am also immersed in ideas for STEM initiatives. How can the library be part of the backbone for moving science, technology, engineering and math forward in our schools and across the country? I have been working hard with the science and math teachers at my school to make our library a center to support their needs. All libraries need to jump into the STEM discussions.
  • Furthermore, last summer, I was deemed an honorary science and math person by my colleagues at AP Academy. Teachers at this Advanced Placement camp were playing a game of Trivial Pursuit. Those in the Sciences were on one team and those in the Liberal Arts were on the other. I asked where I should go, "Well, as the librarian in the room, you are the one person who could legitimately play on either side!" - We need to cultivate that attitude in our profession. Librarians need to step into a room and say, "Yes, I am a science person too. I support the readers and writers, but I also support and understand the inventors." 
Putting aside the fact that I have come to realize that I would have made a good botanist, (I spend much of my free time in the garden when there is not snow on the ground and there is that obvious classification thing...) in my childhood, I was never on a path for science. My sister was on that path. She became a doctor. She spent her time catching butterflies, while I spent my time writing and drawing. This idea that I am a science-minded person too is new to me (despite my masters degree in library SCIENCE.) What if someone encouraged me to go out and draw the things I saw in nature or to write about the insects in the garden? I was a very good biology student and an excellent math student, but I never put two and two together. Don't get me wrong, I love my job, but there was another path to take that never crossed my mind. For someone who prides herself on taking the road less traveled most of the time, it is significant to realize that I missed this path entirely....Almost. I want to prevent other kids like my young self from missing the path too.

The Value of Libraries for Inventors

Here I am in my 40s, sitting in the audience at the Young Inventors conference waiting for my turn to present. The young inventors in the audience were told this about my award: "The ArchivesInfo Library and Information Services Award recognizes an invention that can support the day-to-day work of libraries." But, as I anticipated, they didn't realize the full impact of what this means, nor did their parents. They were not just creating an invention to support literacy. They were creating something to support themselves. Why libraries at an invention conference? What do libraries have to do with invention? I had a whole speech ready to go about how libraries have always provided books, but they are so much more. Yada, yada, yada...

For judging, students were invited to tag their projects so that specialty judges like myself would be sure to come view what they've created. Since this the first year this award was offered, I saw just three inventions that students said they designed specifically for libraries. Two of my library specific inventors designed bookmarks. They were nice but they did not scream library for the 21st century to me. Wandering among rooms, I stopped at the invention of Caitlin Connelly, a 4th grader from Sanbornton Central School. Caitlin's "Double Desk" was not designed specifically for library use. She dreamed of it for a classroom setting, but her incorporation of a white board and a tablet, which could be locked into the desk and released with a code so students could take it home with teacher (or librarian) permission, was perfect. I pictured a long desk in my library's own newly minted makerspace built on Caitlin's model. "I need this," I thought.  

The audience at the NH State Young Inventors Program
There were many specialty awards being given out. The award ceremeny went on for 45 minutes until I heard my name to give out my award. "I can't make these poor people sit here and listen to my speech about how great libraries are. They are tired. I am tired. They won't listen. They don't care. They just want to hear if their kids got award. How does this effect THEM?" So, I shuffled my papers and thought about the inventor who gave out an award and his story about inventing since he was very young. And, I thought about little Caitlin Connelly. I walked across the stage to give Caitlin a $75 gift certificate to Makershed and said something like this:

"I will make this short. This award goes to the invention that best helps libraries.  Libraries are hubs of innovation that supply space and materials for you to learn and to create. We want to create better spaces for you." I went on to explain how the invention that I picked would be perfect in my own school's makerspace; that Caitlin's table was perfect for helping people to be creative and inventive. I said that I hoped Caitlin would let me use her idea so that my students could have a great space for making their own discoveries.

Planting a seed

If anyone in the audience was not a library goer, they were probably now considering, "I can go to the library and find things like Caitlin's table to help me with my inventions?" Libraries are for the scientists too?


As librarians struggling within our own walls, within our own budgets, we often have difficulty looking out. As we move forward and re-mold and re-define our roles in contemporary society, we need to be better promoters of our own worth. We need to be on the cutting edge and to toot our own horns. Often. My role at the Invention Convention is one example of how to get on board with what our patrons need today and how I was able to advertise that message. 

How are you advertising the message that libraries are for everyone? How are you changing with the times? How are you planting the message in the minds of your community? Right now, think of three things that you can do to change the conversation about your role in the community so that it fits a new audience.


Thank you Academy of Applied Science. I had a great time and am honored to be part of your team.


I want to add that this week past, for the second year in a row, the House Budget Committee has proposed cutting all funding to IMLS. It is very important for librarians to speak up now; to show off our value and tie our images to the future and not the past. Write your Congressman today!

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