There and Back Again: A Mentor’s Holiday, or The Labs @ CLP in Spain (Part I)

Part 1: Context

A few months back I received a message in my work email account that, upon skimming, seemed like spam. The font was blue, it was addressed to a “Mr. Wittig” (“My Father’s name” as they say), and it included an invitation to another country. Fishy, right? But then familiar, specific words about my work started jumping out at me, so I read closer. Turns out it wasn’t spam at all, but a real-deal cordial invitation from the United States Embassy and Consulate in Barcelona to speak at a series of events across Spain. Wow!

So why were folks from the U.S. Consulate General in Spain writing me? Turns out they’d found out about The Labs, the program I manage for CLP that connects teens to technology and mentors, through the stupendous Library As Incubator Project blog.

They let me know that the goals of The Labs were in line with the diplomatic mission of the U.S. Consulates and the American Spaces project and that they’d like me to share my knowledge with Spanish librarians. In short, “We believe The Labs at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is a unique initiative, especially for its mission as well as for the use you do of your network of mentors from the community that provides a safe and learning environment for teens in Pittsburgh.” Again, wow.

I’ve spent much of the last five years leading the design and implementation of The Labs’ programming. If you haven’t encountered The Labs yet, you should know that, boiled down to the basics, it’s a program focusing on spreading a love for making stuff in the library through a process known as Connected Learning.

Credit: Connected Learning Research Network and Digital Media & Learning Research Hub. Click through for source page.

Credit: Connected Learning Research Network and Digital Media & Learning Research Hub. Click through for source page.

Connected Learning posits that learning works best when it’s tied to the learner’s interests. So, the work of The Labs and CLP Teen Services is not accomplished just by giving teens access to shiny equipment and cool gadgets, but to the tools necessary to connect to things that they care about. And that’s all done by building relationships with mentors and connecting to community through our library locations.

Mentors are Teen Specialists: librarians, and library assistants hired specifically to work with teens in all 19 of our libraries. The Labs program is currently focused at three “core sites” (CLP-Allegheny, CLP-East Liberty, and CLP-Main) with extra staff and tons of cool gear for teens to work with. Mentors who work in The Labs program at these locations have been hired not for their background with literature or databases, but for their skills working with creative technology. As a result, teens who frequent the core sites have weekly access to guidance from local artists, musicians, and graphic designers.

The way we see it The Labs is all about enhancing library services through an expanded notion of literacy in the 21st Century. Libraries have always been about access to information through books and other materials. The Labs seeks to extend that mission to the tools of today.

There’s an idea that youth are Digital Natives — naturals who can use an iPad from birth. Well, that’s just not true. 22% of youth across this country live in poverty and have little access to the tools we ascribe to their generation. That’s where the library comes in, with “Free to the People” emblazoned over the door of our Main library, seeking to democratize access to learning in Pittsburgh. It’s all in our mission statement to “Engage our community in literacy and learning.”

It’s with all this in mind that I prepared myself for the trip to Spain. What can I share about mentorship and The Labs programming that would be useful halfway across the world? My contacts at the Embassy and Consulate created an ambitious agenda for me — traveling from Barcelona to Madrid and on to Valencia to speak at five professional gatherings of librarians and makers and to provide six Labs-style workshops for teens in Spain.

Monday’s post will focus on the trip itself. In the meantime, take a look at the presentation that I prepared for librarians in Spain in order to further familiarize yourself with The Labs program, mission, and goals.


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The Good Fight

There’s a category of books I sometimes choose to read. I won’t say that I like them, even though I recommend them to friends. These books never leave me feeling better; most of them lack catharsis or even schadenfreude. They are full of terrible, violent things happening to undeserving people, and these events are so far in the past that no fundraisers or awareness campaigns or angry letters can ameliorate them.

When I was young, this category was manifest through Holocaust literature. There are a surprisingly large number of juvenile and adolescent works about the Holocaust (and the Second World War more generally). Some of the best are Number the Stars, The Devil’s Arithmetic, and The Book Thief. Perhaps so many exist because so many people were affected, so there are many stories that can be told. Though they have good and brave heroes, (including real historical figures such as Corrie Ten Boom and Anne Frank) all are, at some level, stories of fear and cruelty and death.


Image obtained from Hashtag the Planet - click through for source.

Image obtained from Hashtag the Planet – click through for source.

In college I discovered the Soviets. I had intended to introduce myself to classic Russian literature (i.e., Dostoevsky, et al.) and instead got Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. And while Russian literature is often characterized by suffering, the writings of anti-Soviets are particularly gut-wrenching because the suffering is a result of deliberate persecution by those in power. The Gulag Archipelago and The Bridge at Andau depict systemic victimization of populations within and outside of Soviet Russia, respectively. They depict a populace hurt, angry, and bitter. At their best moments, they leave me sobbing.

My shelf of terrible books has continued to expand, encompassing more of the world’s tragedies and shames. It now includes more contemporary stories of child soldiers (Never Fall Down), violence against women (Girls Like Us, Half the Sky) and more. Why do I do this to myself? Why do I read these books, not only despite but because of the discomfort they cause me? Why do I recommend them to my friends and family?

I read these books because the horrors they describe need to be known, and they need to be felt. I need to be familiar with this darkness so that I can recognize and fight it in the world around me. I need to see the effects lone people can have through deliberate moral action in the face of injustice. While it is far too late to save the victims of the Holocaust, the world still has cruelty and persecution I can fight.

What else should be on this shelf? What else do I need to read and know? Leave me your recommendations in the comments.

  • Bonnie T.


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An Ember to Remember

Courtesy of Goodreads

Courtesy of Goodreads

I’ve been excited about An Ember in the Ashes ever since I read the description for it on Amazon a few months ago. The cover also intrigued me. It is aesthetically pleasing. The book has two main characters, Laia and Elias. It takes a while, but the characters eventually cross paths. Through many interactions they learn that even though they’re from different ranks in the world that they have more in common that they thought.

The book is set in a time similar to ancient Rome. There is an empire and most of the story takes place at Blackcliff Academy, which is a place that trains children to become soldiers for the empire. Laia ends up at Blackcliff as a spy after soldiers raid her home, kill her grandparents and kidnap her brother on suspicion that he is working against the empire. Laia seeks help from the Resistance, a group her parents once led, to help find her brother. Their leader, Mazen, tasks her with the mission to go undercover as a slave to spy on the leader of Blackcliff, the Commandant, and bring back information. In exchange, they will help her find her brother.

Meanwhile, Elias wants to escape from Blackcliff because he hates everything about the empire and everything that it stands for. He has plans to escape until he talks to Cain, an Augur with the ability to read minds. He tells Elias that he can’t be free from Blackcliff unless he competes in a battle called the Trials to become the next Emperor. Cain also tells Elias that if he comes in second he would be the Blood Shrike and that if his best friend, Helene, becomes Empress that she could set him free.

What I like about this book are the many twists and turns that take place throughout the novel. Just when I thought that I had the book figured out another plot twist occurred and threw me for a loop. I loved how Sabaa Tahir, the author, made the main characters relatable. Even though I would never be in either situation, the feelings that the characters experienced were feelings that I have also experienced.

I thought that the book was well written. Although, there was in a way two love triangles going on, it didn’t distract from the purpose of the novel. There was a good balance of action, mystery and romance. The romance in my opinion was secondary to the plot. I was impressed with how Tahir was able to volley back and forth between Laia and Elias’ points of view without it being confusing. The last time that I saw this method well executed was in Veronica Roth’s Allegiant. Sometimes this method can be confusing, but at the same time a refreshing change of pace.

I won’t give away any spoilers as to how the novel ends, but just know that this novel is worth reading. An Ember In The Ashes is available in our catalog.


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All The Truth (n’at)

I’ve mentioned on this blog previously that one of the many perks of working in a library is stumbling on books and movies and music that you might otherwise have been totally oblivious to. Such was the case with me and All the Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid by Matt Bai. I stumbled across the book one day at work, got it out from the library, and I was very into it from the beginning.


This is one of the best book covers I’ve seen in ages.

At the risk of betraying my age, I remember the Gary Hart scandal pretty well. At my house, when I was a kid, it was standard dinner time fare to discuss politics. From about the age of 10 or so, I was listening in on, and chiming in on, whatever the topics of the day were. I already had a few years of this under my belt when the Gary Hart scandal hit. Reading Bai’s book brought many of the details back to me.

Whereas political scandal is nothing new, this event had a different element to it. Bai posits that the real reason to look at the Hart affair, especially now, almost 30 years on, is that this event was a very specific moment in terms of how the media worked before this event and after. Indeed, he believes that this was the moment that changed the tone of reporting in the US. The sub title of the book is “The Week Politics Went Tabloid,” and that goes a long way to grasping the author’s take on these events and their ramifications.

It might be worth noting that after, at that point, 7 years of Ronald Reagan, the political landscape in the US had a very particular look. Hart was poised to be the opposing candidate early on in that election, and the events outlined in this book changed all of that.

Another possible aspect of the fallout from this event might be described in the cultural attitudes that people politically coming of age around this time had, and how these events helped shape their view of politics in a larger sense. Many of the folks who would have been looking at these events while formulating a political identity would be considered, by generational standards, Gen X. There is perhaps no real way of quantifying how these events shaped the political consciousness of a generation, but one might speculate.

At any rate (and generationally-charged-political-identity-naval-gazing aside) Bai writes a very well-crafted book that gives a good sense of the time, both before, and after, this watershed moment of the confluence of media and politics. Check it out, if you are so inclined.


-who is half seriously looking for a “monkey business crew” t-shirt for the summer

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Keeping Secrets

Let’s be honest, there are things that we have all left unsaid. Either we felt uncomfortable voicing our thoughts, or maybe we were afraid. However, no matter the reason, I believe that each one of us at some point in time has kept important words or feelings to ourselves. This is part of what the book Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng is about.

Everything i never told youThe book is Celeste’s debut novel, and it really makes the reader think. It is written from several points of view, but does not explicitly state that the person’s voice has changed. Although this can sometimes be confusing, the way Celeste writes creates a flowing story of love and loss and those words that were never said.

There are two things regarding this book that I must say, the first is that if you have read the book and wish to discuss it, there is a book club that will be discussing this book on June 6th. So if you enjoyed the book or hated the book and want to talk about why, please stop by!

The second is that Celeste Ng is coming to the Carnegie Library! She is coming as part of the Authors on Tour program and will be at the Library in Oakland on June 1st from 7-9pm.

Even if you do not want to attend either of these programs, you should still consider picking up this title. It shows so much and helps the reader realize how important it is to say what you mean and mean what you say.



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Worlds Apart

One thing that librarians know is that people read for different reasons. One person might read because they want information, another reads for relaxation, while still another reads for inspiration. As for me, I’m your classic escapist reader. Mostly fiction, often science fiction or fantasy or romance, but always, always, something I can get lost in. I rarely stray from my preferred genres. Lately though, I’ve been forcing myself to branch out into some nonfiction for a change, and as much as my favorite novels transport me to other worlds, I’ve been reading some really interesting books that are about worlds so different from mine that they may as well be one of my sci-fi novels. Here are a couple that I’ve been gripped by recently:

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, by Christopher McDougall: There is a tribe of Native Americans called the Tarahumara who live in Mexico, and who are considered some of the best runners in the world. The author sets out to learn more about them and their secret to running hundreds of miles at a time (for fun!). Along the way, he meets a cast of characters that are as compelling as any character I’ve ever read in a novel. Runners will especially love this book, but even non-runners should find this story fascinating.

There Goes Gravity: A Life in Rock and Roll, by Lisa Robinson: Hotel room parties with Led Zepplin, chats with Mick Jagger or Elton John, and backstage with Kanye: the journalist Lisa Robinson chronicles her career as a rock journalist with stories about some of the stars she’s interviewed or joined on tour. Robinson gives us a “fly on the wall” look at rock and roll history in this memoir.

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, by Mary Roach: Haley’s Comet passed into view when I was 9 years old, and a whole generation of kids was suddenly really into space and astronauts (for a while). At least that was true of my third grade class. This book is as close as I’ll come to experiencing life in space, but goes into fascinating detail about what life is like as an as astronaut.

I’m not sure what I’ll read next—I’m really enjoying this nonfiction binge, though. A couple of things I’m considering: Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, by Ted Conover or The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. I’ll take any and all recommendations of interesting nonfiction you’ve read recently!



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A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night–and straight into my movie-loving heart


Photo taken from – all rights reserved to same – click through to read a blurb about the film

I recently had the chance to see A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, the feature-length debut of Iranian-American filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour.

Let me say this right off the bat:  I’m not really a fan of vampire movies; I could probably count the ones I like on one thumbless hand (Thirst, Vampyr, Let Me In and Afflicted). Sadly, I’ve yet to see the original Let the Right One In or any version of Nosferatu. And, while both were supremely stylish, I didn’t love Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Only Lovers Left Alive as much as I’d hoped.

Oh, did I not mention A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a vampire movie?

The film follows the titular girl, played by Sheila Vand, as she lurks around the aptly-named Bad City, looking for her next victim. As a non-vamp-fan, I’m not sure what interested me in this film in the first place. Was it the fact that it was filmed in black and white (which adds an otherworldly eeriness to the film)? The superbly constructed tagline (“The First Iranian Vampire Western”)? Or was it just curiosity raised from reading an article on Indiewire.  Whatever the reason, I kept checking our catalog, hoping that we’d get a copy. When I finally saw it, I quickly put my name on the waiting list.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is both brand new (The Girl–as she’s credited–is a skateboarding, chador-wearing vampire!) and nostalgic (The Girl loves vinyl; the last song she listened to was Lionel Richie’s “Hello”). There’s no end of vampire symbolism; needles attached to heroin-filled syringes pierce the skin of junkies, we’re often shown oil rigs plunging their giant metallic teeth into the ground and slowly sucking Bad City dry. It’s a wonderful amalgamation of pulpy film noir, Midwest ghost towns and Amirpour’s recreation of Iran; the characters speak Farsi, yet it was filmed in the darkened streets of Taft, CA.

The following scene, featuring Vand and her victim(?), the ecstasy-addled Arash (played by Arash Marandi, a.k.a. the Iranian James Dean), could fit into any idyllic indie/hipster drama (not unlike the adorably charming God Help the Girl) and be a delightful scene. But within the confines of the universe that Amirpour has created, it becomes a near-psychedelic trip that raises hairs as it walks a fine line between terror and temptation. Honestly, even if you hate the other ninety-six minutes of this movie, this scene will more than make up for it. It’s magical:

It’s a film that takes its time building the horror and tension, as evidenced by the above scene. Today’s technology-swilling generation, with the attention span smaller than a femtometer, often equates tension-building with boring (have we forgotten the first half of Psycho or the entirety of The Blair Witch Project?). In an arena mostly dominated by jump-scares and senseless gore, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night shines through the fog of horror mediocrity. To be fair, there is some gore in the film, but it’s used in a way that doesn’t make it the punch line of horror; the gore is used as a means, not the end. Plus, it’s in black and white so it isn’t nearly as gruesome as it would be in color (again, like Psycho).

I could go on and on about A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night; it’s a film I’ll definitely want to revisit–and recommend–again and again. It made me an instant fan of Amirpour, so I looked up what she’s doing next. Due out in 2016 and starring Jason MomoaKeanu Reeves and Jim Carrey, her next film is titled The Bad Batch. It’s a love story set in a cannibal commune. I’m not joking. Even if cannibal love stories aren’t your thing, you have to admit that’s a pretty interesting and impressive group of actors for a relative newcomer to assemble.

Do you have a favorite vampire movie? Did you hate the ones I enjoyed? Sound off below!



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