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.
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.