Tag Archives: dinosaurs

Do the Dinosaurs Come Alive at Night?

Today’s post is from Deanna, a volunteer in the Music, Film and Audio Department.

Teaching at the Carnegie Museums is fun. I enjoy taking students through the museums and teaching in the classrooms hidden beneath the Museum of Natural History. Giving them a learning experience they cannot normally receive in their regular, school classroom is a rewarding adventure. When we travel through the Jurassic Period of dinosaurs in the museum, many students notice that there are glass panels with books behind them. Regular patrons of the library know that from the book side of the glass, you can look down into the museums and see the Diplodocus (right) and Apatosaurus (left). These are the two main dinosaurs that trigger the question: “Do the dinosaurs come alive at night?” I say that they will have to ask security because I am not at the museum at night.

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I tell students about how special it is to have a public library as vast and impressive as the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Depending on the age of the students, I receive various responses to this. Some students want to tell me about their library at school. Others want to know how many books are in the library (Ed. note: There are more than a million items in the collection at Main!). Once in a while, however, I get a student who says something to the effect of, “So what?” One student asked, “Why have a library when I can just go to the bookstore and buy the book?”

I smile at this, knowing that I used to be like this kid. When you’re ten years old, what is the difference between a library and a bookstore? They both have books, right? One has books that you take home to read and never worry about again because you’ve already paid for it. The other has books that you take home to read but you must take care of the book and you bring it back or else you pay a fine. To a ten-year-old, this seems like a common perspective.

The parents and teachers participating in my museum learning experiences smile too, but not for the same reason. Many of these adults love to learn and they want to instill that love into their children, hence why they are in the museums in the first place. They also know what anyone who pays bills or student loans knows: These books are free! When that ten-year-old asked what is so great about a library, his parent immediately piped up, “Don’t you see? Someone else bought those books for you so that you don’t have to! Instead of worrying about a fine, you just need to remember to bring it back!” The student said, “Oh,” in the way young people do when they understand what you mean but haven’t really changed their minds.

Lately, I answer these types of questions about the library in a slightly different manner. I ask the student what their favorite books or TV show is or their favorite movie. I get a lot of the same answers: Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Hunger Games, and a range of DC and Marvel comics and their movies. Then, no matter what the student answers, I tell them that they can probably find that comic book or movie or book in the Library.

Students are smarter than me though. “What if it isn’t in there?” they ask. I respond, “They can ask another library to borrow it.” Again, students are smarter. “What if they don’t have it?” “Then,” I say, “they will buy it for you to keep in their collection, and all you need to do is show them your library card.”

By now, it starts to dawn on them: Libraries are cool. All those books for free, and when they hear that they can also check out DVDs and CDs, their eyes light up in a way that all educators live for. Sometimes, I mention dinosaur books and books on mummies. That generates excitement and a nice transition for us to return to the class topic.

After class, I stay to answer questions from the adults. They ask more challenging questions regarding the museum and the class I taught, but they also have library questions. They want to know where they can pick up a library card and often, when I’m leaving the museum or volunteering for the Carnegie Library, I see them pick up a library card and take their child to a place in the library with materials that interest them both.

Remember that ten-year-old? The one that didn’t think libraries are cool? While leaving with his new dinosaur book that he had to return in a few weeks, he muttered a thank you to his dad, who was holding Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, before saying: “Okaaayyyy, I guess libraries are cool.”

-Deanna

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Aspiration: A Very Short Introduction

All right class, raise your hand if you’ve ever had the feeling that you didn’t make the most of the educational opportunities offered to you in your youth. Whether you dropped out or just got an occasional B+ instead of straight A’s, do you ever wonder what could have been if you had just applied yourself a little more?

You’re certainly not alone: a Northwestern study published in 2011 asked a sample of adults to name one regret that really stands out in their memories, and 13% of respondents passed up lost loves, trips not taken, and childhood cruelties to identify a missed educational opportunity as a source of regret. I suspect it’s a common theme among adults — maybe as a kid you spent most of physics class studying the trajectory of a spitball, and now you can’t resist refreshing NASA’s Twitter feed when there’s a big announcement pending. Or perhaps your interest in verse during 7th grade English was limited to finding that just right word to rhyme with “smells” in an ode to your sister, but now you make sure not to miss a reading or 3 Poems By session here at the Library.

Now, we all know there are great pleasures to be found in being a full time student of the People’s University. I’m sure I would have pulled a much better GPA in 10th grade had my schedule resembled my current reading list…

and so forth. (n.b. Obviously pleasure reading and formal schooling are two different things, and I’m sure my dream schedule would be someone else’s [namely, my wife’s] nightmare schedule.)

I think the  dream of a lot of us academic underachievers, however, is that we could somehow suddenly have a broad, traditional, liberal education behind us. Do I want to learn Greek? Um, maybe next year. But do I wish I already knew Greek? Heck yeah!

The publishing industry has long recognized this impulse of wanting to take the easy path to enlightenment. Dr. Eliot‘s prescription at the beginning of the Twentieth Century — 15 minutes a day of hard reading — was supported by a widely-advertised series of books that promised readers the opportunity to become well-educated generalists with just a little effort. The Harvard Classics, and a number of similar publications such as those put out by Library of America, Oxford World Classics, Everyman’s Library, and The Great Courses have long been a great boon for educational late-bloomers as well as people for whom good schooling wasn’t available, offering anybody with access to a library (or some cash to spend on books) the chance to participate in intellectual life that may have otherwise been out of reach.

Even now, in an age in which anyone with access to broadband can sit in on MIT courses, there’s something welcoming about limiting your self-guided education to a book or two on a given topic. After all, it wouldn’t be hard to spend your 15 minutes a day clicking deeper and deeper into a hyperlinked detail in a Wikipedia article, and who needs all of those diversions when there’s a liberal education to be had?

In my opinion, there’s no better resource for the time-pressed aspirational reader than Oxford University Press’ “Very Short Introduction” series. These tiny books — typically between 100 and 150 pages and perfectly sized to fit in the back pocket of a pair of Levis — offer the broadest treatment of the most difficult subjects imaginable, written by top experts for a lay audience.

Imagine if you ran into an CMU professor at a party and, over the course of a drink, she explained her research using analogies, real-life examples, and maybe a quickly drawn graph on a napkin. These are the book version of that.

Very Short Intros

A dabbler’s delight.

There are hundreds of these things, covering topics from Angels to Writing. (I guess they haven’t gotten to X-rays, Yemen, or Zoroastrianism yet.) Some topics seem to better lend themselves to this treatment; I find the natural sciences, psychology, and theology are strengths in this series. But really, I haven’t found a dud in the bunch.  I recently had a good time reading Very Short Introductions to dinosaurs, Bertrand Russell, and the Old Testament. And while I certainly can’t say that I’m now an expert on these subjects, or even have an above-average knowledge of them, I figure that I’ve retained about as much as I would if I had payed attention in school, which is really all I’m after.

Perhaps the American Library Association should have a marketing campaign — “Make up for your misspent youth @ your library!” It has a nice ring to it…

-Dan

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