No, for real. We’re really science-ing over here. Or we should be.

Recently, I had the pleasure of leading an Electric Art class at a local library. As students sewed circuits using conductive thread, LED lights and batteries, we discussed how electricity works, why we needed to identify and correctly align the anode and cathode pins, and the other various scientific principles in play. After the class, the hosting staff member, seemingly surprised at this level of discourse, looked at me a bit agape and said, “Wait, you’re a librarian?” Yep. I know, weird, right?
But, it isn’t really. Many of us in the library world have been inundated with Makerspace mania, digital media labs, STEM/STEAM programs and on and on. Often libraries are bringing in content experts to help educate the public on how to use equipment, but just as often, librarians are leading the charge with maker programs. In fact, since going into the wild as an independent library educator for hire, it’s been intriguing how individual libraries draw the line between what is and is not “librarian work”.  Some libraries are even hiring librarians and library assistants in part because of their skills and interests with potential for programming. Applicants who knit, play guitar, are certified yoga instructors might gain a leg up on competition if, in addition to reference and readers advisory skills, they’re able and willing to teach others about their hobbies.
Most libraries aren’t going to this extreme, but the definition of “library work” has been in contention as long as I’ve been in the profession. In my first few years in public libraries there were almost daily lamentations from librarians who did not feel that helping folks use computers should really be their responsibility unless it was to access a database or do “serious reference”. Now, that sentiment is rarely if ever heard from library staff, and constituents consider the library synonymous with computer support. When clients now ask about how in the world I learned all of this technology stuff, mentioning my history as a librarian always seems to be interpreted as more than sufficient qualification.

So, does the next evolution of librarian-ing include science?

Yes…and no. The thing about libraries is that we often try to be everything to everyone because librarians can help customers find information about anything and will help anyone. The problem is that there’s just too much to do, too much to know, and it’s one thing to be able to research anything and another to be able to educate on everything. Depending on the staffing structure and objectives of your library, it may just not be practical for you as a librarian to take on leading science, technology, engineering, art or math (STEAM) classes. If that’s the case, you can just hire me, call it a day, and skip to the end of this article. Otherwise, keep reading…
Whether in a dedicated space or not, making has become one of the trendiest topics for libraries to explore. As with all trends, it can be dangerous to dive in without considering the big picture. What are the objectives your library hopes to reach through maker learning? (Hint: If it’s to get into Library Journal, that ship has sailed, and you should probably rethink your priorities.) Is it about changing the community perception of the library from a book warehouse to a learning center? Is it to support an already curious community? Is it to build entrepreneurism? Is it to give youth a chance to problem solve and think critically doing something hands-on? If your answer includes the actual learning happening when folks are making, and they’re doing any making that involves electricity, then science is likely to be a crucial part.
Here’s where things get interesting. Youth librarians in particular are accustomed to creating and leading programs that are topically themed. Holiday craft programs, “people in my neighborhood” storytimes, big truck days, and International Games Day are events that sort of celebrate a topic without typically digging to deeply into learning about it. That’s fine, but if we’re promising stakeholders such as funders and community members that we’re going to increase STEAM skills, than we must move beyond STEAM themed events and into rich, participatory learning.
Librarians have more experience with this than we might think, but we tend to focus on arts and humanities content. Children’s librarians educate parents on building early literacy skills in active storytimes. In teen and adult book discussions and writing clubs librarians provide guidance and help participants collaboratively educate each other. One thing that all of these examples have in common is that they are learning and experience focused rather than output oriented. Our main goal (or outcome) to achieve in storytime is empowering parents to help their children become readers, not to produce a group of children who perfectly perform the Itsy Bitsy Spider. We need to approach STEAM the same way. 

It’s about how to think.

When my library comrade was trying to wrap her head around a librarian who scienced, she had a sudden thought, “Wait, what was your undergraduate degree?”
Are you wondering too? You might be surprised. “Art…um, specifically sculpture.”
How, what, why? An art-making librarian who teaches… STEAM? Yup. Here’s what’s really going to blow your mind, I learned more about science, technology, engineering and math while trying to create art than I did in most of my traditional academic classes. When people think of sculpture, they tend to think Rodin style figures carved in marble, but modern sculpture is really just about 3D creation, and at the time when I was in art school, we were just beginning to explore digital projection and interfaces with technology. To create any given piece I might have to research and create electrical circuitry, calculate ratios, and engineer a structurally sound object, all while also considering the aesthetic components. Professors, grad assistants and peers all contributed to this learning either by direct guidance, referrals or collaboration. Fellow STEAM majors in the dorm loved to brainstorm because we all shared the love of the process… getting ideas, researching, testing, reworking. These are fields that are constantly evolving because those in them are forever learning and improving.
This is EXACTLY what the maker movement and connected learning is all about. Students who create are driven to learn. We lead classes to provide them with the introductory tools and understandings, and then help them take it to the next level through research and information literacy skills. Most librarians are comfortable with the later part, but in order to get students to the point at which they are asking self driven questions to research, we need to help them build more robust background knowledge and critical thinking skills.
Consider the difference between a craft program and an art class. Traditionally, libraries have led craft programs in which students, possibly with parent guidance, try to recreate the librarian-produced example. This is similar to the renaissance studio approach in which an apprentice would recreate master works repeatedly. This approach led to perfection of existing techniques, but it crushed innovation. In an art class, students may be instructed in a technique in order to gain foundational skills, but they are encouraged to use that technique in an original work or better yet, expand on that technique in an original way. This approach leads to new discovery, ownership of projects, and creative spirit. The renaissance studio approach leads to the output of perfectly executed reproductions. The art class approach leads to the outcome of more educated, creative and innovative students.
When we lead STEAM classes at the library, we need to consider this difference between project-based learning that is outcome focused instead of output focused.
When we have students do an “experiment” are we using the scientific process to hypothesize, test and evaluate, or are we just dropping some vinegar into baking soda and watching it foam? Did students get an opportunity to make informed predictions? Do they understand why they were correct or not? Will they be able to transfer this knowledge to grow future understandings?
When we teach a coding class, are we having students regurgitate code from an instruction sheet, or are we problem-solving as a group based on some foundational principles? Would students be able to customize their games independently based on what they learned?
Obviously, students attending the Electric Art: Powered Pins class would be disappointed to leave with a pin that didn’t actually light up, so we need to consider the resultant product, but if we want them to learn in such a way that they can continue to create, the focus needs to be on why the circuit works or doesn’t and how to troubleshoot it. When I lead LEGO® WeDo® robotics classes for 7-10 year-olds, it is always so tempting to jump right into showing the students the instructional videos so they can create a cool animatronic animal. I know it’s exciting, and their little faces will light up when their robot alligators snap their jaws. But as fun as those moments are, I would be doing them a disservice to skip past the content leading to the prize.  All of these robots are constructed using basic science and engineering concepts, and the goal is really for the students to begin to understand these concepts enough so that they can create their own models, rather than just recreate the example. So, we spend time exploring gears, axles, pulleys, belts, forces and beams before we put them all together into a larger project. This process always leads to greater success when they are subsequently challenged to design a robotic animal from scratch. After all, this is the whole point. If we want to create creators, then we need to give them the tools.
Classes like Electric Art and robotics use project based learning to introduce and explore broader concepts. The outputs might be glowing badges or dancing robots, but the outcome is students who have the tools and drive to continue to create and learn. The key to achieving that outcome is finding a balance between building foundational knowledge and opportunities for individual exploration. BOTH components must be present. If as a profession we are truly dedicated to creating makers, than we need to be ready to bone up on science, technology, engineering, art, math and pedagogy. We must be informed and inspired educators, or we need to bring in those that are.

Happy National Library Workers Day..Go break some rules!

(Originally Posted Tuesday, April 15th, 2014)

Last week I attended a poetry reading by former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky at Playhouse Square. He appeared as part of the Writer’s Center Stage series that is a fundraiser for the Cuyahoga County Public Library Foundation. Anyway, while his poems were, not surprisingly, impressive, as was his remarkable intellect and cultural knowledge, the moment that stood out to me most was during the Q&A portion of the evening. A young MFA student approached and asked for advice about allowing sentimentality in poems, which is, apparently, out of vogue. (Not that any angst ridden teens would know)

Nodding sagely at the confines placed around talent, Robert Pinsky uttered this gem:

Well…You can’t do anything great if you accede to everything people say you should do.
-Robert Pinsky

He went on of course and further answered the young man’s question in context of poetry, but for me this was it, the whole point of the evening.

Earlier in the day I had answered questions about my management style. These types of questions always lead me to wonder how accurately any of us describe our own leadership styles. Do we describe who we are as leaders, or who we want to be? I want to be the type of leader who provides the vision and coaching needed to achieve organizational goals and help team members grow professionally. But, I know I have a tendency to want things done the “correct way.” I have to focus to make sure I remain a coach who facilitates another’s learning and growth, rather than slipping into a pacesetter and authoritarian.

While we were on vacation my friend Reagan found me the best cozy (or koozie for my friends and family in the South). It read:

I’m not in charge. I just know what you should be doing.

Darn tootin’!

The thing is, everything I believe in about the best way people learn, and what I know to be the best way I learn, is for the learner to be at the center, actively participating…doing the learning. I have to make sure not to take that away from staff either. If I prescribe every step or override too much, I’m not only taking away my colleagues’ chances to learn from potential failures, I’m removing the opportunity to discover new strategies and solutions from others.  Just like in the classroom, I need to be the guide on the side instead of the sage on the stage.

Leaders don’t create more followers, they create more leaders.
Tom Peters

A little over a year ago a group of us from my division went to a workshop at Case Western Reserve called Leadership as a Conversation. At one point the facilitator asked us to think of the person who has been the greatest leader in our lives. Then he said, I can guarantee you that this person made you feel smarter and more capable. Yep.

I’ve been fortunate in my career to have a number of great supervisors who focused less on their bossiness and more on empowering their team members and growing their strengths, even if that meant growing them up and out of their own departments.  Coaching managers use crucial conversations to lead, whether those conversations are with colleagues that they supervise, colleagues who supervise them, or stakeholders outside their reporting structure. These leaders nurture talent by listening and asking right questions.  For instance, instead of responding to a colleague’s proposal with, “I don’t see how that can work with our budget,” the question, “How do you see that working with our budget?” gives room for creative problem solving and prioritizing by the employee.

Over the last few years I’ve been to dozens of library conferences and heard headliners such as Sir Ken Robinson, John Seely Brown, Artie Isaac,  and Mimi Ito all talk about the need to celebrate and nurture creativity, problem-solving, critical thinking, and communication, the skills that will help us innovate and thrive as a species, let alone as workers.  The library profession has bought into this whole hog. We all nod and smile and create our innovative-just-like-everyone-else makerspaces for our teens to build those 21st Century skills in Connected Learning environments, and that’s great.  But, somewhere along the way we failed to recognize the flaw in our approach.

How are we to grow creativity in others if we remain rigid ourselves?

Most library systems are operating with the same basic staffing structure (although, most likely with fewer staff) as they were 10 years ago, heck, 20 years ago, or more! If my grandmother came into a contemporary library today, she might not even recognize it as a library, but I bet she would completely comprehend the job descriptions for the library staff.

If we truly want to innovate and remain (or become) a relevant resource in our customers lives, we need to be as ruthlessly creative about everything we take for granted in libraries, particularly with the roles of staff.  We need to take a page out of the start-up book and hire for attitude and aptitude, rather than a satisfactorily completed checklist of experiences and easily acquired knowledge.  It doesn’t really matter if a new hire knows this particular piece of software today because it’s going to change tomorrow and every day for the rest of our lives.  By the same token, libraries everywhere are guilty of hiring for management “experience” rather than aptitude.  You may have completely demoralized your former team and driven off some of the best talent, but if you officially signed off on time cards, congratulations, you’re hired. A former supervisor once asked me to be a reference for her because she felt it was as much, if not more, important for a future employer to hear from one of her subordinates as it was to hear from her superior.  I couldn’t agree more.

 A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.
– Lao Tzu

Unfortunately, good leaders may receive little praise. If we truly engage our team members and facilitate their best efforts they may come to see us as just staying out of the way, and that’s okay. “First, do no harm,” is a minimum standard to which organization members at all levels should aspire.  But, if we wish to aim higher, we need to encourage creativity by fostering an atmosphere of experimentation; that means loosening hierarchies, moving from just having an open door to inviting folks in. We need to commend those who notice areas in which we could improve and suggest ways to do so, and we need to particularly praise those who follow good ideas through to completion, even if we didn’t quite believe it would work out. Not only do staff members need room for failure, they also need room for success. We have to be strong and confident enough as leaders to embrace challenges to our assumptions and encourage our colleagues at all levels to think critically and creatively.  After all, we can’t do anything great unless we do.

Know Your Role… and brag about it!

I participated in an Every Child Ready to Read 2 session today. If you’re not familiar with ECRR2, it’s basically the methodology that librarians, parents, preschool teachers, and other adults who are children’s first educators use to help them get ready to read.
During the session, participants in our small group portion expressed a great deal of self-doubt. ECRR2 encourages storytime leaders to give thoughtful “asides” to parents.  So, for instance, while reading The Seals on the Bus, a librarian might point out to attending parents that the children are loving the rhymes and songs because it’s helping them learn about syllables and parts of speech. While of course we want to have fun learning with the kids during the storytime, the point is to help parents learn what they can do to help their kids get ready to read.
This is a change from the “old school” library ways.  Years ago, it was common practice to bar parents from attending preschool storytime based on a belief that it would help children transition to Kindergarten. Now we know that developing early literacy skills, the things kids learn about reading and writing before they can actually read and write, are the single most important indicators of a child’s future reading success, and thus increase their likelihood to succeed in school and avoid things like, jail and poverty.  Guess who kids look to most for guidance about how important reading and writing are, and how they can read and write?  Yup, parents.  Preschoolers echo what King Louie sang in the Jungle Book, “I wanna be like you!
Parents are not only a crucial ally in the quest to get kids ready to read, they are the number one force in the child’s chances for success.  Kids will mimic parent behaviors, which hopefully include reading, writing, singing, talking and playing.

Speaking of mimicking… You know who wants to be like librarians?  Kids.  It’s true.  I can’t tell you how many times parents have told me that their little ones played “Miss Sarah” at home.  They line up stuffed animals, dolls, younger siblings, good-natured parents and grandparents, and “read” books to them, sing songs, dance, and basically mimic everything we do in storytime.

You know who else wants to be like librarians?  Parents.  When their three year old threatens to melt down in utmost embarrassing fashion, who soothes them about how toddler brain development pushes kids to seek independence and test boundaries? When it seriously seems impossible that there are any books left on dinosaurs that they haven’t read 3,000 times, who finds the exact one that will please parent and child?  Lastly, which publicly funded employees do community members trust more than any other?  If you answered Librarians to any of the above.  Ding, ding, ding!  Give yourself 3,000 points!

So, from where does this worry about irritating parents with our knowledge emanate? The librarians in our group with this worry reflected on their own experiences as parents.  They thought that they would be annoyed attending a storytime at which the librarian periodically pointed out winning strategies.  Yet, it’s unlikely that parents would be offended if a swimming teacher told them strategies to help their children overcome fear of the water, or avoid drowning.

One issue is that librarians sometimes are afraid of grabbing that crown of Early Literacy Expert, and wearing it with the pride that they deserve.  One lady in our group asserted with full sincerity that parents most certainly do not seek her counsel or view her as a literacy expert.

example conversation with shy librarian:

But certainly a parent has asked you for recommendations for her reluctant or struggling reader?

Well, yes. 

Has a parent ever confided in you about his concerns about his child’s development, behavior or reading interests?


Did you suggest some resources?

Of course.

Did the parent take them?

um, yes, actually. 

Viola!  Congratulations!  You ARE a community literacy expert.  Here’s the deal though.  To keep this amazingly important job, you have to tell people about it.  You have to brag.  The work we do in storytime and generally around early literacy makes a huge difference.  Children who begin Kindergarten with the skills we help them develop are more likely to graduate from high school, stay out of prison, get higher paying jobs, etc…  People like those stories.  In fact, people like those stories enough to continue to pay for libraries and, you know, librarians.  But, they have to hear them.

Librarians, it’s time to get unquiet.  If you’re afraid that parents won’t like you telling them what to do, try this: Ask them to vote.  “Who here would like to know how your child can be ready to read by Kindergarten.” Chances are the parents are aligned with you in that goal.  Work on it together, and embrace your role. Librarians are the number one advocates and experts on early literacy. The best thing you can do to help the kids is to toot your own horn.

As we say in Baby & Me, “Sing out loud. Sing out strong. Your babies love your voice!”