How the MacArthur Foundation is Reinventing the Teenage Public Library Experience

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Institute of Museum and Library Services awarded $1.2 million in grants to build innovative learning labs for teens that "promote creativity, critical thinking, and hands-on learning."

The plan, which calls for nothing less than revolutionizing the library experience for teenagers, has been in the works for years and we're now starting to see some early, impressive outcomes. (Education and digital learning is very near and dear to the MacArthur Foundation. Check out IP's take on their recent summer learning grants here.)

These new grants aim to transform libraries from a place of dry and boring study time to something of an immersive educational and social outlet. For example, the Nashville Public Library's Green Hills location is using the funds to create a learning lab that includes a recording booth, editing bays, and other pieces of equipment to help stoke teens' creativity. Taken in total, this grant will help libraries transition from "gatekeepers of information" to "community centers of active learning." And they're doing this by the following:

Speaking directly to teens. In a classic example of "know your customer," libraries are stocking up on the things kids want: graphic novels, comics, self-books, as well as new technological gadgets.

Partnering with local organizations. Realizing their staff can't do it all, libraries are reaching out to local organizations to hold workshops, talks, and other mentor-led activities.

Rolling out compelling programs. The Nashville branch is experimenting with things like spoken-word workshops, arts and crafts classes, and other digital learning efforts that essentially act as ongoing educational offerings.

Filling in the creative skills gaps. Public schools are stretched thin, and these learning labs can help fill the gaps. The article notes instances in which students use the learning lab to experiment in areas like creative writing as well as photography and video game design. 

Perhaps most importantly, these grants are providing a safe after-school option for at-risk youth. It's no secret that after-school programs have positive impacts in terms of academic achievement and social behavior. This issue become all the more acute during the summer months when teenagers have extensive downtime.

Amy Eshleman of the Urban Libraries Council says it best. "It's all about engaging them in a space where they can be with peers, unpack their interests and get better at things they care about, and help them find a path from their passions to opportunities in the real world."