YouMedia: Creating a 21st-Century Library

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Originally appeared Fall 2010 on the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation web site   

YouMedia, a 5,500-square- foot room on the first floor of the Harold Washington Library Center in downtown Chicago, buzzes with teens hanging out with friends, remixing their own rock videos, tapping into the library's large collection of youth literature, and using the Internet to dive deeply into issues of interest.

Supported by the MacArthur Foundation, YouMedia, which opened in summer 2009, connects youth, books, media, and institutions around Chicago to encourage collaboration and creativity, yielding a novel 21st-century learning environment. Teenagers with a city library card have in-house access to more than 100 laptops, as well as video games and a Wii console. There are flat screen monitors on every wall, a small recording studio, performance space, and a geek-out area where they can learn about new media from adult mentors — and it is for teenagers only.

A partnership between the Chicago Public Library and Digital Youth Network, YouMedia was designed as the first node of a Chicago-based learning network for youth that will link formal and informal learning institutions, providing young people with seamless learning. An initiative of Chicago's DePaul University, the Digital Youth Network uses digital media to bridge the gap between in-school and out-of-school learning to help youth achieve academically and develop media literacy.

YouMedia was created through a collaboration of designers from the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University, the Institute of Play in New York City, and Chicago Scenic Studios, who were guided by the findings of the "Living and Learning with New Media" study. Released in 2008, the study found that time spent online is time spent learning, as young people advance from simple to more sophisticated technical skills, motivated by their interests and guided by their peers. The design of YouMedia mirrors the three genres of participation identified in the study — "hanging out," "messing around," and "geeking out." Teens can move from an area where they snack and chat with friends to one where they tinker with games, music, and other new media to one where they learn the latest digital media skills and pursue specific areas of interest. Library staff said teenagers are checking out more than 1,200 books a month and other resources, such as vinyl records, to support their learning activities through YouMedia.

The project is one of a kind among the nation's libraries. While other libraries focus on places for kids to gather and offer commercial gaming, YouMedia seeks to spark their creativity, said Mary Dempsey, Commissioner of the Chicago Public Library: "It says to [young people], 'What is it that interests you?'"

Dempsey said public libraries are not threatened by new media. "We see the new digital media as just one more format for us to use to fulfill our mission to bring lifelong learning and information to the broadest possible population," she said of YouMedia.

The goal, in time, is to increase substantially the number of youths in Chicago who use online resources and new media as tools to engage in inquiry about their neighborhoods, the city, and the world. For example, one recent assignment encouraged teenagers to read a book about the Burnham Plan, the century-old blueprint for Chicago's development, and apply its principles to thinking about their own neighborhoods using digital media.

As digital media become a primary source of information for young people, libraries are providing information across media platforms to appeal to young patrons. Like community centers, after- school programs, and other informal learning environments, libraries are part of a larger learning network for teens that extends beyond formal learning environments, such as schools.

However, the idea of learning networks is not new. Schools once provided integrated services from counseling to arts to computer camps but shed them over the years, said Diana Rhoten, director of the Knowledge Institutions program at the Social Science Research Council. As schools cut back on these services, libraries and other public institutions have an important role to play in closing the "opportunity gap" for children whose families do not have access to more sophisticated digital media.

Rhoten, a MacArthur grantee, is developing a model for networked learning in New York City that will involve libraries, museums, and other public institutions that could become the basis for a national model. YouMedia will be at the center of a similar learning network in Chicago.

YouMedia and other library initiatives help close the opportunity gap, said Dempsey. "There are a lot of kids for whom the digital divide is still a chasm. The same is true of the adult population. But especially for teenagers who may not have in their school or home life access to all the digital media toys, if you will, or opportunity, that other teens have," she said. "So the public library has the duty to bring those items together for them."