The Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago, Illinois, is louder than you might otherwise expect a public library to be. In fact, the din is characteristic of multiple campuses across the Chicago Public Library system. What’s even more odd is that the sounds permeating these public spaces come from local tweens and teens, a population that is traditionally underserved and lost by public libraries. They’re not there to cause any kind of trouble. Rather, these kids go to Chicago’s libraries to hang out, mess around, and geek out. And they do it by invitation of YOUmedia.

An innovative, 21st century teen learning space, YOUmedia was created in the Chicago Public Library to “connect young adults, books, media, mentors, and institutions throughout the city of Chicago in one dynamic space designed to inspire collaboration and creativity.” Since its first location opened in 2009, YOUmedia learning labs have been established in four additional locations throughout Chicago.

The result of a synergistic effort among the Chicago Public Library and Digital Youth Network, with the generous support of the MacArthur Foundation and the Pearson Foundation, YOUmedia was created to “enable teens to be more than just consumers of media, but to be creators as well.”

Two significant issues facing urban public libraries in the new millenium served to drive the establishment of such a learning lab in Chicagoland. The first is the “shortage of authentic and engaging physical and virtual spaces for teens”; and the second is a lack of “meaningful opportunities for teens to learn digital media skills while also gaining relevant new entry points into library resources.”

 

A study by Professor Mizuko Ito and colleagues titled, Living and Learning with New Media (2008), showed that today’s young learners engage with digital media in three ways. They “hang out”  with friends in social spaces. They “mess around” with digital media, making videos, playing games, and posting pictures to social sharing sites. And, they “geek out” in online groups that “facilitate exploration of their core interests.” Naturally, the layout of YOUmedia is broken up into three different, identifiable learning spaces, appropriately branded the “hang out” space, the “mess around” space, and the “geek out” space with associated program offerings to meet varying interests and learning needs.

With nothing more than a current public library card, teens throughout the city can go to YOUmedia to relax, read, socialize, play video games, record their own podcasts, or film, edit, and produce an original movie, among other activities. Not to mention, they can also have food and drink in the lab while doing it all.

For those who may not know what they are doing with different technologies and computing devices, YOUmedia offers guided instruction from media specialists and mentors through workshops and projects to support exploration and learning.

Additionally, for those who can’t always get to the Chicago Public Library or just can’t get enough of it, YOUmedia has also established an online presence using a closed social networking platform offering teens 24-hour access to “a site where they can use digital media across the gamut of engagement, from casual to intense participation.”

While the planning and development of everything from YOUmedia’s philosophy to its physical layout were based on best practices and research-based design, research of its effectiveness in achieving its organizational goals is ongoing.

One study found that YOUmedia registration numbers grew from a little over 800 in December 2009 to nearly 1,600 barely eight months later. That same study identified “Relationships, particularly between youth and adult mentors, [as being] crucial in engaging teens toward productive growth.” At the time of the report’s publication, it was also observed that, “YOUmedia is cultivating a budding sense of community among teens who socialize and explore resources in the library.”

The groundbreaking work evident in YOUmedia’s early success even caught the attention of President Obama, whose “goal of empowering young people to be ‘makers and creators of things, rather than consumers’” led him to include the Private-Public Partnership of YOUmedia in his announcement of major expansions of the “Educate to Innovate” campaign to improve STEM education.

In partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the MacArthur Foundation agreed, in 2011, to “fund the creation of 30 new hands-on learning centers across the country . . . based on the successful YOUmedia center at the Chicago Public Library.” These centers will become “hubs for youth engagement, creativity, and hands-on learning.”

Regardless of where these centers crop up, two things are assured; they are going to be full of local tweens and teens learning 21st century skills with digital and traditional media, and they are going to be loud, a characteristic of thriving 21st century community learning spaces, whether in Chicago or elsewhere.

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