Amy Eshleman on Libraries As the Original Maker Spaces


11.12.13 | Amy Eshleman is the program leader for education at the Urban Libraries Council. Before that she was assistant commissioner for strategic planning and partnerships at the Chicago Public Library, where she led the creation and expansion of YOUmedia.

This post is part of a series of conversations with thought leaders on digital media and learning, then and now. In conversation with journalist Heather Chaplin, leaders reflect on how the field of digital media and learning (DML) has changed over time, and where it’s headed. 

Spotlight: Let’s start at the beginning. You were part of the team at the Chicago Public Library that MacArthur initially approached about YOUmedia. How did the library react to this idea?


We were thrilled they thought public libraries were important spaces for innovation. When our team first met with Connie Yowell to hear about the research they’d been doing around youth and digital media it was August 2008, and we did not have a robust teen program, let alone a teen space.

So the idea didn’t seem scary or out there?

We’d been thinking about how to do something like this for a long time, but nothing felt right to us. When we heard the notion of hanging out, messing around and geeking out, we were super excited.

That’s interesting. You said you’d been looking but nothing had felt right. Why did this approach feel right?

The fact that it had those principals but was going to be grounded in research was important to us. It felt connected to real learning and that it might actually have real outcomes. We wanted something that could be a jumping off point for youth to connect with the rest of the library’s resources and activities.

Can you give me an example of how YOUmedia helped facilitate that?

During the planning phase, we did a pilot project with Digital Youth Network on our One Book, One Chicago program. That’s when the entire city is encouraged to read the same book at the same time, and then the library organizes activities around the book. We had youth join in reading “The House on Mango Street.” It was a jumping off point because the kids read the book, but then they also collaborated on spoken word projects and music. They took photographs and made videos. They acted on their own interests but it was all organized around themes from the book. After seeing this, we knew YOUmedia was going to be exciting for the library.

There’s so much excitement about YOUmedia among DML people. Can you tell me what makes it a success from the library’s perspective?

There are about 50 to 75 kids in the main library every night. That was not happening before we opened the door to YOUmedia. But also, it’s been a shift for the library to let youth curate their own kinds of engagement, and that’s trickled down into other projects.

Like what?

After YOUmedia, we realized we wanted to do a whole strategic planning process around using digital media better and also supporting innovation—both internally and externally. That was clearly influenced by YOUmedia. And since then, the Chicago Public Library has opened a maker space in an innovation lab.  They have also, started a Geek in Residence program to provide an incubator space and entrepreneurial support for small Chicago start-ups.

How did your work at Chicago Public Library and with YOUmedia lead you to the Urban Libraries Council?

The Urban Libraries Council is a think tank membership organization that supports innovation in public libraries across North America, primarily in big cities. In 2011, they received a grant from MacArthur and the Institute of Museum and Library Services to be the technical assistant entity for the Learning Labs project.

That goes off the YOUmedia work too, doesn’t it?

The Learning Labs project has given 24 libraries and museums around the country 18-month planning and design grants.  They’re going to take the principles of connected learning and the lesson learned from YOUmedia and build out new spaces and experiences for teens. They’re not replicating YOUmedia. They’re taking what we’ve learned from YOUmedia and building their own versions of it.

We ran an interview with John Palfrey of the Digital Public Library of America recently and he was talking about the need for libraries to simultaneously honor diversity while standardizing enough that people can navigate the system. I feel like what you’re saying resonates with that.

I think that’s absolutely true. Libraries are still repositories of information and people need to be able to walk in the door and know they can access that information. At the same time places are different. The library in Chicago is different from libraries in San Francisco, New York, or Los Angeles. And they should be. That’s why the YOUmedia network and these Learning Labs grants are giving people a framework with some unifying principles around connected learning. We don’t say, “You have to have a recording studio,” or “You have to do STEM.” Each place needs to build spaces and opportunities that make sense for their youth.

But some standardization is necessary.

It’s nice to have a little bit of standardization because then we can build a community of practice around the work.

I hear sometimes people talking about YOUmedia changing the library paradigm from one of consumption to one of creation. But I wonder, is that really true? Were libraries really just places of consumption?

YOUmedia was transformative for us because it showed libraries have a critical role to play in after-school time.  Learning does not stop when the bell rings at the end of the day.

No, I don’t think so. In some ways I’d say libraries were the original maker spaces. People would come into community rooms in libraries to learn how to knit, or repair a car, or garden. There was always a creation part of libraries, but now the creation part done in a more connected way. Things like fab labs or make shops are not just one-off experiences. These places are staffed with people who have real expertise, and when you come in you might meet other people who are doing related work.

Going back to YOUmedia, let’s step away from all the great stuff for a minute. What went horribly wrong?

I honestly don’t think anything went horribly wrong. What I would have liked to do differently was build in more time for the mentors, who are the heart and soul of that place, to document what they’re doing. I would have liked to give them more time to reflect and put on paper what they were learning. The mentors get pulled in a lot of different directions.

What other lessons are you taking forward with you?

We spent a lot of time designing the YOUmedia space. We said to ourselves, “This is where they’ll hang out, this is where they’ll mess around, and this is where they’ll geek out.” After about the first week, though, it became clear the youth where going to hang out wherever they wanted to hang out. The important thing is to spend your time thinking about the activities that will support kids in the environment. You don’t necessarily have to worry so much about the actual space.

Can you give me a couple examples of how your thinking has changed since all this started?

I think libraries all over the country have been struggling with connecting what kids are learning in school to what happens outside of school. I think the work MacArthur has done, particularly YOUmedia, the Quest schools, and HIVE, has really shown what a learning ecosystem can look like. YOUmedia was transformative for us because it showed libraries have a critical role to play in after-school time.  Learning does not stop when the bell rings at the end of the day.

What worries you the most looking forward?

We need to really think about robust professional development. We need to think about what skills we need in our libraries outside of traditional librarian skills. We should be working with information and library schools so that when people graduate they can support these new kinds of environments.

Is there anything you want to add?

In my experience, libraries are getting really energized about DML work. It feels like a natural place for libraries to be. I see libraries around the country thinking how to be at the center of these conversations and how to support kids with the kind of authentic learning experiences that will lead them to be successful as adults.

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