A Science Café in a Library?

How do a Science Café and a university library fit together? Actually, they are a perfect match. One of the goals of the University of Southern Mississippi Libraries is to promote the library as the intellectual and cultural center of the campus. Having a Science Café series within the library helps us accomplish this initiative.

Science cafés began in Europe, and they have spread and become popular across the United States and indeed worldwide. We were proud to add Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to the science café map as the first in our region. Science Cafés offer those who may have little or no background in science the chance to meet and discuss scientific issues in layman’s terms in a relaxed social setting. During these programs, a member of our faculty shares his or her expertise by leading a discussion based on the topic of a short NOVA scienceNOW video. These presentations lead to stimulating and entertaining conversations. Admission is free and open to the general public.

Carole Kiehl, Dean of University Libraries, initiated the program and asked academic deans at the University to suggest expert faculty within their colleges to speak on topics selected for the Science Café series, and Tracy Englert organized the events. Ms. Englert obtained a Nova scienceNOW mini-grant to help start up the café, including covering some of the costs of a large monitor and cart/stand, and requested Nova scienceNOW DVDs and promotional materials. She also solicited and booked the suggested speakers. However, the Libraries’ first Science Café series was so popular that some enthusiastic faculty are now approaching us asking for the opportunity to lead a future discussion in their area of expertise.

The library is fortunate to house a Starbucks whose management was eager to partner with the Libraries. Hosting the science café within the coffee shop gives the series the desired café atmosphere and ambiance. Before each café, furniture is rearranged, and as many chairs as possible squeezed in. Then a large monitor is wheeled in along with a speaker cabinet and microphones.

In fall 2010, the inaugural series of the Science Café @ Cook Library began monthly talks on varied topics such as aging, memory, personal DNA testing, and gangster birds. Attendance at all meetings has included community members, staff, faculty, and students. We had such a great response to the fall series that we are offering more interesting topics in the spring that are sure to inspire some quality, in-depth discussions led by our faculty.

Our spring lineup includes topics such as obesity, Maya ruins, and materials. The first Spring Science Café was held on January 24, 2011, on the topic of digital art authentication. It was a huge success, with more than fifty attendees. Since assessment is so important to any library, at the end of each talk an evaluation form is passed around. Ratings have been consistently high, with many positive comments and suggestions for future science café topics. Comments included, “Didn’t really know what to expect but it was informative and fun!”; “This was a well organized, interesting and informative event”; “Speaker was funny and interactive fabulous instructor and video”; “It is fun, interesting, interactive and easy to understand, relaxing atmosphere.”

If you are considering hosting a science café series at your library, a plethora of information exists at www.sciencecafes.org.