Engaging Teens with Learning Labs

Once again, we’re having student volunteers blog programs of interest from the ALA Annual Conference. First up, Nicole Helregel covers “Learning Labs Ignited,” held on Saturday, June 29, at 8:30 a.m.

Makerspaces have been all the rage this past year, as libraries turn the focus on user creation and innovation. At today’s ALA session, “Learning Labs Ignited,” Amy Eshleman of the Urban Libraries Council introduced Learning Labs in Libraries and Museums, a grant project funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Institute for Museum and Library Services. Inspired by YOUmedia at the Chicago Public Library, Learning Labs has given grants to twenty-four library and museum locations and partnerships in the United States to work with their teen communities and build a physical and/or virtual space for creation, technology, education, and mentoring. Eshleman stressed that the purpose of the Learning Labs project is to “build a learning approach for our times,” and to connect the content that students are learning in school to the contexts of their daily lives, their passions, and their developing skills. Learning Labs are not meant to replicate or replace the learning going on within schools, but rather to build on the educational basics and expand students’ skills and talents.

After her brief introduction, representatives from participating libraries that have started Learning Labs briefly presented their spaces, their processes, and the wisdom they have gained from working with teens to think about and create Learning Labs. Representatives from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburg, the Free Library of Philadelphia, the Kansas City Public Library, the Multnomah County (Ore.) Library, the Nashville Public Library, and the St. Paul Public Library were in attendance and spoke. Each library had a very different experience, and there were many opinions regarding how to best conceptualize, design, and create a teen Learning Lab. I came away very inspired and enthused by the positive changes and increased impact that the Learning Labs seem to be making in their various communities across the country. Here are a few ideas, themes, and tips that emerged from the presentations and following Q&A that may be helpful when trying to start a teen Learning Lab in your library.

Teen Advisory Councils

Most of the libraries already had a Teen Advisory Council, or created one at the start of the Learning Lab project. Smaller libraries accepted volunteers, while larger urban libraries had interested students apply. The ideal number seemed to be somewhere between ten to fifteen students. Whether or not a Teen Advisory Council was explicitly recommended, every library representative stressed that actively listening to teens is extremely important. To build a maker/creator community, the members of the community must feel as though they have a stake in the physical and/or virtual space, that they are welcome, and that their opinions matter and are taken into consideration. One of the representatives of the Free Library at Philadelphia pointed out that he had been part of a Teen Advisory Council when he was a teenager, and that after careful consideration of his concerns and critiques, he quickly threw them out the window when facing the Library Board. He asserted that teens have been taught since childhood to accept the programs, rules, and designs of the spaces and institutions they inhabit, to “use their library voices,” and to behave. Thus, even when faced with the opportunity to elicit change and voice their opinions, they won’t necessarily share their true feelings. Thus, he suggested an ongoing, organic, participatory relationship between teens (in an advisory council or not) and the library staff, particularly those associated with the Learning Lab.


Some of the representative libraries chose to stick with the name “Learning Lab,” while others changed the title. For many, the importance of letting the teens pick the name of their space was paramount; thus, some have names like “MakerSpace,” “Studio @ Main,” and “DML” (Digital Media Lab). Another factor for the Kansas City Public Library was the connotations around the phrase “learning lab,” which, in their city’s public school district, is associated with special education classrooms; thus, teens advised the librarians that another name would probably be more suitable (this, again, highlights the importance of teen feedback and involvement early on in the planning stages).


Many of the participants stressed that while securing the physical space, hardware, infrastructure, and technology was obviously important to the success of the Learning Labs, having adult mentors and “teachers” in the space was just as important particularly to the teens. The librarians from the St. Paul Public Library stressed that the teens wanted library staff and outside mentors who were encouraging, knowledgeable, and interested in helping students develop their passions and interests. Thus, a large part of creating a successful Library Lab is making those connections between teens and caring adults.


The St. Paul librarians also had a lot to say about programs and programming; their teens felt strongly that the space should be open for creation and creative work, and not limited by the structure of programs, which made it feel like school. Other librarians echoed this and stressed that a new philosophy/mindset is required when engaging with teens in a Learning Lab; it is by no means a traditional service model and requires more adaptable/mobile thinking and solutions.

Community Connections

The Kansas City librarian explained that their Library Lab very quickly gained the attention of local businesses and companies who have since come to hold workshops and work with and mentor students. She urged others to try to “capture the imagination” of their cities and engage with local partners. Other libraries connected directly with outside partners to build their Learning Labs; the Multnomah County Library worked with the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, and the St. Paul Public Library worked with the local park district. By engaging with outside partners, libraries are able to garner more resources for their Learning Labs and engage their teens with more opportunities.


One of the attendees asked participants about what justifications they would use when advocating for additional funding for Learning Labs projects. The room provided a variety of answers: promotion of civic engagement, workforce development, literacy (digital and otherwise), mentoring, college preparation, business connections, entrepreneurship, and the establishment of a safe space for teens.

Starting Small

Most of the project participants did not launch right into a fully functioning Learning Lab, but rather tested out ideas via pilot programs and prototypes. This allows for mistakes to be made and lessons to be learned early on; it also allows for a gradual building of interest in the teens and in the community at large.

Overall, the session was very engaging and inspiring. I look for more to come from the Learning Labs across the country and from makerspaces and creatorspaces that build off of the Learning Labs model.

Nicole Helregel is an MLIS student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a student volunteer at the 2013 ALA Annual Conference.