The Public Library Innovation Exchange Fosters Creativity and STEAM Programming
Central to the mission of public libraries is the facilitation of self-directed learning for all members of the community. Now more than ever, learning includes not just the ability to consume information in the form of text, but the ability to create and share information and adapt to the ever-changing information and technology landscape. This flexible skill set, sometimes known as meta-literacy, is evident in the growth of the participatory culture and makerspace movements. Simply put, creation is empowering, and the library is ideally suited to enable creative learning through shared resources and collaborative spaces.
The Public Library Innovation Exchange (PLIX) began in 2017 as collaboration between MIT Media Labs and librarians with the goal of bringing creative learning and STEAM exploration to communities around the country. Creative learning enables people to work on projects they are passionate about, with collaborative groups, in a playful atmosphere that encourages experimentation. The philosophy can be summed up with four P’s: projects, peers, passion and play.
Whether one is taking the first step or feeding a seemingly insatiable demand for STEAM programming, an excellent resource is the PLIX website. Some of the PLIX activities include Chibitronics (peel-and-stick electronic modules for building circuits on paper with LED lights), building with duct tape for younger children, and a photography turntable system called Spin to document DIY project development over time. New PLIX Facilitation Kits make jump-starting the process easy. The kits can be ordered with supplies included or assembled independently by gathering inexpensive materials and using free instructions, zines, and tools downloadable from the website. The first two kits launched are a paper circuits kit and a Scratch + micro:bit kit. More kits are in the works, and librarians are invited to help test prototypes.
The goal with creative learning is for participants to explore new techniques that can be applied to their own ideas and projects. MIT Media Labs stresses the experimental aspect of learning – it’s the process, not the result that is most valuable. PLIX offers this advice for facilitators: “Frame activities to encourage creative possibilities. When coming up with an activity prompt, try using a theme (e.g. “enchanted garden”) instead of an end product (e.g. “make a frog”). This will encourage patrons to bring their own ideas and passions into the activity.” Other tips include not taking over the tools when a participant has a question and allowing participants to learn from one another as opposed to positioning oneself as the only teacher. And why let customers have all the fun? PLIX recommends staff begin by playing with the materials and kits to get a sense of the possibilities.
The purpose of PLIX goes beyond expanding STEAM programs: It was envisioned as a unique approach to problem-solving, one that would bring problem-solving techniques to communities most in need of solutions. PLIX Residency Exchanges bring researchers to library communities to work on issues that are of most relevance to those areas. Some of those initiatives have included personal food computers, data literacy programs, and space exploration.
When it comes to problem-solving, the library is uniquely positioned to facilitate “creative abrasion” – a higher level of innovation that occurs when people from diverse fields contribute their talents and perspectives to a project. Creative abrasion allows for a cross-pollination of ideas that can be transformative, leading to more successful outcomes. Public library space enables people from diverging disciplines and worldviews to come together in a shared learning environment, increasing opportunities for collective innovation.
The library has served as a makerspace since long before that term was coined. From early literacy extension activities at storytimes (please don’t call them crafts!), to software that allows users to design documents and graphics, build websites, or compose music, the library has been a place for people to create things, whether virtual or physical. However, as new technologies rapidly emerge, the possibilities expand along with the demand for access and assistance navigating them. As the adage “nothing is constant but change” has become a mantra, the principles of creative learning remind us to stay open-minded and enjoy the process.
MIT Media Lab Learning Initiative. “Creative Learning: How the MIT Media Lab Learns and How Everyone Else Can Learn This Way Too.” https://learn.media.mit.edu/creative-learning Accessed July 11, 2019.
“[PLIX] Cultivate Your Creative Learning Facilitation Practice.” Google Docs. Accessed July 12, 2019. https://docs.google.com/document/d/16l57Ik3_F2n3RePDzUZkZiVCUezKT57rSImnAtW57iA/edit.
Colegrove, Patrick “tod”. “Editorial Board Thoughts: Libraries as Makerspace?” Information Technology and Libraries32, no. 1 (2013): 2. doi:10.6017/ital.v32i1.3793.