I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know many wonderful librarians throughout my journey to becoming a school librarian. Some of the most dynamic have been my colleagues in YALSA with whom I’ve had the honor of working with on committees. One of the most forward-thinking and passionate librarians is Sarah Kepple, a former Cuyahoga County Public Library youth services librarian who is now taking her talent and services on the road as an outsource programming specialist. Sarah has been at the forefront of the maker movement promoting robotics and STEAM programs in the library. In the year and a half that I’ve been working with her, we’ve had many discussions about the evolution of libraries and librarians and the potential for the library as a center for not only information and literacy skills, but creating and learning in a social setting. Sarah has just finished writing a book, Library Robotics: Technology and English Language Arts Activities for Ages 8-24, set for release in October 2015, that talks about her experiences implementing tech programs in public libraries and gives practical advice and guidelines for starting and developing programs. I recently asked Sarah a few questions to learn more about this exciting new resource for library professionals developing maker environments in their libraries.
SB: Can you tell us a little bit about your upcoming book?
Sarah: Sure! I was inspired to write it because I started getting so many questions from library colleagues about what we had created at CCPL. Most of the folks who called were looking to justify for themselves or their stakeholders, why robots in libraries made sense. This is part of why I designed the activities in the book to align to not only the ISTE Standards for Students, but also the AASL Standards for the 21st Century Learner and the Common Core ELA Standards. Librarians develop both traditional literacy and technology literacy, so this book is designed to help them do both. The activities are all rooted in books, so that students are, for instance, reading about Alice’s adventures with the Mad Hatter and the March Hare while programming a robot to make tea. One of the school media specialists I interviewed for the book talked about how librarians are cross-curricular by nature, and I agree. Librarians could use the activities in the book in collaboration with a science, math or English teacher, an engineer from the community, or all by themselves!
SB: Why do you think libraries and schools have gone so crazy for the maker movement in the past few years?
Sarah: There are so many reasons. We’re responding to the cry from government and industry that we need more entrepreneurs, scientists and engineers. We’re participating in the push for locally and responsibly made goods, and we’re engaging folks by providing equipment that they may not be able to afford individually. Apart from all of these very valid reasons, though, I think we make and help others make because we are inspired by the process. The first time I saw students working with robotics, I was blown away. They were working in teams to solve challenges, such as programming the robots to move materials from one space into another, and they were so incredibly engaged and excited. They were independently investigating programming options, taking measurements, collaborating with each other, and discussing multiple creative solutions. The atmosphere was electric. All these years later, after leading hundreds of robotics classes, I still get energized by the students and the process. This is how we grow lifelong and connected learners. Creating is such a natural human urge, and creating together brings out the best in humanity.
SB: What do you see for the future of libraries 5, 10, and 15 years from now? What will they look like?
Sarah: Almost exactly five years ago, I went to a ground-breaking virtual conference put on by Library Journal and School Library Journal called eBooks: Libraries at the Tipping Point. At that time eBook sales and circulation was rising exponentially and there was a very strong feeling that libraries might be in trouble without some major overhaul, and not just in their collection development strategies. Though we’ve seen eBook sales and circ level off, the experience and subsequent cultural dialog has left us asking, “What is the point of a library? Why are we here? How should we move forward?” I’m encouraged by these questions. Libraries have always had to adapt to changing technology, but never before have we really looked so hard at our fundamental purpose. The past five years have seen a lot of experimenting, with makerspaces, business centers, media labs, writing centers and more. In the next five years, I would like to see us get focused on the science part of library science, and structure our experiments so that we can evaluate their effectiveness. Within ten years I expect most library systems to have moved fully into outcome-based planning. We’ll identify community needs, map out strategies to address those needs through classes, collections and services, and have ways to track our progress towards those goals. As we do this, I think we will be working toward codifying new best practices, and within fifteen years we’ll consider ourselves community learning centers rather than book repositories.
SB: There is still a huge stereotype out there of the shushing librarian and libraries as places of quiet solitude and stacks of dusty books. How can librarians squash the stereotype and create the image of libraries, and librarians, as leaders in emerging skills and technology?
Sarah: It’s true. Libraries need to do some major rebranding. ALA’s new Libraries Transform campaign emphasizes that libraries today are more about what we do for and with people, rather than what they have. I think this is the essential element on which we need to focus. It takes us back to the question, “What is the library’s purpose today?” or “What should we be doing for and with people?” To me, the overarching answer is we need to be community learning centers, and we need to behave and market accordingly. In both school and public libraries we need to think and speak in terms of learning objectives, think of ourselves as educators, adjust our language to “classes” instead of “programs”, and embed ourselves in our communities. Librarians have always been great at referring folks to the right resource at the right time. We need to recognize and celebrate that the right resources might sometimes be us and be bold enough to say so.
For the book I interviewed colleagues from school, public and academic libraries who are also using robotics with students, and all of them gave examples of how their experiences leading robotics has affected how they are perceived by others. After leading the school robotics team, one media specialist talked about how he is now in near constant communication with the physics teacher and practically co-teaches an English class. Fellow teachers see him as a vital resource, coming to him for tech help and to collaborate and his principal loves him. Another school librarian gave the phenomenal advice, “Don’t wait to be asked!” When it comes to emerging skills and technology, we need to just go ahead and lead. Recognition will follow.