Are Digital Media Labs the Libraries of the Future?

Could a digital media lab in downtown Chicago be the library of the future?

As electronic books and other digital media become more popular, libraries are going through an identity crisis. Their role as repositories of bound books is uncertain in the long-term future, and nobody knows what the next iteration looks like. YOUmedia, a two-year-old teen learning experiment that incorporates digital media into a wider educational experience, could be a model for what neighborhood libraries across the country might become.

Housed in an old storage area of the Chicago Public Library’s downtown Harold Washington Library Center, YOUmedia isn’t just a place where teens come to check out books. "We are in one of these rare moments in time where what it means to be literate today, what it meant for us, is going to be different from what it means to be literate for our kids," Nichole Pinkard, who developed YOUmedia, told USA Today. To keep up, Pinkard and the YOUMedia team build the space as a vibrant community learning center that seeks to inspire collaboration and creativity.

YOUmedia is in Chicago’s Loop, right at the intersection of several of the city’s train and bus hubs. The design of the space replaces the sterile shelves of traditional libraries with a setting that more closely resembles a cozy living room or collegiate lounge. And, while students can still access the thousands of books in the library’s collection, the center also comes equipped with computers, video cameras, video and photo editing software, and an in-house recording studio with keyboards, turntables, and a mixing board. It’s all free for any high-school student with a library card.

While all the technology and resources are great, what makes the space truly work is that the teens aren’t left to their own devices once they walk through the doors. Exploring individual interests is encouraged, but YOUmedia is staffed by mentors from the Digital Youth Network and by experienced librarians who run structured workshops and projects to help students build their critical thinking skills and creativity.

Some of the dozens of workshops offered are ones that you'd associate with a traditional library. But courses on radio podcasting, fashion photography, graphic design, and the production of YOUlit, the student-produced online magazine definitely follow a 21st-century concept of a library as a multifaceted learning space.

YOUmedia is beginning to expand to other branches of the city's public library system, but it's requires a significant investment of financial and human capital. Whether the YOUmedia model expands elsewhere will certainly depend on whether public and private entitites work together to make it happen.

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