A Librarian’s Role in a Child’s Future: Early Literacy Media Diets, STEM Programming, and MAKER Spaces

This June, I (Amy Laughlin) was lucky enough to attend the American Library Association’s annual conference in Chicago, Illinois after receiving a scholarship from Pratt’s Student Chapter of the ALA (SILSSA). Not only did I represent the Pratt SILS community, I also proudly represented the Darien Library (Connecticut), whom I currently work for part time, and will start working for full-time as a Children’s Librarian on August 1.

Many topics and hot-button issues interest me in the realm of library service. From my position at the Darien Library, I have become increasingly entrenched in library service to children, especially with understanding and becoming familiar with digital tools and their use by pre-readers (ages birth-five); how libraries can increase STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) programming for children; and the exploration of MAKER spaces in libraries. The sessions that I attended at ALA all related to these interests, and I am excited to share my experience with readers of this blog. It’s taken me about a week to let my thoughts from the conference develop, so please forgive my belated post and please read on to learn about my biggest ALA takeaways.

Maureen Sullivan at the ALA Opening General Session, Friday June 30 4pm:

“Libraries are one of the last trusted institutions in this country… librarians must take that role seriously”

The first session I attended at ALA was the Opening General Session, where librarians and attendees alike were treated to speeches by ALA President Maureen Sullivan, and keynote speaker Steven Levitt, author of Freakanomics and co-author of the forthcoming Think Like a Freak. Maureen spoke eloquently about library service in the present and threw out the amazing quote “Libraries are one of the last trusted institutions in this country… librarians must take that role seriously,” alluding to the recent government information leaks and a general distrust that many citizens likely feel towards government forces. This particular statement got me thinking: if we really are one of the last trusted institutions in the country, then we REALLY have to know our stuff. We have to be knowledgeable on a myriad number of subjects and be confident of our skills and knowledge when queried by colleagues, patrons, and bosses alike. We have to serve our patrons without judgment, aggression, or dismissal. We have to be passionate about our line of work without crossing that fine-line separating zest from hysterical importance. In short, we have to know our stuff, and continually stay in contact with others in our profession to stay abreast of the sentiments being traded by our peers.

Children’s Services 2.0: From Digital Storytimes to MAKER Spaces

The big theme for the array of ALA programs, lightning sessions, and conversation starters that I attended this year all looped back to STEM. An acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, STEM programs inspired me to attend as many sessions as possible that would inform my professional development within the realm of STEM. I wanted to enrich my knowledge of digital literacy for pre-readers, and understand better what exactly a MAKER space is and what we as librarians are supposed to “do” with them. In Darien, the Children’s Library is getting ready to unveil a new MAKER space, and my attendance at ALA seemed to fit in perfectly with my goal of becoming as MAKER-fluent as possible!

“How do we turn digital media devices into tools for engagement?”

There’s the old adage in children’s libraries that says “it’s never too early to start developing early literacy skills.” Most children’s libraries around the country that host storytimes have dedicated lap-sit story hours for pre-walking infants, as studies have shown that children are more likely to be better students, readers, and learners if they are read to as infants.

So where does digital media fit in with current Early Literacy Standards? I attended a session which helped shed light on this issue which is dominating many children’s library departments across the U.S. The session, entitled Apps from A to Zoo, was hosted by none other than Sarah Houghton, AKA The Librarian in Black. Attendees heard from a slew of great speakers about the importance of early literacy training for staff who work with children. A representative from the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media (yes, he and Mr. Rogers are one in the same) spoke eloquently about how digital devices fit in with early literacy development and how we as librarians can better our communities. He recommended first working on one’s own digital literacy before embarking on adding digital tools (like iPads, Nooks, Kindles, etc.) into a library program. After all, how can someone truthfully or expertly recommend how to use a device if they aren’t familiar with them?

Another great recommendation on digital literacy from the Fred Rogers Center is to simply apply developmentally appropriate practices to a new set of tools, which in this case are digital tools. If you can teach a child a new concept, such as letter recognition, by using an iPad app, do so! If the device itself will inhibit or add difficulty to the lesson itself, don’t use it! It’s that easy. Using iPads in a program or storytime should add to the early literacy experience, not detract from it. Parents and caregivers will regard our usage of digital devices as a model for how to use them in their own home, so it is important to test a device and be 100% confident with it before using it in your own storytime.

Sarah Houghton put it quite succinctly during the session when she said “You automatically have credibility by saying that you are a librarian.”  Having knowledge of and being fluent in the different digital tools and apps available today is essential to our field. Library patrons listen to what librarians have to say, and we must be experts in these fields for the sake of our own credibility and so that we may continue to enrich children’s learning. Success in life now depends heavily on being technologically savvy; children who have access to digital tools are learning both tech skill and literacy skills. Digital literacy and digital tools are a one-two punch that all of us children’s librarians should be on board with!

I’ll have more on Maker Spaces in a bit!

ALA Exhibits

There were many wonderful parts about this year’s ALA conference, including sessions on a wide variety of topics, famous  lecturers, and so much more.  One of my favorite things about the conference was the exhibit hall where vendors set up booths to advertise their products be they 3-D prints, software, or the latest books.  Many vendors offered some kind of raffle or giveaway to entice passersby into stopping to look, and it works!  At a gathering of bibliophiles, offering up free books is like tossing meat in a pool of piranhas.  During several days of the conference there were times designated for authors to do book signings at their publisher’s booth in the exhibit hall, and the lines that formed to get a signed book were often daunting.  The publishers themselves were very interesting to talk to; I had opportunities to speak with representatives of large publishers, as well as with very small publishers dealing with a very specific genre.  Everyone seemed genuinely interested in everyone else’s role in the information world, and as a student I received a lot of questions and encouragement about my plans or hopes for the future.  There were more fields than publishing and authorship represented; other booths displayed 3-D Printers, a book-mobile, library specific furniture, and a myriad other things.  One thing that I ran into over and over again was everything about e-books.  There were vendors showing products for checking out e-books, Journals with new e-features (National Geographic has a new virtual library and JSTOR was showing off new botanical and 19th Century British pamphlets collections),  e-book readers, e-book software, etc.  Everyone I spoke to and heard speak in sessions about e-books seemed confident and excited about the shift toward e-book use in libraries, but also unsure about what that meant as far as what libraries would look like in the future.  As recurrent as the topic of information becoming predominantly digital was was the need for personal interaction, obtaining digital literacy, and power of the library space to provide that.  I came away with a positive feeling about the fundamental role libraries have in our cultural and democratic systems, and that the need for libraries is not at all weakening as things go digital.

The Exhibition Hall was a time stealer- it was so huge that it was impossible to visit every vendor in one go and still attend sessions, and new events occurred in the Exhibit Hall on different days.  I am very glad I spent so much time speaking with vendors, though, because it really broadened my awareness of fields that are important to libraries and collections that I perhaps did not think much about or even know of before.  And it’s a great way to meet really interesting  and wonderful people.  I will certainly make sure to schedule a generous amount of time to explore exhibits next time I go to an ALA conference.

ALA Conference Day Two Images

Day Two at the ALA Conference featured plenty of authors, poster sessions and book mobiles. – Michelle Lee

First Day

The ALA 2013 conference is overwhelming: trekking the distance of the length of a football field to get from one session to the next, the abundance of events and overlapping session times, the incredible number of people attending, the never-ending kiosks in the exhibition hall, the constant barrage of information, and the price of lunch in the food court. Despite all of that, it’s incredibly fun and informative!

Yesterday was the opening day of the conference, and I spent my time in an all day session called “Discovery to Delivery: Rethinking Resource Sharing.” Some topics discussed were resource sharing in academic and public libraries, new ideas in discovery, and physical/virtual delivery of library items including Inter-Library Loans. One of the most interesting discussions for me was about a public library that had worked hard to integrate e-books into their collection by making deals directly with the publishers. The library drafted a contract agreement with a lawyer, and have successfully forged mutually beneficial agreements with over 900 publishers of e-books in which the library owns the file and also contributes to the public awareness of the book and author. The speaker described the almost unanimous interest of authors to sell their e-books to libraries.

After the session, I attended the welcoming address of the ALA president. There were some words of optimism and she gave a few awards. Then we heard a short talk by Steven Levitt, one of the authors of the popular book “Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores The Hidden Side of Everything.” He is an incredibly entertaining and witty speaker with self-effacing humor. He told us about his history of failure- he wanted to be an economist like Alan Greenspan, but he lacked the one thing economists feel is most important in their profession: he was not good at math. Somehow he was admitted to MIT, and was advised to take the very lowest level math course, which he only passed because the teacher was deterred by the large amount of paperwork it would incur to fail him. He explained he suspects that that’s how he made it through the program, actually. But he graduated, and is now a professor of economics. He told hilarious stories about his father advising him to choose an understudied and non-glamorous subject in his field to apply himself to so that no matter what he was able to contribute, it would be well received (which is what his father did; after graduating from medical school he went into gastrointestinal medicine). He wrote his very successful book, and followed it up with a sequel that confronted global warming issues. He and his partner were convinced that a group of well intentioned environmentalists would not come to any conclusive plans to stop the crisis because it has never happened before that a group of well intentioned people could make a large scale change by simply doing what’s best (if there are any individual reasons to not do what’s best for the whole, the project won’t work). The environmentalists were hurt and angry about this pessimistic outlook, but ultimately he was right. Unfortunately, the book did propose realistic solutions, but they have been disregarded because of the ill-feelings his prediction caused. He also told us about research he was doing regarding prostitution rates in Chicago. A prostitute found out about his research, contacted him, and offered to share the information she had saved in her phone from all of her past business interactions. This was very useful for his research, and during their conversation he found out that she charged $300 an hour for her services, and was generally impressed with the knowledge she had about her business except for how she had determined her rate. She had gone online and looked at profiles of other women to see what they charged and settled for something that seemed reasonable. He mentioned that this was not a smart way to go about deciding how much to charge for something. Some time passed, and Levitt wanted to write a lecture for his course, but decided it would really be better if the prostitute came in as a guest lecturer, so he invited her to come lecture at the rate she would normally charge for other services. She agreed, and delivered an excellent lecture. When it came time for students to ask questions, one wanted to know how much she charged, and she said $400 and explained that the first time she’d been with Dr. Levitt, he had made her realize she was undercharging for her services and raised the rate by $100. Of course, this not only meant that the students made wrong assumptions about their professor, but he also had to pay her $200 more than he had anticipated for the two hour talk. He concluded by telling us that when presented with a problem, one should consider the incentives of the people involved and throw out assumptions about morality, regardless of the situation. While not directly related to Librarianship, I felt this was an interesting way to begin the conference. Levitt’s work requires a specific way of using information, finding correlations, and problem solving- and in a field that is experiencing such rapid change, it is useful to think about problems in new and creative ways.

How to prepare for disasters in libraries

Opening day at the American Library Association Conference buzzed with activity. Hundreds of librarians crowded the convention center at McCormick Place – attending early information sessions, milling around exhibit booths and checking out the latest in books, digital products and library services.

The “Beyond Words: How to Recover from a Disaster in You Library” workshop provided tons of great, practical advice for libraries, archives and other institutions to get ready for emergency situations. Library media specialists Connie Hale from Herald Whitaker Middle School in Salyersville, Ky., and Debbie from Joplin High School, in Joplin, Mo. also shared their experiences with recovering from tornadoes that destroyed their schools.

The biggest takeaway from the workshop speakers was to prepare, prepare, prepare as much as possible ahead of time.

Organize a disaster response team (if one does not already exist) and craft a risk assessment plan for the scenarios your institution would most likely face, such as blizzards, fires or storms, said workshop facilitator Christie Kaaland, a school librarian and faculty member at Antioch University in Seattle.

Establish a communication plan and make sure it includes all important contact names and phone numbers for staff and local emergency responders. Have a chain-of-command and list everyone’s roles and responsibilities. Keep extra backup lists and information on how to help people with special needs.

When gathering emergency supplies, important items include water (gallons for drinking and cleaning), first-aid kits, disinfectant gloves, garbage bags, batteries, flashlights, radios, walkies-talkies, and a file documenting everything in the emergency supply kit.

Some common library supplies can do double-duty in an emergency – library and storage carts can transport emergency supplies, whiteboards can be used for signs and staff cameras can document everything that happens, Kaaland said.

Do survey of your library/archive/collection to figure out how vulnerable it can be in an disaster. Secure bookshelves and try to keep the bottom shelf free of books to avoid flooding problems, and keep stacks away from seating areas. Avoid overcrowded displays that can easily topple over. Avoid blocking emergency exits.

For libraries and institutions that might serve as an emergency relief center, consider keeping a list of book or activities to comfort children and adults, such as Dr. Seuss books or board games.  

Two other important tips workshop attendees mentioned include switching up emergency disaster drills to help keep people alert, and, for circulating libraries, making sure your institution’s insurance policy includes coverage for off-site property (which would allow unreturned books and other materials to be tallied up as an insurance loss in the aftermath of a disaster).

– Michelle Lee


Antioch University Seattle faculty member and school librarian Christie Kaaland, left, spoke about emergency preparation at the “Beyond Words: How to Recover from a Disaster in You Library” workshop Friday. Herald Whitaker Middle School in Salyersville, Ky., and Joplin High School, in Joplin, Mo. also received $50,000 grants to help the school libraries rebuild after tornadoes destroyed their schools. The workshop and the American Association of School Librarians‘ (AASL) Beyond Words Grant were funded by the Dollar General Literacy Foundation.





And it was all over in the blink of an eye…

My apologies for the radio silence, but I’m in Chicago now. I left MSP on Wednesday and puddle-jumped to chicago, where my new airbnb spot is a small (though average by NYC standards) studio in the back of a lovely house just south of wicker park. A very brief run around the neighborhood this evening revealed the plethora of shops, restaurants, and bars in the area, and jogged (no pun intended) my memory of having been in this neighborhood before. I recognize some of the places from a visit two years ago. I had no idea I would be somewhat familiar with the area. Hey, it was dark last time I was here. The commute to McCormick Place isn’t the most straightforward journey, but thanks to some ALA sponsored shuttle buses to and from major hotels downtown, it’s easier that I thought it was going to be. And my place has power, so I suppose I can’t complain.

Unfortunately, I had to miss the closing plenary of RBMS on Wednesday because I had that plane to catch but I am sure that, like the rest of the conference, it was fantastic.

Tuesday was another day full of awesome sessions, starting with a seminar on teaching (with) primary source materials, which was chock full of some really stimulating discussion and information about how to teach primary source literacy, why that’s important, and how we should assess these programs. Not only does primary source literacy improve critical thinking, observation, and interpretation skills in students, it also often opens the world of archives and special collections to students who may not otherwise have taken to step to explore these resources. And it encourages students to consider working in the field. Seems pretty win-win to me.

The Variety talks after lunch were another favorite, covering annotations and marginalia, hand press era books as performance pieces, and a live performance of an old civil war era song during a last minute presentation on using period music (and instruments!) to supplement and enhance history lessons for elementary school students which was not only fun but also representative of some of the creative ways to use – and encourage students to use – special collections. The annotation talk, given by Anne Garner of NYPL’s Collection, covered the marginalia by Dickens and Nabokov in their personal copies of a Christmas carol and Madame bovary, respectively. Super cool to see how each man trimmed, commented, edited, and annotated their works for the purposes of reading aloud or teaching. And again, I am fascinated by the detective work involved in tracing those notes and putting still another performance/presentation together from the pieces.

Tuesday night was the reception at the Mill City Museum, which was awesome, and if you are even in MSP, I highly recommend going. A fun museum in a beautiful old flour mill with a great view of the Mighty Mississippi River. And I met more really cool people.


But now I am here, at ALA, and there are so many things to do and so many people and it’s all really exciting and a little overwhelming!

I met up with James Adams (SILSSA president) yesterday at McCormick Place to pick up our badges and check out the place. Nothing was really open yet, as yesterday was primarily day long workshops that I didn’t have money for (though there was one on RDF which sound really cool) but we did somehow find ourselves in the upper level exhibition hall while they were still setting up and holy cow! It’s going to be amazing! Here’s a photo, snapped through a glass window of the main exhibition hall, just to give you a sense of what’s going on here:


It opens this evening. Prepare yo selves!!

Hip Hop, Bibliograpy, and Mysteries

RBMS officially began this morning with the opening plenary at 8:30. I love the fact that, because this conference is on the smaller size (compared to ALA, for example) we are able to all gather together once a day in one room to hear a keynote speaker talk about something really cool. This morning featured the Katherine Reagan from the Cornell Hip Hop Collection, and Larisa Mann from NYU talking about the Cornell collection, Jamaican popular music, access, identity, and authenticity. So my morning started with a little Rapper’s Delight, which was awesome.

Forty-five minutes and one cup of coffee later, I sat in on a seminar about “collecting in the moment”, featuring the digital archivist from UVa detailing her experience trying to archive the social media response to the ousting and the reinstatement of President Sullivan last year. At the end of it all, her advice was to not do what she had done. Working in a crisis situation, under extreme time constraints, of course her process wouldn’t be considered “best practices”. But honestly, archiving sites like twitter and Facebook and blogs is such a relatively new thing, that I’m not really sure if anything that has been tried so far can really be considered “best practices”. Either way, it was a super insightful seminar, and I no longer feel as intimidated by attempting to archive tweets. Sure, it’s not easy, but there are so many tools available, and more becoming available every day.

The highlight of the day, however, was the “Bibliography in Action” seminar which was way mor exciting than it sounds. Hearing from some expert bibliographies on their processes and experiences working with some particularly elusive or confusing works, such as a 15th century medical calendar about bloodletting which was also at one point a paste-down on a book binding or Shirley’s ‘Triumph of Peace’. The amount of research and dedication involved is positively staggering, extremely admirable, and so very very valuable. Hearing their stories, though their work is so academic, was like reading a detective novel – so many mysteries, surprises, and unexpected turns and discoveries. It made me so excited to learn more about bibliography, and to hopefully attend the Descriptive Bibliography course at Rare Books School next summer. I hear it’s akin to bootcamp, but I’m ready for it. Bring it on.

And in case you were wondering, my run this morning was delightful. 3.5 miles, down to Lake Calhoun (one of the 10,000) and back on the trail. This really is a beautiful city. Except for this:


The Power, or lack there of

A little dramatic irony, perhaps. A narrowly avoided minor crisis, at least. When I mentioned in my previous post that my airbnb was probably going to a unique experience,I had no idea how right I was. Minneapolis was riddled with storms prior to my arrival, and when I met Meredith at the airport she informed me that our hosts had contacted hey to warn us that the house was currently without power and had been for a couple of days. Wednesday, they were told, by the latest. This means no lights in the bathroom, no air conditioning, no Internet, no charging my already half-dead phone. While this would all be a fine and rememberable adventure, it was necessarily a welcome inconvenience. (Are any inconveniences really welcome?) We smiled about it, dropped our bags, crossed our fingers, and headed out downtown to check in to the conference and survey the lay of the land.


Almost immediately, we ran into Kyle Triplett, from the NYPL Rare books division, who introduced us to a bunch of people – and continued to do so throughout the day – and let me borrow his phone charger. We missed the technology petting zoo as we were caught up in conversation, and at 4pm Meredith and I attended the orientation/introduction session, which was a general overview of the pre-conference and RBMS. Next was the new members mixer, where we met more people, and the ABAA showcase and reception, where we got the opportunity to browse some booksellers booths, and meet still more people.

I knew coming here that this conference would be about learning and networking, and I am happy to say that so far I would consider it a success. I am so amazed and thankful that everyone here is so open and friendly, and willing to chat with you anytime about anything. There are probably a few hundred of us here, coming from such a wide range of institutions and experience, yet it really is such a welcoming and encouraging community. I’m so happy I was able to attend.

Exhausted by 8pm, Meredith and I walked the mile and a half back to our house in Whittier last night, dragging our tired feet after a long day and a dinner of grilled cheese. We kept a close eye on the lights in the houses along the way. “This block has power.” “So does this block.”
I saw Christmas lights ahead, “I think that’s our porch… Actually, I’m willing to money on it. That’s our porch.” We got our power back.

And we’ve got this lovely lady as a housemate:

Her name is Izzy.

Sunday : Day One

After a super early start (4:15 am! Whaat?!) and a brief but relatively painless layover in Chicago, I am finally in the air on my way to Minneapolis. Apparently, the weather there isn’t so hot right now, which reminds me that I forgot to bring an umbrella. Always something.
The layover was in some ways actually quite fortuitous, as I got to enjoy a terrible cup of airport coffee, people watch, and start planning my schedule for the next few days.

I am still slightly overwhelmed by the sheer quantity and spectrum of events happening at ALA, so I decided to ease myself in by planning RBMS first. Which also makes tons of sense because RBMS starts today. But, and I knew this would happen, I’m finding it a little difficult to choose which talks, discussions, and seminars to attend when so many of them take place at the same time!

The theme for this conference is “O, Rare! Performance in Special Collections” so there are some sessions which focus on performance and theatre materials – which isn’t exactly my area or interest or expertise – but there are also a lot of sessions dealing with current trends, new technologies, and very practical matters like reference instruction and working with antiquarian book dealers, so I think I’ll really be able to diversify my experience. I’ll be meeting up with/rooming with Meredith Mann, also of SILS and one of this years RBMS scholarship winners (congrats!), so maybe we can coordinate our schedules so that we can cover more ground. After Meredith and I talk more, I’ll finalize my agenda for tomorrow.

We both arrive (late) around noon, and after we find and settle in to our Airbnb house (which should be a unique experience) we will head down to the conference center for registration. We will hopefully have time to hit up the technology petting zoo before the orientation session begins at 4. And then the New Members Mixer starts at 5:30. It’s the only event for which I bought a ticket (largely because I’m on a budget here) but I thought it would be a good opportunity to meet and network with some new people. I brought a bundle of business cards with me, and I don’t want to just haul them back to Brooklyn again.

And after that I will probably zonk out. I don’t sleep well on planes, and I know the sleep deprivation will set in sooner than I think. I also have to get up a little early to go for a run before the Opening Plenary tomorrow at 8:30 – I am still in training, afterglow. Honestly, I’m looking forward to a little jogging exploration of Minneapolis.

Oh, and on an unintentionally well-timed and somewhat-related note, I got a new tattoo yesterday. Fellow SILSer Julie Hunter and I decided to buy ourselves graduation presents and assert our dedication to the field of information and library science.

So that happened.