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This Month’s Learning Innovation: Games Engaging Teens

Every week, for two hours, dozens of teens gather at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, East Liberty branch. They meet in the afternoons, from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., after school is done. Sometimes they get there early and finish homework, often with a little help and guidance from Simon Rafferty, one of the CLP-East Liberty Teen Librarians. They come in the summer months, too, without fail. What is the draw? When 4:30 rolls around, they all head upstairs…for two hours of gaming.

The CLP has found that providing games – video games, old fashioned board games and word games, high tech music games – is a way to draw teens into the library….and keep them coming back for more.

“It’s for teens age 12 to 18,” Simon explains, “and it’s been going on before I even got here, but it’s sort of really blown up in the last year or so. It’s just been a great way to bring teens into the library. When we go on outreach, we talk about gaming and that’s what gets teens excited.”

They play in groups, alone, and even with Simon. “We have an Xbox 360 on a widescreen TV; we have PlayStations,” he adds. “It’s mostly cooperative games because we’re really into having games that are about playing with each other. It’s a very social environment.”

So why are Carnegie Library branches all over the city scheduling weekly Game Days for teens? “The library has been an evolving thing. It’s not all about books anymore. Books are a very important thing that we provide, but we’re also providing movies, music. We’re a cultural experience. And with teens, gaming is such a big part of being a teen, so it’s really important to be able to share that love of gaming in a place like the library,” Simon says.

So, the library is becoming more relevant to teens, meeting their interests. But by providing access to these games, CLP is doing much, much more: It’s also leveling the playing field.

“A lot of these kids can’t afford these games,” Simon continues. “Games are incredibly expensive. And to be cut off from that part of culture can really affect you in school, affect your social aspect.” Gaming helps teens develop many skills: they learn to work with each other; they learn to win – and lose – graciously. They are also picking up some STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – skills through games like Minecraft and SimCity.

But that’s not all CLP does: Gaming leads them to other great CLP programs, like The Labs, a popular and unique program currently at three sites around the city -- East Liberty, the main branch in Oakland and on the North Side.

“The Labs is a place where teens get to use expensive technology and equipment that professionals are using, so they’re using things like Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, DSLR cameras, Garage Band and music equipment and they have great mentors who work with them, teaching them skills to figure out how to use these things to create their own work,” Simon says.

One of those mentors is André Costello, who is also a teen specialist library assistant at East Liberty. “What I do is help with programming, help run these creative technology programs. I have a background in music and graphic design and I help with a lot of the software and things like using robotics kits. I work to get these kids being creative and expressing themselves in a really healthy way.”

The Labs are located in those three locations to be geographically and demographically positioned to provide the least amount of distance to travel and to be in diverse neighborhoods, André explains. Regular programming includes workshops run by Labs’ mentors and open labs where the equipment is available to the teens to use in their own projects. “We do music audio workshops, photo and video design and makers’ crafts,” he adds. And it’s all coordinated by Corey Wittig, Digital Learning Librarian in Teen Services at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

“Our main priority is to reach teens all across the city,” Corey says. “Our ongoing goal is to draw teens to the library, and gaming is one of the ways we do it. It’s an entry point” to bigger programs, like The Labs. “We see it as a tool in our arsenal of engaging teens.”

It’s also a way to practice “Connected Learning,” connecting teens, Corey explains, to “the things that matter in their lives. Eventually, this may help them do better in school, develop job skills, build confidence, meet other kids, adults and mentors. We’re helping to guide teens to something they care about, and connecting them to opportunities around the city and community that may speak to their interests.”

The Labs are actually based on a national program, and they have proven so popular that there are plans to expand to more locations here in Pittsburgh in the future. It – and Gaming – is changing the way teens view libraries.

“This is a different way of thinking about what the library can do for you,” André says. “It’s become more like a community center, a central point where you can come. But the main thing is thinking about the library as a place for making. So this is a starting point for potentially a new thing that can be expanded to other age ranges. So, starting with the teens we’re focusing on this sort of maker space, this maker idea, and it’s technologically centered, which is different for the library, but it still celebrates information.”

These things work really well, André continues, “because I see these kids in here all the time, smiles on their faces, and I’ve seen them go from a place of being standoffish to being really creative. They’re interest driven and they’re on their own and they’re creating without us telling them what to do anymore.”

The library, Simon concludes, “has become a really fun place that’s geared towards teens. We’re really focusing on trying to make the experience unique and something just for them.”

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh
CLP The Labs

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