The ALA/Information Today, Inc. Library of the Future Award is presented to an organization that plans, develops, and applies a patron-training program that explores IT in a library setting. The 2019 winner is Tulsa City-County Library, for its Digital Literacy Lab. I spoke with Kimberly Johnson (the library’s CEO) and Kiley Roberson (the library’s chief strategy officer) to learn about the lab and its most distinctive feature: flight simulators.
In the Lab
The American Electric Power/Public Service Company of Oklahoma (AEP/PSO) Foundation Digital Literacy Lab opened in October 2016. According to the website, “Library visitors may use the Digital Literacy Lab to develop new apps and software skills, try out new pieces of equipment, digitize family history, and more. We provide Orientations twice monthly for the Digital Literacy Lab, along with special programs and classes throughout the year geared towards all ages.” These include coding workshops, Photoshop 101 classes, Introduction to Video Editing programs, and Tech Talks on subjects such as machine learning and cryptocurrency.
After completing an orientation session, customers can schedule time to visit the lab and use any of its equipment hardware, such as a green screen, GoPros and handheld video cameras, tablets, and a virtual reality computer; software, such as Adobe Creative Suite, iMovie, GarageBand, and Final Cut Pro X; and digitization tools for tasks such as scanning photos and converting VHS tapes, cassette tapes, vinyl records, and film reels into digital files.
The website notes, “It is the responsibility of all our customers to learn how to use the resources and develop their own project ideas.” Customers also have to provide their own materials for whatever they’re working on, including DVDs and CDs. If they do need help with the equipment, they can use the Book-a-Librarian service to schedule one-on-one instruction for up to 45 minutes.
Roberson says, “The equipment is pretty easy to figure out once you’ve gone through the orientation, but some of the software, like Adobe Creative Suite, [has] a lot of different elements to it, so we do have our coordinator who’s stationed in that area, and when the lab is open, people can come in and use the equipment as needed. She’s available to answer any questions and work with them if somebody has something that comes up.”
Johnson adds that “customers want the option to be able to navigate the space on their own. And so what we’ve been working toward is how we create an environment where customers can feel confident, and have the confidence to navigate the equipment on their own, or if they want support, we’re there to support them as well. It’s embedded in our culture and how we provide services to the public.”
“About 7 years ago, we started a process of engaging our public on what a 21st-century library looks like to them, in order to meet their needs, and they overwhelmingly told us about creative-focus working spaces,” says Johnson. She notes that libraries have always tried to offer equipment and software that were out of the price range of their community members, and what would become the Digital Literacy Lab built on that idea, focusing on technology customers could use in a public setting.
After a 3-year renovation of the library’s central branch, the Digital Literacy Lab opened with support from the AEP/PSO. “As we were planning, we were renovating. There was a lot happening concurrently. I think finding the financial support for a big vision like this was really the only challenge we came up against,” says Johnson. The library had to determine what was going into the space, which it based on community feedback. “We also had to hire a coordinator, because this was a new service, and we didn’t have the space prior to the building being renovated, and so finding a coordinator to bring the vision alive was also a challenge in a good way.” Roberson notes that the coordinator is “very, very sharp, and she is able to run maintenance and updates on programs pretty regularly.”
Johnson says the lab is populated by all ages: For example, it offers coding for girls and programs for seniors. “The beauty of the space is, it is for all age groups, and there is something there for everyone.”
Roberson says that since the lab’s opening, it has had nearly 42,000 visitors, with more than 340 of them attending Book-a-Librarian appointments. There have been 350 programs in the space, with more than 5,500 attendees. And there have been 990 flight simulator lessons. For the most part, customers sign up for time in the lab, but walk-ins are welcome if the lab isn’t too busy. “There’s really no waiting list, but a lot of the equipment might involve a wait because it’s so popular,” says Roberson. “The digitization equipment, for example, gets a lot of use, and it takes time; you’ve got to sit there and wait for your whole home movie to get transferred over to a digital file.”
Roberson shares the story of a regular customer who would come into the lab after his workday and use Adobe Premiere for video editing. He had taken one orientation session on the software and practiced using it every day for weeks. Eventually, he was able to use his new skill to launch his own video-editing company. “He does wedding videos, and event videos, and all kinds of really neat things now, and he’s even come back [to the library] since then and taught a class on video editing,” she says.
Johnson notes that the library sees itself “as a partner in helping improve the quality of one’s life, and the fact that this free service can change his life in this way, and maybe others, to create another revenue stream, or pursue a passion, or just preserve memories for the family is something that our library’s really proud to be a part of.”
“Our makerspace works in conjunction with the Digital Literacy Lab, and that was obviously intentional,” says Roberson. Another story involves a mother and daughter using the audio lab in the makerspace to record themselves singing and playing instruments and then going into the Digital Literacy Lab to edit the recording, burn it onto CDs, and create a cover image for it so they could pass it out to their family members as Christmas gifts.
“Those are the moments that, when you’re creating this space, you can’t imagine how it’s going to make a difference, but you know it will. You provide the space and the equipment, and the public really shows you how they can use what you have put together for them. And so those stories are just really endearing,” says Johnson. Additionally, the lab creates library champions because “families [like those] are just so ever grateful for the library. They talk about how they say to their families and friends, ‘You should visit the library. Do you know you can do, you know, fill-in-the-blank thing?’”
The lab’s two flight simulators are extremely popular, Johnson says. “One of the things we wanted to do with the flight simulators is to really encourage STEM,” she notes. The planning team brainstormed how to add that element to the Digital Literacy Lab, looking for “a way that would bring in a diverse population of people, men and women. I think libraries tend to have more women and children in their buildings, but I think that’s changing now. Having flight simulators was one of the ideas that came up, and we thought we would go with it,” she says. “And it’s just flat-out fun.”
Customers age 12 and older can use the flight simulators after an orientation session, which the library schedules once or twice a day on weekdays for four customers at a time. Learn more here.
Advice and Feedback
Johnson believes that the lab is so successful because “we heard from the public. Engaging them in conversation about what they would actually use, what would benefit the public, is really the biggest piece of advice I would have.” Roberson agrees, saying that the library supplies the equipment, but it’s up to the customers to use it how they see fit. And the library has an ongoing survey. “We’re always asking our customers what they see next in the space, how we can improve,” says Johnson, “and then we take that information back to our leadership teams, and we start to talk about how we can expand services, what’s working, what’s not working, what are the future trends. So we’re always looking to improve, stay ahead of the trends, and explore what our customers’ needs are.”
Photos courtesy of Tulsa City-County Library