How One Indiana Library Is Successfully Making The Digital Leap!
Nestled in the heart of Greencastle, Indiana, Putnam County Public Library (PCPL) serves as the connectivity and cultural hub for many of the community’s rural residents. The library recently transformed its children’s department into the Imagination Portal, an interactive technological playground with an emphasis on digital literacy. This new youth services library allows for collaborative digital creativity such as movie making and music production; exploratory learning through emerging medias including video games, eBooks, web applications, and movies; hands-on experiential programming including performances, arts, and crafts; cooking and culinary studies; and lively story-time events. The Imagination Portal combines the spirit of discovery and learning inherent in the traditional literary experience with the excitement of technological transformation and immersion.
PCPL Director Grier Carson spearheaded the library’s transformation. “When I started, it bothered me that there was absolutely no integration of consumer technology within the children’s space,” says Carson. “I think we had a single iPad that nobody used. We had patron computers and AWE™ Early Literacy Stations, but that was it. Essentially, we had a very traditional children’s library. It was a nice space with a lot of picture books, primers, toys, and hands-on materials. We also had a story-time room that worked well, but it was closed off. It was a children’s space that parents loved, but there was nothing significant about it that drew people in.”
As a former technology director at a boarding school in Chicago, Carson understands the transformative impact technology integration can have on children and young adults. “In my former role, I was part of a team that launched one of the first iPad programs in schools, and I helped create an integrated technology learning environment for high school kids,” says Carson. “When I came to PCPL, I brought with me a design standard for an integrated library space that not only focused on state-of-the-art computers and mobile technologies, but also included strategies to present and make accessible some of the most common forms of media to our patrons, specifically video games, film, music, and interactive web-based platforms.”
First Step—Building a Robust Network Infrastructure
Overhauling PCPL’s existing network infrastructure was one of Carson’s first priorities. “With the help of ENA, we increased our Internet access from 10 Mbps to 70 Mbps,” says Carson. He also decided to replace PCPL’s locally managed wireless network with ENA Air, ENA’s turnkey Wi-Fi service. “We integrated ENA Air in order to provide our patrons with a robust wireless network,” says Carson. “I looked at performance data and saw that we needed improvements. We had a patchwork of common wireless routers installed throughout the library that we managed ourselves. It was really inconsistent. When our equipment went down, we had to replace the components ourselves. Last year we flipped that on its ear. We deployed ENA Air for Wi-Fi management, and we started outsourcing other services. This has been very effective in terms of managing the network and utilizing technology staff efficiently. I would much ratherhave my technology team members assisting our patrons with technology or planning future network improvements instead of managing network equipment all day. Everything about switching to ENA Air has been great. I wish we had done it sooner.”
Carson understands the necessity of having a reliable and robust infrastructure in place at his library. “I came from a school environment where I was a technology director and a library director,” says Carson. “Before we built a one-to-one (1:1) environment, we spent a couple of years working on our infrastructure. It is sometimes difficult for people to understand why building an infrastructure is so important because there is no immediate payoff. It is not viewed as a priority in terms of the budget because it is not visible. I think that is a mistake because a library’s infrastructure is critical. Our new technology plan focuses on that and our library board fully understands that as well. One of our primary goals is to maintain and support a robust infrastructure. We do not want our network to come to a grinding halt in five years when almost everything requires wireless access of some kind. I do not want to have to reallocate funding in order to get our network up to speed. We are preparing for the future now.”
Second Step—Sparking Imaginations With Digital Resources
When patrons step into PCPL’s Imagination Portal, the future already seems like a tangible reality. There is a palpable sense of excitement in the air as patrons discover the endless learning possibilities in front of them. Three large 4k flat screen monitors are mounted to the wall along with a giant projection screen and an Apple TV. A MIDI-capable digital piano is used in conjunction with freeware such as Audacity and Apple software like GarageBand and iMovie to support digital creativity programming. Toddlers and teenagers alike are busy engaging with the library’s video game consoles, touchscreen desktop computers, and Mac devices. “I have overheard new families say ‘this is like heaven’ or ‘this is like a playground’ because there are so many things to do,” says Carson. “That is music to my ears. Our role is to facilitate literacy in all of its forms, and we define literacy as more than just words printed on a page. We need to embrace video games, music, and film as narrative art forms and legitimize their role in today’s 21st century library environment.”
Carson understands that public libraries are at a crossroads in terms of defining their role in today’s technology-driven society. Some patrons are resistant to change and would prefer their libraries to remain quiet places of solitude. “When you walk into the Imagination Portal, you immediately notice that it is a technology-heavy area,” says Carson. “However, we are also very conscious of the fact that we are dealing with a children’s space, and that we need to keep one foot firmly rooted in the tradition of print literacy. We take our early literacy story-time program very seriously, and we know that there is great value in providing children access to hands-on materials like floor puzzles, trainsets, and blocks.”
Remembering the Past, Looking Toward the Future
Carson believes that today’s libraries need to evolve to meet the needs and demands of their future-ready patrons. “I don’t think it’s wise for libraries to sit back and be a sanctuary from the cacophony of the digital world,” says Carson. “I think we need to do the opposite. We need to expose our patrons to the world online and the world of culture, media, and communication. It is our duty to provide our patrons with the tools they need to navigate the world successfully. In our own county, we are trying to close the digital divide by providing our community’s residents with access to devices and online content that they do not have at home. We host a series of technology courses to bridge the gap. These courses are extremely popular and well-received by our community members.”
Libraries are on the precipice of a digital leap, and it is imperative that they take the steps now to prepare for the future. “In order to avoid massive skill set discrepancies across our citizenry, public libraries are going to have to become places where everyone can go to get free and equitable access to resources like the Internet,” says Carson. “What we have accomplished in our children’s department is a flagship for what we will be doing throughout the rest of our library, save for one or two areas. Our library will become a place where patrons can be creative, collaborate with their peers, and explore the world around them. That is how we are going to [engage] the next generation of library users.”
PCPL’s Imagination Portal is changing the learning landscape in this small, rural Indiana community. By providing its young patrons access to a plethora of innovative and engaging digital resources, games, and tools, the library is preparing the next generation for the world around them.
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