The Grind: a framework for library programs



Changes are coming to libraries, no matter how much some patrons and librarians may not want them.  Maker spaces, digital skills, games and content creation in libraries are all taking hold even in the most conservative systems. The problem is they are usually wrapped in a package called programs.  Now programing has been a major part of a public libraries role for years.  Traditionally the offerings were a certain type that I would call them show and tell.  What is a show and tell?  Informal teaching situations; an artist displaying their work, children’s story time, an author talking about their book, a talk about travels in other countries or a historical event, usually in reference to a book.  Which is basically a more adult story time.


As a plus Show and Tells require very little in the way of training and infrastructure for the library.  Set up some chairs, maybe a projector or some music, and the program is done.  If there is a problem with this, it is they offer little in the way of interaction with the audience. For the traditional role of a library they are perfect.  However as we move to the idea of a participatory library should we be asking more of our programs?


The model that most systems use is the classroom.  The model is inspired by our educational system and the fact the Gates Foundation gave free computers in exchange for classes.  My experience teaching classes is that really there is less and less need for this kind of instruction. Especially in the cases computer classes, Digital Natives learn software easily and use online resources easier still.  Like dictionaries, phone books, and other ready reference resources, classes are another area where libraries cannot challenge the Internet. A surplus of YouTube videos on any given subject and online classes like Udacity, Udemy, Lynda and Coursera, are easier for most, available anywhere, and can be offered by experts cheaply.


When it comes to maker spaces, I question if classes are even possible or practical for libraries. They prove problematic, as staff require fairly high levels of technical skill and must be actively engaged with refining, learning and teaching those skills.  It is problematic for administrators also, since those skills can pay substantially more than librarianship currently does.  So acquiring that talent takes money away from shrinking budgets.  As a workaround, I have seen one system rely heavily on volunteers.  The danger there is self-evident. Another system tried trading access to equipment for requiring patrons to teach classes.  I liked the idea but would think not only is it an onus on the patron, just for access to the equipment they are supposed to be offered anyhow, but begs the question if patrons can effectively teach.  Maybe the question is not how do we staff to teach, but do we NEED to be teaching. Libraries specialize in the self-directed learner. Instead, I say we look at that other staple of library programs: the book club.


Now, as an aside, let me share some of my experience with patrons (mostly teens) and classes involved with creative activities.  I have taught some media classes with basic programs.  In these classes, patrons have come in who were doing 3D, Photoshop, or filmmaking that was technically impressive and obviously time consuming. Still, I would say most of the work was terrible.  They understood the interface, after all it was just another computer program to them, but the work was at best a knee-jerk application of filters and presets. A similar complication is the speed of changes in technology.   My phone will put filters on pictures, crop, change colors and hue; combinations that took hours to do in Photoshop 10 years ago.  Usually that is the kind of manipulation with a program that people teach.  How quickly this technical skill becomes automated means we are constantly teaching new interfaces.  Learning these takes precious man-hours endlessly creating, refining and scheduling classes that are likely to be useless in a year.


The problem I saw is not the ability to do these things, but valuing how, when and why to do it.  The sense of judgment and purposeful use of a program is something that cannot be taught in a class. It has to be learned from experience. Musicians know this; no one picks up a saxophone and is good.  They try, and they fail and then they can do it again, and if they are lucky they get the right note.  It they really keep going they realize how to do it a little differently then others, maybe a little better.  As a video editor I started by doing 30 second basic cable commercials.  I did an average of 15 a week for two years. By the end of that experience I was a decent editor, not because I was taught correctly, but because I got better at seeing my mistakes.  I developed what in art is called “an eye” or in music “an ear”..   Doing something repeatedly lets you see your mistakes, creates an understanding that we do not get good at something just by learning how, but by doing it, and then doing it again and trying to do it better. The process of pumping out work; digital, artistic, or crafty, I call the GRIND.


How does this relate to book clubs? Book clubs do NOT teach how to read.  They do NOT teach what good writing is.  They do NOT teach the VALUE of the book. They are frameworks for patrons to discover it themselves.   A person in a book club can read anything at anytime, it is the constraint of the club and community that gives reading it value. It is this that makes patrons work though a book a month (not that most librarians would consider that work) to talk about it and share. Rather than teaching skills we should provide a framework for self-learning.  We need to run programs that structure participatory activities like a Book club’s structure reading.


Hack-a-thons, which some libraries have already embraced, is exactly the sort of program that I think we should be doing, there is also a need to focus on fewer digital events using the same framework. We should also be looking to the structure of the 48-hour film festival, a film festival where filmmakers shoot and edit a movie in two days based on a prompt. Or the Ludnum Dare, basically a 48 hour film festival except with video game production instead of film.  The teams in both are not always people who know each other; they are ad hoc production crews, who come together just for this challenge. These sorts of events as compared to just a regular film festival or art show, encourage creation with constraints and in teams.  Providing both a challenge and an opportunity for the community to come together. 


The framework can be non- digital; I attempted to create a community garden, a colleague hosts music camps that they also help teach, which ends in a big performance of the songs the students worked on.  I would like to see a library sponsored making competition like “junkyard wars”.  Remember that television show where teams came together to compete to build some sort of device to throw a watermelon or race through mud, using only resources available in a Junk Yard?  If your looking for less competitive ideas, an animator I know is drawing 100 character in 100 days, sounds grueling but I bet she is getting a lot from the discipline of HAVING to make a new character, even if it is terrible.  Another acquaintance is doing one-hour films; he has found the challenge has made him grow as a filmmaker.  More than just being and easy program, these offer a very specific value.  They are framework in which the work has purpose, beyond just learning the skill.  Our patrons learn the skills because they want to, we can give them a meaningful outlet for that skill.  Perhaps using the library as a platform for sharing it or making it useful.



So my proposal for the participatory library is that programs should encourage the Grind.  Not trying to teach, but about offering opportunity and community to use the skills they have..  These programs would give them the opportunity to work in ways they were not originally doing. It would help them judge their own work against others.  The community helps create realistic expectations for their development, the limitations create the challenge, and the challenge is the fun part.  I would refer you to the work on FLOW and how overcoming challenges is the nature of play and fun.  It is an important part of understanding how serious games and Gamification work, the topic of my book “Game It Up!” published by Roman and Littlefield.  More importantly though, these programs would be placing libraries at the center of the community as not only a resource for information but an outlet for peoples skills and interests. Unlike a class that is started and mastered, it would be part on an ever-ongoing learning process, which is what libraries were created for.

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