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Teens help create model digital library

MuchCollege Prep students  Amaris AliceSusan Contreras Celeste Morplays piano YOUmediHarold WashingtLibrary Center Digital Library space for teens Monday October

Muchin College Prep students, Amaris Alicea, Susan Contreras and Celeste Mora plays piano at YOUmedia in the Harold Washington Library Center, a Digital Library space for teens, Monday, October 10, 2011. | John H. White~Sun-Times.

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Updated: October 10, 2011 8:44PM

On the ground floor of Chicago’s Harold Washington Library, an experiment is taking place that could determine what neighborhood libraries will look like in 10 years.

It goes like this: Take a very large room, and fill it with the latest digital media — laptop computers, music keyboards, recording equipment, video cameras and gaming consoles. Invite teenagers. Apply a little pressure, pushing them both to consume and produce media. Watch what happens.

Once a storage room, the high-ceiling, 5,500-square-foot space — dubbed “YOUmedia Digital Library Space for Teens” — has become a magnet for young people from across the city, so popular and influential that the library plans to replicate it citywide.

The original space downtown sees a steady stream of visiting librarians, educators and scholars. “When people see it, they’re completely gobsmacked,” says Mary Dempsey, city library commissioner.

Funded in part by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the project sprang from research on how digital media affect kids’ literacy. “We are in one of these rare moments in time where what it means to be literate today, what it meant for us, is going to be different from what it means to be literate for our kids,” says DePaul University’s Nichole Pinkard, who first envisioned the space.

Just as schools have always pushed teens to read critically and pick apart authors’ arguments, she says, educators must now teach kids how to consume media critically and, ideally, to produce it.

“It’s really a shift from thinking of a library as a repository to a community center, a place where things actually happen,” says Taylor Bayless, 27, a librarian and one of the center’s mentors.

YOUmedia owes much of its basic ideology to Mizuko Ito, a cultural anthropologist who, in 2006, studied how teens use “new media.”

After three years, her team concluded that most kids shift between three stages of consumption and creation, informally dubbed “hanging out,” “messing around” and “geeking out.”

On a recent afternoon, Bayless sat with a group of boys, helping them plan a taping of their weekly podcast about video games. One of the three was trying to get Bayless to think about how the game Bioshock owed its philosophy to the novels of Ayn Rand.

A few feet away, another boy repeatedly played a fragment of percussive digital music, shaving off microseconds as he struggled to fit it into a larger composition.

One thing different here is obvious: It’s loud. While bookshelves occupy a large central space, the sounds of music, video games and conversation are everywhere.

Poet and lead mentor Mike Hawkins says, “It’s a constructive loud.”

Gannett News Service

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