Providing access to cutting edge technology services is a critical role for modern libraries and digital initiatives must align with local priorities to effect community change. To serve as an effective digital inclusion leader in its community, Oak Park Public Library used Edge data and resources to shape the library’s strategic planning around technology and ensure that all members of the community have access to the resources and services needed to succeed.
OPPL serves a dense urban population just outside of Chicago and, through community conversations and outreach, local residents continually identify the library as an important community resource for maintaining and supporting the diversity of that population. According to Sharon Comstock, OPPL’s assessment manager, the library believes that one of the most important ways to serve this diverse community is through digital inclusion, equity and empowerment.
“In this community, all technologies are social,” says Comstock. “They are not used in isolation and they’re not just tools. Technology not only builds community; it is community.”
Prior to taking the Edge Assessment in 2013, OPPL already led the community by providing a robust collection of modern digital resources and services. However, when Comstock joined OPPL in 2014, she realized that the library’s 2013 Edge data did not match what she was seeing in the library. Comstock and other OPPL leaders realized that the library implemented new technology in a more reactionary manner and needed to evaluate how technology would be used, how it would impact the community, and how the library could sustain these resources.
“Oak Park has always been progressive and on the cutting edge, but sometimes without knowing how to use these technologies and services to achieve the outcomes that our community needs,” says Comstock. “That is where Edge has helped to grow our understanding.”
Edge provided a clearer lens through which OPPL could tie technology services to community priorities and, in 2015, library staff used Edge to identify gaps and track the effectiveness of existing programs and services. The library shifted to a “design thinking” approach, an innovative problem-solving method that focuses on the needs of patrons and how library technology fits into their lives, such as searching for jobs online or accessing important health and civic information. The library assembled managers and other staff members into teams and conducted a year-long study of technology classes, user data, and site-based observations. OPPL retook the Edge Assessment in December 2015 and collated the results to establish a baseline for enhancing technology services in 2016.
Since retaking the Assessment in 2015, OPPL is taking significant steps to more effectively tie technology services to community needs. The library plans on hiring a new community resources manager with a background in social work to lead community outreach efforts and work with other organizations around shared objectives for engaging disadvantaged populations.
The library has also seen growing support for addressing early childhood digital behavior and literacy, particularly around connecting library and school resources to create a strong learning ecosystem. OPPL is redesigning technology classes by piloting coding programs and learning opportunities for girls. The library also created a Museum Informatics residency to support an initiative that, in partnership with the local school district, engages students in project-based digital learning lessons about the literary works of Ernest Hemingway, a native of Oak Park, Ill. To support school library resources for young people, OPPL has also embedded a librarian in the local high school to lead discussions and provide students with information about the library’s services.
Comstock looks forward to not only implementing OPPL’s new Edge Action Plan, but redefining what library technology services can do for her community.
“With Edge, we can start to figure out where technology lives and what we can do with it," she said. "We are now at a place to make decisions that make sense for us and the community. We are using Edge to redesign and reengineer what digital inclusion means with our community, not just for them.”
In May 2019, the Edge team followed up with Oak Park Public Library Director David Seleb to learn how OPPL has continued their use of Edge to inform improvement in their library. Read his responses below to learn how Edge has continued to help OPPL evolve its partnerships, technical collection and digital learning outreach initiatives.
Creating new and strengthening existing relationships with community organizations and local government entities, including Oak Park Elementary School District 97, has been a key outcome since participating in the Assessment.
Oak Park’s children's digital learning librarian, as a member of the Technology subcommittee of the District 97 Board of Education, played a pivotal role gathering insights to share with library staff and district leadership, and provided feedback on future policies.
As a result, more doors opened for public librarians and teacher librarians to collaborate, and to design new initiatives for both individual student learning in the classroom and family learning at home.
One example: a former Parents’ Tech Night evolved into a wider, more inclusive Code Fest. The public event gathered a record number of community members in an intergenerational learning event, connecting everyone through learning around science, technology, engineering and math.
Collections supporting collaboration
Impacts on a growing tech collection also resulted from participation in the Edge Assessment. To benefit Oak Park’s youngest residents, the library investigated then invested in a class-sized set of Beebots, a coding robot designed especially for preschoolers and early elementary school-age kids. Teachers and teacher librarians can borrow the set to incorporate technology learning into kids' daily lives.
Meeting learners where they are
For middle schoolers, the library created a Museum Informatics residency to support an initiative that, in partnership with the local school district, engaged students in project-based digital learning lessons about the literary works of Ernest Hemingway, a native of Oak Park, Ill.
And for high school students, Oak Park has embedded a teen librarian at the local high school to build relationships while providing students and their families more access to the library’s technologies and services.
Reaching out to narrow the digital divide
Adult and teen services librarians now regularly take technology learning on the road. This includes regular, recurring visits to Mills Tower, a local residence designed exclusively for seniors. It also includes a deeper relationship with Housing Forward, a social service agency transitioning people from housing crisis to housing stability. New initiatives included job seeker courses tailored specifically for Housing Forward clients, taught onsite at Housing Forward by Oak Park’s adult education and job seeker services librarian.
Recognizing the wide range of digital learning needs within its community, and how the classroom environment of one size fits all does not address needs equally, the library has built “by-appointment” learning labs and open tech drop in sessions into its regularly scheduled offerings. Here, members of the public — not only library cardholders — can get specific, customized assistance with a wide range of digital learning and technology questions.