What Literacy Means Today

Recently, UnLondon interviewed the London Public Library’s Allison Pilon to talk about why digital literacy is vital to enabling kids to thrive in a today’s digital world. But don’t worry if you think you (or your kids) have missed out— she fills you in on what the library is doing to make this form of literacy fun and accessible for everyone.

Allison, what is your role at the London Public Library? What excites you about what you do?

I am a Branch Librarian. Every Branch has a branch librarian and a supervisor, and the branch librarian is usually responsible for children and youth programs. I’m on the Children and Youth Committee for the London Public Library, and we plan system-wide programs, and look at what the needs are for our communities within our branch communities. I also work with the general public, and that’s the most exciting part of my job — working directly with kids, children, and families. I get to plan exciting and unique programs for them, and I get to be sort of an expert for the children’s collection, so I know the children’s collection really well. Since I know it inside and out, I can help families find what they are looking for in terms of material.

What role does the Children and Youth Committee play in engaging kids in learning, education, and creativity?

We aim to have really relevant and accessible programs and collections for kids. We get together every two weeks during the year, and discuss what’s going on in the community, the sorts of things we want to do, and there’s also subcommittees within that that plan [things like] March Break, for example, or Summer. This past year I was on the Summer programming committee, which is why I got in touch with UnLondon to plan “Coding for Kids,” since I got to help plan the programs system-wide for the Summer.

We are always looking for ways kids can increase their literacy skills and offer programs that foster creativity and discovery.

More and more we are reviewing what we offer to families, and we’re more and more trying to follow STEAM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics] principles in our programs. So we’re looking at how we can have a multidisciplinary approach to what we’re doing, whereas the library has always been seen as just books. We’ll always have that attached to our name, being a library, but offering programs with a science element, or math [element], involved in it is kind of neat!

This summer we had awesome programs that followed those principles, and we had children learning by doing. So a lot of the programs we offered, like nature and gardening programs, makerspace programs, interactive craft programs, were not your typical library programs. We’re trying to get outside of the box, and look at new ways to offer programs.

As a librarian involved in new methods of programming and education, how do you define literacy?

Just being able to function in society by reading and writing, and, in terms of digital literacy, being able to use technology and being able to comprehend what’s going on; being able to use it, innovate with it, and share it.

I would say literacy is generally an understanding of how to do something. It can be reading and writing, but it also can be demonstrating or innovating.

It depends on your level of literacy. There’s the basic sort-being able to read an easy-type book, versus being able to share a presentation. These are two sorts of literacy. We’re always interested in how we can go above and beyond the basic literacy skills. Of course we want to have [the basic literacy skills](we do that with our earlier programs), but how can we take that beyond? How can we make those skills stronger?

Where did your interest in learning through STEAM begin?

I think that I’m interested in it because, for one, I’m a fairly recent grad. I graduated from library school in 2013 — just when makerspaces and all that stuff was getting really hot. I was introduced to it in library school, so it was exciting to hear all the different things that were going on. But I’m interested in it because [at the library] we are interested in all types of literacy. It’s so important that kids know how to use technology in today’s world; that they know how to navigate the world using technology. Whether it’s being able to use it or show someone how to use it, getting a job with it, there’s just so many reasons that it’s important for kids to have those digital literacy skills. We really find that its essential. Just as being able to read and write was important,and will always be important, now those [digital literacy] skills are increasingly important. To function in today’s society those skills are essential.

In terms of needs, we’ve mentioned that there is a need for a broader vision of digital literacy. What digital literacy needs are you meeting through your programs?

Our programs are educational. We have some underlying goals, but, like spinach in brownies, they’re supposed to be fun! It’s not supposed to feel like school, or like your parents are making you come to library programs. Whenever we bring out a new flyer for March Break or for Summer, we want the kids to see what we’re offering and be really excited about it. But there’s things like Minecraft (which is something I’m passionate about, I really love it!); it’s so educational and so incredible, but it’s so fun! The kids don’t realize the education they’re receiving when they play the game, but it’s huge! We have kids who come in to play Minecraft who know nothing about it and are five years old, they sit down, and in ten minutes they’re teaching me things-it’s just insane! So, it’s taking something that’s really fun with those underlying goals.

It’s the same thing we do with story time.You know, we’re teaching basic counting, the albhabet, but we’re doing it in a really fun way that involves using a parachute, or using props, or puppets. It can be a totally different way of traditional learning.

Who inspires your work in digital creativity? Who are you hoping to emulate in your programming?

We have so many great community partners. For example, UnLondon, you’re the experts in coding. We know that. I’ve taken very minimal classes in coding, and I trust you guys to know exactly what you’re doing. Same thing with MakerBus — they’re the experts in knowing about all of that awesome [maker] stuff. We don’t have to know everything, but by having great community partners who come in and offer those programs, that makes it great. About 75% of the programs we do are in house, and the other 25% are from our community partners — maybe even more than that, depending on the time of year. I’m always inspired to see what other groups and organization and even companies are doing. I mean, we’ve got some really amazing gaming companies in London that are doing some pretty incredible things. To be able to get in contact with them, ask them what they’re doing, share it with kids, show what they’re designing,or any sort of unique programming, it’s outside the box!

I’m also inspired by other libraries. I’m always looking at other systems — like Toronto Public, or Markham, or, a big one for the maker-world is Innisfil — they’re leaders in this field, and are offering incredible maker and tech programs. I’m inspired by others, and I am definitely inspired by other libraries.

At UnLondon, we are looking at ways to engage families and proliferate the learning experience beyond a single person. How is the library trying to engage families in the digital literacy/creative process?

That’s actually what happened over the summer. Through your coding classes, we found that parents actually wanted to sit in with the kids to try to understand what’s going on, and what you were doing to create stuff. That’s why we thought we should bring coding for families to the library-so the parents know what’s going on, besides just what the kids are doing. It’s really exciting to be able to offer that.

Parents play a huge role in helping their kids learn. They’re the role models, and they provide most of the opportunities for learning for kids outside of school, depending on the age. It’s really important that the parents have some sort of involvement, or at least interest, and offering them an opportunity to get involved with something. Parents also have the key advantage of, when they’re at home together, being able to tinker and practice things.

You know, you don’t need any high tech stuff to practice these skills.You just need to practice and try doing things together-pullnig something apart, and putting it back together, for example; using lego or cardboard to put something together. You can use the STEAM approach in whatever you’re doing, it just depends on what you are trying to accomplish!

We always encourage kids’ parents and their caregivers to play together in the library anyways-in our kids programming, kids and caregivers are welcome to come-so that they’re excited to see what their kids are doing.

As we look to London’s future, based on your work and other things going on with digital literacy and creative culture, how do you hope London will be described in years to come?

My hope is that we try.

That is my hope for any sort of program. We don’t have to be the leader or the best, but if we are trying new things, experimenting, trying to be creative, trying to make different things works, then that is already a huge accomplishment. It takes a lot of courage and energy to force yourself out of thinking as you normally have, as libraries usually do, and force yourself to go above and beyond.

We already are a leader, but if we had even more programs, or even more groups that were interested in that, then we could share it more broadly. That’s what so great about bringing those things into the library — we’re dealing with the general public. We deal with a lot of people who are at a disadvantaged, whether it’s financially or otherwise, so we get to reach out to them and provide them programs for free, which is a really exciting thing. You can’t always be a part of these programs, whether it’s at a museum or something, if you can’t afford it!

I mean, if you can come to the library, we will offer it for you, for free. I love the work that I do because of that, because we’re accessible and open to anyone. There’s really no excuse for not being creative or not discovering new things-we’re offering you that within the sixteen locations we have.

If you live in the London region, check out the London Public Library’s programs and events — you will be surprised at the amount of options they have!

UnLondon is offering coding classes for both kids and families in the coming weeks. Take a moment to check them out and sign up on the London Public Library’s website, or find them at UnLondon events page.

This post has been edited from its original publication.

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