Walking into the Teen Center in the Ives Main Library branch of the New Haven Free Public Library on Elm Street, I was not entirely sure what to expect: harshly enforced quiet space for homework or maybe solitary readers perusing novels.
What I did not expect was an excited and animated conversation between Teen Librarian Margaret Girgis and a group of high school students about Foursquare. Earlier, one of the librarians had showed them how to play the energetic game involving a bouncy ball, lightning-quick reflexes and a good sense of humor, and they were all raring to play again.
“I know all of them by their first names. I know what school they go to,” Girgis said. She laughed a little. “Some of them I know who they’re dating.”
The obvious friendship between the teens congregated in the Teen Center and the camaraderie they shared with the librarians spoke for themselves: The Ives Main Library is much more than simply a place to read.
An illustration of a woman with her finger to her lips hissing, “Quiet, please,” is a familiar sight in libraries. While providing areas for quiet work and contemplation is still a function of Ives Main, the local library encourages visitors of all ages to converse, discover, play, invent, tinker, laugh and, above all, let their ideas be anything but silenced.
Print books have fallen in popularity as people’s main source of information and entertainment, but libraries like Ives Main survive and thrive in the 21st century. By promoting cross-generational learning experiences and adeptly responding to the needs of a diverse and dynamic community, Ives Main transcends the traditional mold of a book-lending service to a welcoming community center and innovation hub.
As one enters the main lobby and climbs up the stairs to the children’s section, one is propelled into a world of color and creativity. In a spacious room with rows of children’s books and parenting guides, bright posters cover the walls, parents sit in cushy green and orange chairs and kids enthusiastically flip through picture books or learn to type on computers.
For Young Minds and Family Learning Manager Luis Chavez-Brumell, his department is about building community, part of which entails prioritizing the incorporation of intergenerational learning. The library consciously chooses to develop programs like the recent LEGO Robotics classes that encourage participation from all age groups. Over the course of the program, teen instructors taught 300 younger children, ages 7 to 12, how to design, construct and program their own robots. Parents, family and friends were able to attend “Robot Rodeos” on Saturdays to learn about the robots the children made. The children learned persistence and problem solving, the teens gained leadership and professional skills and the parents enjoyed seeing their children succeed, all while learning about robots.
From interactive storytime to chess, knitting, museum visits and arts and crafts, the Young Minds and Family Learning department fosters curiosity. “For us that’s the most important thing, that lifelong learning,” Chavez-Brumell said. “It’s definitely part of our library’s mission to unleash potential.”
Longtime library member Katie Carbo always brings her 3-year-old daughter Kazbyana, who loves the stay-and-play at the children’s section of Ives Main. “We pretty much come every day up here,” said Carbo. “I think it is helping her learn how to interact properly and share and play with other children.”
The library also embraces the cultural diversity of its members, many of whom came to New Haven from other cities, states or countries. This past Saturday, the library put a fresh spin on a traditional Thanksgiving storytime by expanding the idea of pilgrims to include immigrants and refugees.
“I think our biggest benefit as a public library is [that] we’re a convening space where people of all walks of life and all over the world can interact,” Chavez-Brumell added.
Two floors below the children’s section is the Teen Center, a special space just for teenagers with booths, games and young adult fiction. On a given day, it might host several students studying or a group of regulars laughing while playing a card game — or Foursquare, as the case may be.
Girgis said her goal is to offer an inclusive and fun place where teens can come to learn and explore without the pressure of a grade: “It’s more like I can learn because I want to,” she explained. “I want them to walk away with an understanding that learning doesn’t stop in the classroom, and they can continue to learn, and they can find fun ways to learn.”
Aside from programs like Sewing and 3D Printing, the Teen Center hosts events like Controversy Corner, a discussion of current events and topics, Wind-Down, an opportunity to relax mid-week with music and coloring, and the fan favorite Foursquare.
These activities embody Girgis’ ideal of the perfect program: not something that is necessarily mainstream for libraries, but something that still teaches children useful skills while fostering an interest in pursuing other avenues of learning.
The adult offerings in the library have in the past included help for resumes, job searches and immigration. In the coming year, Ives Main will expand upon these services by unveiling “Ives Squared,” a space to foster the entrepreneurial and innovative spirit of the New Haven community. Ives Squared will be constructed in a section of the Ives Main library and will include collaboration spaces, technology such as a vinyl cutter and 3D printers, a tinker-lab for DIY projects and a cafe. It will be what City Librarian and Director Martha Brogan describes as a true “21st century learning space.”
“The idea is to create an ecosystem for the entrepreneurial and startup community throughout New Haven,” she explained. “And the library is playing the role of being the front door or the starting point for people who are new and just exploring.”
A modular and flexible space, Brogan said that they designed Ives Squared with three personas in mind: the Entrepreneur, the Civic Leader and the Creative. Different zones within the area were developed to promote everything from collaboration on startups to the fabrication of new inventions.
Ashley Sklar, community engagement and communications manager, said that Ives Squared will also potentially be home to educators and program leaders who will help innovators take full advantage of the resources provided.
As the library is a city department, it will also emphasize social impact entrepreneurship to address some of the major challenges facing New Haven, recognizing that the diversity of the community will be instrumental to devising solutions.
One visitor to the library, Robert Ford, said, “I think it could be great as long as it doesn’t displace other important library activities such as people who come here to read or to study.”
Warren Freeman, another library visitor, said that the project sounds like an excellent idea and that he will definitely make use of it when it opens in early 2018.
Just like the LEGO Robot program, Ives Squared is another way that the library is creating a synthesis of ideas across the community. While it was originally conceived with the adult population in mind as an extension of the existing business and nonprofit resources, it will most likely be utilized for intergenerational purposes.
Children, teens and adults have found fun activities, creative outlets and modes of expression at Ives Main — and probably a book or two as well. Most importantly of all, they have certainly not had to look hard for community.
As I spoke with Girgis outside of the Teen Center, one of the students who had been playing cards with the others exited the space.
“Hey, Margaret!” he said as he passed her.
I didn’t quite catch her response, but I know she answered back with his name.
Claire Zalla | firstname.lastname@example.org