Libraries (and Cameras) Help Teens Show How They See It
Felicia Kelley | March 25, 2010
Inspired by the ideas of a Harvard University historian, more than 200 teens at twenty-one California libraries explored place and history using digital cameras and notebooks in a recently completed statewide program—”How I See It—My Place” sponsored by the California Council for the Humanities (CCH). You can see the results at the project’s website, which houses an online exhibit of the teens’ photographs and writing, essays by project scholar advisors and director librarians, as well as do-it-yourself resources, including a free, downloadable, how-to program handbook.
At each library, the librarian in charge recruited a group of young people and guided them as they explored the surrounding neighborhood. Youth documented their discoveries through photography and writing, then organized exhibits and public programs to share their work with the public. Each library then submitted images and text for the online exhibit. With support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) provided by an LSTA grant from the California State Library, along with additional funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities, CCH was able to supply digital cameras, other equipment, training, and small cash grants to help underwrite program expenses.
The project was designed to connect young people with their communities and to experience the humanities in a new way. The project curriculum was developed by CCH, largely inspired by John Stilgoe’s Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness In Everyday Places, an environmental awareness manifesto that urges readers to get out and explore in order to reconnect with their local community, environment, and history. California scholars Dr. Patricia Hunt (American Studies) and Claude Willey (Urban Studies and Geography), served as humanities advisors; filmmaker and photographer Jerold Kress, multimedia coordinator at the Bresee Community Center in Los Angeles, served as technical advisor. In each community, librarians recruited historians, both academic and amateur, along with local photographers, writers, and filmmakers, to share their knowledge and skills with the young people, largely on a volunteer basis.
In addition to providing a hands-on humanities research experience for youth, as well as an enjoyable and rewarding experience with photography and other digital technologies, the project developed their cognitive and interpersonal skills and fostered interaction and communication across ethnic, cultural, and generational divisions. Feedback provided by youth participants and librarians alike showed that young participants developed communication skills, self-esteem, and a sense of connection to others and their communities. As one librarian said, “We noticed they grew together as a team on our project. Regardless of their ages, they seemed to bond. If someone needed help with their layout or their writing, they would try to encourage each other. They grew in confidence about what they could do. It made me feel good that we were able to provide this experience through the library for them.”
The project sparked continuing interest in library activities. At Lawndale Library (County of Los Angeles), the teens continue to meet weekly to volunteer and conduct community service projects. Another librarian told us that “My group refused to stop meeting. They wanted to just continue to come on Saturday mornings. I said, ‘Not every Saturday, but let’s do two Saturdays a month.’ They still meet. It’s amazing to me because they range in age from 11 to 17.”
Not surprisingly, the project drew attention to the growing role of libraries as vital centers of community cultural life. Librarians estimated that the exhibits were seen by at least 30,000 library visitors throughout California; thousands have virtually visited the online exhibit since its launch last fall. Nearly every participating library was successful in obtaining local press coverage of the program. In several cases, the librarians and project participants made presentations to local city councils or were invited to exhibit the work at additional community venues, including community colleges, city halls, historical societies, and other libraries.
Project librarians reported that a high level of personal satisfaction with the project, singling out increased skills in project management, ability to serve youth, and the positive recognition the project brought them individually, as well as the libraries, as important outcomes; they emphasized enhanced skill in interacting and working with teens, as well as learning to let go and delegate some of the decision-making (such as the creative tasks), as particularly important.
Another important outcome for the librarians was getting to know teens better and developing working relationships with them. This resulted in increased appreciation for the teens and was satisfying and rewarding for the staff, particularly when teens returned to participate in such library activities as teen councils and book discussion groups. As one librarian told us, “Being able to have that kind of relationship with them so that I see them after the project has been really rewarding.”
Project librarians found the program a positive and challenging experience for everyone involved—they indicated it was worthwhile and they would repeat the experience if possible, which, in fact, several did this past summer. Youth “loved it” and were motivated by the idea of putting on an exhibit. In the staff’s view, highlights of the program included having teens in charge, getting them out in the community to take pictures, and preparing the final exhibit, which “brought everything home,” generated a sense of pride for teens in their accomplishments, and increased community visibility for the libraries.
We hope that you’ll be inspired to try out the project yourself, using the downloadable resources from the “How I See It—My Place” website. Please send your comments, questions, and suggestions to me at:
Senior Programs Manager
California Council for the Humanities
315 W. Ninth St. #702
Los Angeles, CA 90015
(213) 623-5993 (phone)
(213) 623-6833 (fax)
Felicia Kelley is Senior Programs Manager for the California Council for the Humanities.