Sunday, August 26, 2012

Anywhere and Everywhere… Books

Books, front, center and stacked

Years ago I wrote about Anywhere and Everywhere Play in children's museums in an issue of Hand To Hand about creating opportunities for and inviting play to happen in varied and unexpected places. Since then, the anywhere and everywhere phrase and its rhythm have thrummed through my mind, picking up and finishing with possibilities of what, like play, could be anywhere and everywhere. For instance, books.

Like yarnbombing and guerilla gardening, like Peace Poles and bluebird houses, on-the-spot book stops, mobile libraries, reading places, and neighborly book exchanges are popping up anywhere and everywhere in big cities and small towns, in the US and around the world. Inspired by literary, civic, and political spirits, this is a populist echo of Andrew Carnegie's construction of public and university libraries in small towns and big cities across America a century ago. The mobility and versatility of these book spots mean they can, and do, show up anywhere and everywhere as well as go places. They deliver the delight, generosity, and civic joy of people getting into the act to share a love of books, reading, and stories. Passing on transforms readers and booklovers into citizen librarians.

Little Free Libraries
Identifying label with contact information
Little Free Libraries has great ambitions. With a mission to promote literacy and the love of reading and to build a sense of community, its goal is to surpass the 2,500 libraries around the world contributed by Andrew Carnegie. The Little Free Libraries’ world map lists–with GPS coordinates–libraries in 11 countries (including 7 Canadian Provinces) and in 43 of the united States.

The micro-libraries are wooden boxes approximately 23”w x 24”h x 15-7/8”d mounted on posts and filled with books. Built by amateurs and expert carpenters, they are humble and elaborate, creative, practical, and personal. They are constructed of found materials such as cranberry boxes and barn wood and are sometimes muraled and adorned with distinct hardware. Winter hardy, their gable, gambrel, and shed roofs and front doors with latches keep out the elements. Sometimes they are lit and occasionally are accompanied by a stool or bench. I even found one with energy bars.

Books, art, and a place to sit
These are free books, but not simply free books. They are books to borrow, share, pass on, return, and restock that fulfill the meaning of a circulating library. Hardbacks, paperbacks, poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and children’s books, books come from family bookshelves, book drives, and sometimes, as a memorial, from a loved one’s book collection.

Little Free Libraries (LFL) are suited for places people relax and might want a book but forgot one: in parks, playgrounds, plazas, public squares, beaches, and campsites. They are a true gift in places where people wait, in dentists and doctors’ offices, Laundromats, and bus stops. They reinforce the message of places people go to enjoy themselves, connect with others, and learn something, at museums, art centers, and nature centers.  Little Free Libraries have the potential to bring libraries to rural towns and remote places.

This one also offered energy bars
Last week was a good week for finding Little Free Libraries. I came upon 3 in Minneapolis and 3 in small Wisconsin towns. In Minneapolis, one was in front of a house on a leafy street. Settergren’s Hardware has a Little Free Library; it’s located just 2 blocks from the Linden Hills Library in one direction and 2 blocks from Wild Rumpus children’s bookstore in the other. Another LFL is in front of Uptown's Soo Visual Arts Center. In Wisconsin, I found one in a big corner lot in Spring Green and 2 in Mineral Point, one in front of a gallery and the other across the street in front of a hotel.

Referred to as little churches of the mind, water coolers, and bird houses, neighbors gather around the book boxes in front yards, children stop and peek inside, runners pass them along trails, and students find them in the school garden. Little Free Libraries offer a pop-up surprise, a very personal invitation to read, and a generous act from a book-loving stranger.

Book Friends
Expressing the spirit of anywhere and everywhere…books and giving new meaning to pop-up books are two versions of libraries cropping up in urban settings.

Out on a Limb for Books. When the Evanston Library Board (IL) voted in early 2011 not to continue funding the South Branch Library, Friends of the Evanston Public Library were not content to do without a branch library. In less than a month, they funded an experimental space, donated books, and opened The Mighty Twig. Smaller than a branch library, the Mighty Twig circulates books on an honor system and takes donated books to community centers, coffee shops, and schools throughout Evanston.

Portable Reading Room. In 2009, an under-visited Street Lab storefront library created by Sam and Leslie Davol in Boston’s Chinatown was moved two blocks away to the Greenaway because that’s where the people were. That move inspired the Davols to think about how to create a portable outdoor library. They commissioned local architects and Massachusetts Institute of Technology students to create a mobile modular outdoor reading room. The result is a modular library system called the Urban Neighborhood Institution (shortened to Uni) that was financed with donations from Kickstarter crowd-funding website.

The Uni at Boston Children's Museum
The goal of the Uni is to share books, showcase the act of learning, and improve public spaces. 
Modular cubes hold books, objects, and activities on topics related to a specific location, like the Louis Armstrong book cube at the Queens (NY) location. Uni-librarians mix and match the cubes, but some cubes are curated by organizations, educators, and individuals with a passion and knowledge on a particular subject. The Uni has been installed at multiple locations in New York City including the Queens Museum of Art and Queens Library. In June, 2012, it popped up at the Boston Children’s Museum’s waterfront plaza. The Uni is headed for installation in Afghanistan.
A book stop at Bookworm Gardens

More on Micro-libraries
• Corner Library in New Haven, CT:

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Conceptual Frameworks: Thinking Out Loud

Three stickie notes with thought fragments scratched on them have been flipping across my desk over the last few weeks. They are the product of professional reading and preparation for a workshop, Bringing an Organizational Perspective to Evaluation that I presented at the Visitor Studies Conference in Raleigh. One stickie says: Conceptual framework: Ecologies of Parent Engagement (Barton, Drake, Perez, et al. 2004) Another says: Positive Youth Development (PYD). The third says: conceptual framework OR theoretical framework?

Conceptual frameworks haven’t been very much on my radar. I find references to a “conceptual framework” in evaluation studies where they are unpacked as context for situating a study’s results. While familiar and useful in the world of research and evaluation, conceptual frameworks have not yet migrated very far into other areas of museum practice.

Recently the three stickie notes have assembled a Ouiga board kind of message to suggest that conceptual frameworks might be used in other ways to advance a museum’s visitor, learning and experience interests. If we can use a conceptual framework to look at a study’s results, why not use it in planning the experiences that a study might, or hopefully, will eventually look at critically? 

Can museums, I wonder, use conceptual frameworks as something like a theory of action about how to change, improve, or strengthen themselves, the audiences they serve, and their community?

What IS a Conceptual Framework?
While not completely unfamiliar with conceptual frameworks, I am 
not nimble working with them. My fuzzy feel for what conceptual frameworks are isn’t adequate for defining them, so I have checked a few sources. It was easy to find that conceptual frameworks are of interest to research in academia, business, and social sciences. It was also easy to gather that current usage of the term is considered vague and imprecise. And while every source I found cites Miles and Huberman (1984) for a definition of conceptual frameworks, discussions about distinctions among variables, factors, and concepts are lively. Conceptual frameworks are variously described as:
• A set of assumptions that can help outline possible courses of action or a preferred approach to an idea or thought.
• An organized way of thinking about how and why a set of activities takes place and how we understand them.
A less developed form of a theory that links abstract concepts to empirical data.

The last description best fits with the ways I think museums could use conceptual frameworks: informed guidance in planning experiences to advance their mission and accomplish major goals. The link between theory and research is fundamental. An attractive but abstract concept like positive youth development becomes useful when backed up by evidence of, for example, increased positive developmental outcomes like confidence or caring or a reduction in specific negative behaviors. Viewed as a less developed form of a theory, a conceptual framework accommodates the lively, unpredictable, real-world conditions of museums serving thousands of people with varied expectations, exploring exhibits, looking at objects, and interacting with one another. 

This description also yokes theory, research, and practice together as valued and complementary ways to advance understanding in museum work everyday. As a theory with supporting research, a conceptual framework can focus work, frame choices, and inform the supporting practices about how to create the conditions–the spaces, activities, materials, labels, and facilitation–to help produce desired experiences for the children and adults who visit.

At its most basic, a conceptual framework is a useful tool if there is:
• a theory with research backing it up;
• relevance to a museum’s mission, strategic, and learning interests; and
• meaningful input from internal and externals stakeholders at appropriate points.

Museums are constantly unrolling the map of territory they are interested in–a theory. A conceptual framework, or several selected ones, provides a way of looking at or interpreting that territory. Museums then ask, what do we know about that territory? and go about finding out–research. In looking at what they have learned and how to use that new knowledge, museums modify their approaches–practices. In successive steps, they revisit and revise conceptual frameworks tailoring them to their purposes.

Working With a Conceptual Framework
I have a hunch that many museums or museum practitioners are already working with conceptual frameworks in creating visitor experiences without really thinking very much about it. This is better than having no navigational coordinates. It is not, however, as helpful without the benefits of selecting, or acknowledging, a conceptual framework, and then applying it deliberately to see what it looks like in a particular museum.

A conceptual framework or a set of conceptual frameworks provides a museum with a touchstone, a common and a constant reference point for work by many people over time. When a group of people working together selects and uses a conceptual framework, they need to be explicit about what questions to address, how to go about addressing them, and explaining how effectively they actually are. A shared framework facilitates prioritizing, identifying which features of an experience to focus on, which factors in particular count, and what to abandon. From one project to the next, a conceptual framework provides a shared interpretive perspective for looking at and understanding what is happening and how it can be changed as a museum tries to engage parents, increase conversation, or extend dwell-time at an exhibit.

Sometimes the assumptions underlying a conceptual framework or its situational focus may readily align with a museum. Just as likely, a framework won’t be easily transferable from one context to another. Perhaps it has been developed for school settings or libraries and is being considered for a museum. It can still be applicable, but its limitations should be noted and worked with. These gaps are probably where a museum will focus its efforts in tailoring the conceptual framework to more capably assist the museum in accomplishing its aims.

Some Conceptual Frameworks
A couple of conceptual frameworks for museums have been right before my eyes. There are others that are probably a launch point for a conceptual framework, and still more I haven't met yet. 

As the beginning list below suggests, conceptual frameworks are varied; they come from diverse contexts, can be tailored to a specific museum, applied to a project or may define an entire museum’s strategic stance. Some models and strategies like Habits of Mind or Visual Thinking Strategies that are familiar in museums have similarities to, but don’t appear to actually be, conceptual frameworks. 

What do you think about the list below and about bringing conceptual frameworks into the larger playing field of museum practice?

• Family Learning: Ellenbogen, Kirsten, Jessica Luke, and Lynn Dierking. (2004). “Family Learning Research in Museums: An Emerging Disciplinary Matrix?” Science Education. July 2004.
• Positive Youth Development (PYD). There are many sources two of which are:
Lerner, Richard M et al. “Positive Development of Youth, Participation in Community Youth Development Programs, and Community Contributions of Fifth-Grade Adolescents: Findings From the First Wave of the 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development”. Journal of Early Adolescence. Vol. 25 No. 1 Feb. 2005 17-71.
Catalano, Richard. M. Lisa Berglund, Jean A. M. Ryan, Heather Lonczak and J. David Hawkins. 2004. Positive Youth Development in the US: Research Findings on Evaluations of Positive Youth Development. ANALS, AAPSS, 591. January 2004.
• Ecologies of Parent Engagement in Urban Education. Barton, A. C., Drake, C., J. G. Perez, K. St. Louis, & M. George. 2004. Educational Researcher, 33(4), 3-12.
Every Child Ready to Read by the Public Library Association of the American Library Association used in Storyland: A Trip Through Childhood Favorites created by Minnesota Children’s Museum.
• A conceptual framework for the Exploratorium’s Teacher Institute is discussed in, “The Place and Role of the Exploratorium’s Teacher Institute in Strengthening the Teaching of Science” (2006) by Judy Hirabayashi and Laura Stokes.

Thanks very much to Cheryl Kessler at Blue Scarf Consulting for talking out loud about conceptual frameworks with me.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Dialogue with Materials


Have you had any good conversations with materials lately? Perhaps with clay, copper mesh, some smooth stones? Or have you watched a child gaze at and concentrate on lengths of wire, then bend, twist, twirl, coil, kink, pull, straighten, loop, dangle, hook, and reconnect the wire?

Old, new, or natural, materials make up our world: the ceramic mug, the coffee in it, the wooden table where it sits, the rug under the table, the wooden floorboards below, the Ashlar block foundation, the concrete sidewalks outside, the old elms overhead, and their shade. This is a material world.

Materials carry information about the world, how it works, and how it is likely to work. We develop a familiarity with the materials that are at hand. We come to know them through our senses; what feels sharp, soft, rigid, bumpy, slippery, or rough; how light shimmers; how this object slides; how old paint cracks. Knowing begins here, with the senses. Drawn deeper into the material through our senses, we go beyond what we knew before. Our knowledge of our world is more precise.

We may have no other end in mind than to explore what this material can do and what we can do with it. We observe, notice, and wonder. We explore the obvious aspects of a material. We compare what happens by adding a little pressure or a lot. We bend it a little or stretch it so much it cracks or tears. We learn from rather than about materials.

Materials invite spoken and unspoken questions. What will happen if…? So we manipulate the material and predict what will happen next. We wait and watch. We persist in trying to make it happen again. Later, we return to the material to find out if it has changed with time. Another question pushes forward and a once-casual dialogue with a material becomes research. 

Using a material we not only learn its properties–this wire is springy–but we also experience what dealing with that property actually means, how to work with it or subdue it to accomplish our intention. We find things out for ourselves and enjoy the feeling of having learned something ourselves.

When we stay with a material, we find new possibilities. This familiarity offers new information, suggests ways to represent an idea, or hints at a fanciful purpose. Our dialogues with materials change our understanding and imaginations and reveal beauty, complexity, ideas, and promise. 

How can we create more rich opportunities for adults and children to engage freely and explore many kinds of materials in museums, schools, and at home?

Beautiful Stuff. (1999). Cathy Weisman Topal and Lella Gandini. Davis Publications, Inc.: Worcester, MA

In Dialogue by Jennifer Azzariti: