December 8, 2022

Libraries, Museums Receive $1.2 Million in IMLS Grants to Build Teen Learning Labs


Photo courtesy of YouMedia @Chicago Public Library

Libraries played large among the winners of a $1.2 million collective grant to build learning labs across the country. The idea? To get middle and high school students interesting in using digital and traditional media to promote creativity, critical thinking, and hands-on learning.

“Those are the kind of skills they’re going to need for the 21st century marketplace,” says Susan Hildreth, director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, which co-sponsored the competition with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Inspired by an innovative space for teens at the Chicago Public Library called YOU media, the labs are aimed at helping young people become makers and creators of content, rather than just consumers of it.

The 12 winners-four museums and eight libraries-selected from a pool of 98 applicants from 32 states, will receive a total of $1.2 million in grants. They include the New York Hall of Science and the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL), which are among a growing number of schools and libraries that are slowly embracing the idea of learning labs and the self-directed style of instruction they add to support the curriculum. The labs will connect teens to mentors and peers, as well as offer them 24/7 access to information through online social networks so they can pursue their interests more deeply There are usually no tests. They’re often after-school. And students are often encouraged to play, in a sense, with the materials and technology around them in an informal way, acting as co-teachers in their own education.

While SFPL’s lab will be housed in its main branch, the library will also collaborate with educational groups, including 826 Valencia and the California Academy of Science, to craft some of the class prototypes that will eventually become permanent, says Jill Bourne, SFPL’s deputy city librarian.

The New York Hall of Science’s grant request stemmed from its partnership with the New York Maker Faire, a science fair that has been held on the museum’s ground in Queens, NY, for the past two years. Now students will be able to participate year-round in digital projects, allowing them to experiment with gaming, storytelling, and music composition apps.

“We’re going to get students used to making creative products, and then teach them digital technology to record or augment them,” says Dan Wempa, vice president for external affairs with the New York Hall of Science.

Libraries, as well as museums, will have another opportunity in the spring to apply for an additional $1.1 million in funding, says Hildreth. The hope is to encourage libraries in particular to look at learning labs as a new way to use space as their physical collections morph from analog materials, such as books, to more digital files.

“As the proportion of materials moves from print to digital, [IMLS] wants to look at opportunities to redeploy spaces in those libraries,” says Hildreth. “And IMLS wants to make sure we have different ideas, to see what will work in the future.”

Ten other winners include Colorado’s Rangeview Library District and Anythink Libraries, Howard County Public Library in Columbia, MD, Minnesota’s St. Paul Public Library, Missouri’s Kansas City Public Library, Ohio’s Columbia Metropolitan Library, Oregon’s Museum of Science and Industry, the Da Vinci Discovery Center of Science and Technology in Allentown, PA, the Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation, the Nashville Public Library Foundation, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in Texas.

Lauren Barack About Lauren Barack

School Library Journal contributing editor Lauren Barack writes about the connection between media and education, business, and technology. A recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism, she can be found at


  1. Jennifer Young says:

    Ohio’s Columbus Metropolitan Library.