Building with legos and playing at work

After the Mini Maker Faire I needed a break from organizing a major event. That break didn’t last long. When I first arrived at the Library in January, I came across MIT Media Lab’s Festival of Learning. I really liked the idea of professionals teaching and learning from one another, but not based on professional skills (powerpoint presentations, anyone?) but based on passions and outside work interests. I work at an academic library. A really big one. At one of the best public schools in the country. We help students, faculty, staff teach and learn every day in one way or another. We do a lot of professional development (internal and university-based), which is awesome. But we have around 400 folks who work in units spread across a lot of buildings and not all those people work directly with instruction, reference, or research support.

I thought the Festival of Learning looked like a great opportunity to accomplish a few things in our large academic library: 1) introduce people to each other across units in a way that is non-hierarchical and build a web of connections outside of our organizational charts and 2) give people a chance to become learners and teachers for a few hours, based on passions not job obligations (I’m passionate about project management but I don’t do project management in my spare time. Well, I sort of do, but in my spare time I like to draw, paint, read, and garden). We’re bigger than our jobs and usually folks who work in libraries are quite interesting characters.

So I pitched this idea to the powers that be and lo and behold, they said yes! But they said yes with about a seven week turnaround before our fall academic term starts and everyone shifts their focus to the students, the researchers, the faculty, and the post-docs. We assembled a quick planning committee of folks from across several library units (learning and teaching, research, operations, collections, finance) and pulled it off. I didn’t believe it until it had happened, but we had 25 applications for classes (ranging from how to film a documentary, to herbal medicine, to tango, to modular origami, to seed saving, to making wire jewelry) and around 125 participants from across the libraries attend 3.5 hours of classes. You can check out our results online. It exceeded my expectations.

The week before the Festival of Learning, I was asked to judge the 2013 lego contest that the Ann Arbor District Library holds every year2009aadl_legocontest

What do these things have in common? I think it’s a lot. The lego contest is open to all ages, from K-adult. This means the types of submissions range from really really basic to really amazingly complex–and it doesn’t necessarily follow age groups. Folks are not required to submit stories or explanations about their submissions but a lot of them do. You’ll find hand written and typed out stories around the tableau of plastic. Sometimes it’s an action scene (“And the siths on the left have lasers they’re using to beat the pirates, which are using swords and magic to defend the space castle…”) and sometimes it’s just a description of inspiration (“I read Little House on the Prairie and this is Laura’s house with Pa and Ma…”) or a local place (Blimpy‘s comes to mind). The rules are loose–you can use kits or not, you can describe or not–and the categories are broad (and some are made up on the fly). It celebrates the act of expression and creation, no matter your age. Eli Neiburger, the Associate Director for IT and Production at AADL, talks a lot about providing opportunities for learning that are self-defined, not proscribed. That’s why it’s not a requirement (or even a recommendation) to write descriptions for the lego contest. So when you see them, you realize they’re coming from a true place.

I think that’s a similar thing with the Festival of Learning. Sure, we can teach each other about metadata, preservation, information literacy or data management plans at the library, but what makes us tick and how can we connect with each other based on this interest?

My friend Sharona, over at MakerBridge, interviewed me about the Maker qualities of the Festival of Learning. A big part of this, and of the lego contest, is about creating a safe space for learning and teaching. While the lego contest is organized into age-based categories, it’s for kids and adults alike. While the Festival of Learning includes learners and teachers, it’s not about what unit you work in or whether you have an advanced degree that credits you as a ‘librarian.’ Another big part of this is about fostering a community of sharing. I was blown away by the creativity expressed in legos. Some of the submissions were scenes, some were objects, some were social commentary, and some were pure fantastical works of art. Same with the Festival of Learning. Who knew that we had people who work with us who are founders of the U-M Squirrel club or someone who knows the ins and outs of cake decorating?

When you have a space where you can teach someone something, you acquire the skills of a teacher. When you’re learning from your peers, you have respect for the process. Together, learners and teachers can accomplish inspiring and impressive things.

I’m hoping some of the connections made at the Festival of Learning blend into work opportunities and that people who got to teach their peers continue to teach others something new in different settings. It’s the power of sharing I believe so strongly in and I’m pleased to have been a part of these two events – as a community member and as a professional.

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