A modern library

The Harold Washington Library Center on State Street in Chicago opened in the fall of 1991. It was built to replace the old downtown Chicago Public Library. That beautiful building was refurbished and now serves as the Chicago Cultural Center. The new Harold Washington Library Center was the result of a design competition and was designed from the beginning to be ADA compliant. It is described as postmodern architecture. The name of the library reflects the ongoing grief and respect the city continues to feel for Harold Washington, the first African-American mayor of Chicago, elected in 1983. Washington died in office in 1987. The city has struggled with leadership for many years. Chicagoans have mixed feelings about their mayors. Prior to Washington, Richard J. Daley built a machine that lasted for 21 years until his death. The city council voted by signal and Mayor Daley got what he wanted. Jane Byrne, the city’s first female mayor was wrapped in scandal and illegal deals. So it is fitting that Chicago has a public library named after a mayor who achieved a degree of popularity.

But the world was different when the library was dedicated. Back in 1991, libraries housed huge collections of physical books. The Harold Washington Library opened with archived collections that contained every type of reading material from newspapers from around the world to classic works in Latin, Arabic, Hebrew and Greek. It had rows upon rows of stacks of books. Libraries are different today. They serve as community cultural and educational centers. Books have been digitized and are available on the Internet. People used to go to libraries to do research. These days they go to libraries in search of community. As the use of libraries has evolved, so has the Washington Library changed. The second floor of the library houses the newly remodeled Thomas Hughes Children’s Library, which offers customized learning experiences for early learners, elementary learners and tweens. It features materials, computers, events and more. The third floor of the Library is home to the Maker Lab, the city’s first free and publicly accessible maker space. It features introductory workshops and an open shop for personal projects and collaboration. The space features digital design software, 3D printers with large build areas, laser and electronic cutters.

Much of the action int he children’s library and the Maker Lab is unstructured. Resources are provided and children and teens are encouraged to simply play with what they find. Adults are present to demonstrate use of the tools and resources. Workshops are informal and don’t require registration days in advance of the event. People show up and engage in whatever appeals at the moment.

I pay attention to Chicago in part because we once lived there. When we lived in Chicago, The University of Chicago Lab School and the Chicago Theological Seminary Laboratory Preschool were innovative centers of developing structure and programs for children. Back then, it was the role of institutions to provide structured learning experiences for children that they could not obtain at home. It seems as if things are nearly reversed these days. Now the main, downtown Chicago Public Library, of all places, is offering children and teens unstructured time and space.

Increasingly the lives of children and teens are structured. They are scheduled from the time they wake in the morning until they go to bed at night. Just playing has been replaced by play dates and organized sports. Kids belong to teams and leagues with practice schedules. There are no more pickup games in the park or an empty lot. Finding time to schedule a few moments with a teen is often a bigger challenge than making an appointment with a parent. And so we are now creating institutions that provide opportunities for free play and unstructured activities because children and youth need unstructured time and they cannot get that at home. Instead of going to the library for a structured activity and returning home for free play and experimentation, it is becoming the other way around.

The library, which responds to the needs of the public, has discovered that a necessary service in the lives of today’s over-structured teens is space and resources for free experimentation. They need a place to drop in and respond without a big plan or a structured activity.

It is tough growing up in any city and Chicago presents problems that are unique. Chicago has received much press in recent years for its high homicide rate. Teens are gunned down on the streets of Chicago. The murder rate peaked in 2016 and has fallen dramatically since that year. So far the 2019 rate is 50% lower than 2016. There are plenty of teens in Chicago who know how to navigate the streets safely and are not involved in illegal drug deals, but they don’t make the news in the ways that teens on the wrong side of the law do. Still it is tough growing up in today’s culture. Unlike when we were teens, today’s teens face a world where they will have to prepare for multiple major changes in career in their adulthood. Many jobs in our current world will be done by automated machines. Many jobs of their adult lives don’t even exist today. Pressures to get into the right college and perform well enough in sports to pay for a college education mount on children from a very early age. Parents fear giving their children free time to engage in unstructured activities.

Creativity is nurtured, however, by free time and unstructured activity. Children who lack unstructured time can turn into adults who are inflexible and unable to adapt to change. Creativity is an essential skill for survival in today’s rapidly-changing world. The institutions that serve the youth and children of our communities are discovering that one of the essential services they need to provide is time and space for unstructured activity.

The Harold Washington Library building is less than 30 years old and already it is serving in ways its original designers could not have imagined. 30 years from now libraries will be different than we can imagine. Chances are good, however, that they will continue to serve the needs of children and teens of our communities whatever they become.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!