System Update: The Village Learning Place embraces a 21st century approach to library operations

Posted on Wednesday, April 4, 2018 by Melissa Howison

Joy Green, writing for The Baltimore Sun in 2001, highlighted a fundamental aspect of the Village Learning Place’s identity when she characterized it as a “once-shuttered Baltimore public library branch reincarnated…as a community anchor.” The birth of the VLP in 2000 was more than coincidental with the new millennium–it was symbolic.

Founders and subsequent leaders of the VLP have challenged traditional notions of what a neighborhood library can be in the 21st century. Constant evaluation and collaboration yielded creative solutions that helped propel the VLP into a new era of access and interaction.

Jennifer Feit, the former Executive Director who oversaw the establishment of the VLP, pointed to four primary functions of the library in a 2000 City Paper interview: a circulating print collection, a learning center with diverse programming, a technology center, and a community garden. Today, the VLP exemplifies each of those goals.

Like every industry in the wake of the 21st century, library systems grappled with the role libraries should play in an increasingly digital, more connected world. Continuing to offer valuable public services as people transition away from printed materials, toward digital resources, is a primary concern. Addressing the digital divide–the social and economic gaps that emerge between those with and those without access to the internet–is a priority for modern libraries, according to the American Library Association’s Center for the Future of Libraries.

This is no surprise to Ms. Delores Lee, the VLP librarian, who said most of the library patrons come to use the computers. She shared that a lot of the adults spend that time searching for and applying to jobs online or polishing their resumes, adding “you can’t get a job without going online.”

As for the influx of adolescents on weekday afternoons when Margaret Brent Elementary/Middle School dismisses, Ms. D said they spend most of their computer time playing games. Once viewed as an adversary of academic success, online games are now embraced as a tool of STEM learning. The Joan Gantz Cooney Center for research published a report in 2014 that illustrated the mathematical gains teachers reported after integrating digital games, and the potential of those experiences to inspire a generation of innovators and engineers.

Younger students, in grades pre-k through 6, benefit from the VLP’s nationally-recognized after school program, Let’s Invest in Neighborhood Kids. LINK After School is supplemented by LINK Summer, a seven-week-long summer education program that aims to mitigate learning loss, what the Center for the Future of Libraries refers to as the “summer slide.” Youth programs such as LINK set a precedent for libraries taking on more active educational roles in their communities rather than operating as passive repositories of information.

Strong City Baltimore, a nonprofit organization, uses the Village Learning Place weekday afternoons as a quiet, collaborative meeting space to tutor adults in the community working toward furthering their education.

Even younger library patrons, those between the ages of two and four, have something just for them at the VLP. Tots Tuesday Storytime gatherings develop their curiosities and learning abilities through a weekly interactive storytime. Learn more here and celebrate National Library Week at 10:15 am on April 10 with a free book give-away at Tots Tuesday Storytime.

In addition to establishing programs for youth, leaders of the VLP worked to meet the demand for adult programming at the library.

Phyllis Jaslow, who helped found the VLP, envisioned the library as a hub where adults would grow together as individuals and as a community. Her vision materialized as the 2nd Wednesdays program, a monthly cultural event series that allows experts in a variety of fields to engage with attendees through presentations, concerts, demonstrations, and tastings.

Now in its twelfth year, 2nd Wednesdays attracts upward of 50 attendees per event. Join us at 7:00 pm on April 11, when author Ron Tanner presents American Missiles and the Mysteries of the Marshall Islands, and check out the complete upcoming schedule on our website.

Baltimore History Evenings, provided in partnership with the Baltimore City Historical Society, offer another opportunity for adult enrichment. Local experts share their take on a facet of the city’s rich history. Join us at 7:00 pm on April 19 for the next event, when author Antero Pietila will explore the history of grave robbing for medical research in Baltimore and beyond.

Finally, the garden. Itself a testament to neighborhood volunteerism, the VLP garden offers a uniquely tranquil city green space. Its public use as a place to read, walk, sit, eat lunch, and gather supports the future-conscious effort to create green spaces where individuals can experience and learn about the myriad health and environmental benefits of nature. As the season warms, stop by the VLP garden during regular library hours to enjoy it for yourself.

If the inaugural year of the Village Learning Place is symbolic, so too is its evolution from a branch of the Enoch Pratt system into a nonprofit library led by a team steadfast in fulfilling Pratt’s 1882 creed– “My library shall be for all, rich and poor, without distinction of race or color”– interpreted in 21st century vernacular.