Magazine article American Libraries

Engaging Civic-Minded Teens: Data Literacy Fosters YA Participation and Innovation

Magazine article American Libraries

Engaging Civic-Minded Teens: Data Literacy Fosters YA Participation and Innovation

Article excerpt

Fake news. Alternative facts. Information literacy. To be a library professional in 2017 meant you were never far from these terms. Many institutions addressed them head-on with awareness campaigns, continuing education, and programming.

But what about data literacy? Did librarians tackle charts and graphs as much as headlines? And what about teens, who are often overlooked in the context of civic and voter preparedness?

Increasingly, librarians are addressing these questions by bringing statistical education and opportunities to young adults--and they're using massive collections of open civic dataseis to teach these lessons. American Libraries highlights a few libraries improving students' comfort with infographies, supporting instructors, and encouraging teens to become more engaged citizens.

Teaching the basics

"We didn't start with a premise. We left the topic up to them," says Tess Wilson, civic information services intern in the digital strategies department at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (CLP).

Students enrolled in the weekly long Civic Data Zine Camp at CLP's Squirrel Hill branch last summer produced narratives about UFO sightings, shark attacks, and US homicide rates. "We had one teen investigate her neighborhood in Pittsburgh," Wilson says, "so it was a wide range [of topics]."

The program, which grew out of a project that Wilson developed while getting her MLIS at University of Pittsburgh, was an effort of V CLP and the city's Beyond Data Initiative to get young adults ages 12-18 to tell stories with data. The course was part of The Labs @ CLP curriculum ( kids-teens/the-labs-clp)--funded by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS)--and gave attendees a chance to investigate civic matters through research projects presented as zines.

"We were really interested in the handmade aspect of [zines]. I think it allowed for more intimacy with the data," says Wilson. "And they're a great way to disseminate information."

To familiarize students with different types of qualitative and quantitative data, each zine was required to have a visualization, map, and survey or interview. CLP partnered with local journalism organization PublicSource to teach students data literacy concepts and develop what Wilson calls "a more critical mind-set."

"The reporters came in and did some demonstrations [and] talked to the kids about using databases," Wilson says, noting that the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center was a favorite local resource among project authors. PublicSource also helped students understand the importance of consulting multiple reliable sources and the concept of bias in seemingly straightforward datasets.

"I think [data] gives teens another avenue for engagement within their communities," says Wilson. "I think it prepares them to make change within systems that rely on data, and that's a really important thing."

Though it's not clear if the Civic Data Zine Camp will return as a lab, feedback from attendees was positive. "A couple of them said they loved everything about the week," Wilson says. "Having the reporters there also helped to validate that journey."

Building professional capacity

Teacher-librarians are well positioned to impart data literacy to teens, but who's giving instructors the resources and support that they need to do so?

Kristin Fontichiaro, clinical associate professor at University of Michigan's School of Information, and Jo Angela Oehrli, learning librarian at University of Michigan Library, were up for the task. As principal investigators of the two-year IMLS-funded project "Supporting Librarians in Adding Data Literacy Skills to Information Literacy Instruction" (, they set out to design materials for high school librarians looking to foster data and statistical literacy skills in their students. …

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