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YOUmedia Turns 10: Connected Learning in theory and practice at Chicago Public Library

  • Jeremy Dunn

What might happen if you created a library space for teenagers? Why would teens come to the library and what might motivate them to return again and again? How could you use new and exciting technologies to develop an active learning environment that engaged teens around topics they care about? And would they check out books while they were there?

Just a little over 10 years ago, Chicago Public Library (CPL) developed a deep interest in these questions inspired by the MacArthur Foundation who had just launched their Digital Media and Learning initiative. CPL Commissioner Mary Dempsey and Assistant Commissioner Amy Eshleman were inspired to create something totally new for teens at the library. In so doing, they developed a model of program delivery and service to teens that now sets the standard for libraries, museums and schools of all types literally across the world. Equally important, they built CPL’s foundation for providing teen services programming presently at more than 40 branches in Chicago – in addition to plans for a portfolio of 30 YOUmedia branch programs by the end of 2020, thanks to ongoing support through the Chicago Public Library Foundation.

MacArthur’s initiative, led by then-Director of Education Dr. Connie Yowell, set out to develop new approaches to pedagogy and instruction in the context of networked media environments that were rapidly changing how information was created, disseminated, remixed and reinvented. Smartphones weren’t even in wide usage at that time, but the read/write web was here and new media was seemingly changing everything. The foundation had commissioned research that had just been published by Mizuko (Mimi) Ito at the University of California-Irvine; Ito and others had conducted a 3-year ethnographic study about how young people were using new media to create their own learning environments titled Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media.

To complete the YOUmedia team, MacArthur introduced CPL to the Digital Youth Network (DYN) led by Dr. Nichole Pinkard who was working in Chicago schools and community spaces teaching digital literacy skills to youth. DYN had a staff and a curriculum and were ready to partner with an institution that offered a dedicated learning space. To create that space, MacArthur invited a design team from Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center, a graduate program focusing on interactive design. Their team had been trained to work in collaborative, innovation-friendly environments, and they used this understanding of learning environments to bring into physical form what we now know as YOUmedia at Chicago Public Library.

YOUmedia opened to teens on July 11, 2009 and, as they say, the rest is history. But there is quite a bit more to this story, even though there is not much more room on this blog post! What happened during the next 10 years?


  • The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) launched a Learning Labs grant opportunity funded by MacArthur based on YOUmedia’s design concept, a national competition to build 21st Century learning labs in museums and libraries around the country.


  • CPL scaled YOUmedia to four additional branches in Englewood, Humboldt Park, Pilsen, and West Humboldt Park, with a focus on middle school-age youth.


  • Library Commissioner Brian Bannon and First Deputy Commissioner Andrea Saenz spearheaded the formation of CPL’s Teen Services department and created a hiring plan to add library staff to support teen engagement. Three YOUmedia branch locations were added at Woodson Regional, Sulzer Regional and Legler (which is now a regional library effective in 2019).
  • Commissioner Bannon incorporated the YOUmedia model into the building program plan for all new CPL library buildings. Teen Services developed a professional development model based on successful practices in the Children’s Services department at CPL and other peer learning models that support the Connected Learning framework.
  • Teen Services joined the Chicago Learning Exchange (CLX)-formerly Hive Chicago-a membership that will result in connections and deeper learning for CPL staff. It also will result in numerous funded planning and project grants with partners including Adler Planetarium, Center of College Access and Success (NEIU), Chicago Architecture Foundation, Commonwealth Foundation, Museum of Science and Industry, and others.


  • CPL Teen Services received a CLX planning grant for the ChiTeen Lit Fest, the first of three grants to prototype and develop a now annual literary festival for teens by teens. CPL will hold its 5th annual lit fest in April 2020.
  • Teen Services partnered with the Museum of Science and Industry on a CLX planning grant to explore connections between Computer Science education standards and maker spaces. This planning grant would result in an ongoing multi-year collaboration with MSI to explore, learn and implement maker space practices that support CS competencies in informal and formal learning environments.


  • YOUmedia Chicago has now expanded to 19 branch locations with 11 additional locations planned for 2019 and 2020. Teen Services staff now numbers 97 positions across 44 branches. The Chicago Public Library Foundation supports 17 grant-funded positions to provide specialized mentors in 7 branch locations.
  • Thirty-one and counting YOUmedia Learning Lab programs have opened across the United States supported by the 2011 IMLS grant.

Here’s to another amazing 10 years of working with Chicago’s teens and our peers in Chicago and other towns and cities! Finally, don’t forget to join us at the 10 Year Anniversary YOUmedia Block Party on Sept. 28 at Harold Washington Library Center.

Check this page for details and keep an eye on our YOUmedia social media feeds too, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. #YOUmediaYear10

Are you interested to learn more about YOUmedia? We are always happy to share our experience and learn from our peers. Don’t hesitate to reach out! Contact us at

Are you interested in a YOUmedia tour? You can use our Tour Request form to do that.