24 April 2009

When Your Shoesting Budget's Cut, Wear Slippers

I spent a few days of spring break driving southward (and then back northward, as it happens). I saw live music in Memphis and ate fantastic southern cookin’ in Oxford, Mississippi, but the thing that I’ve been thinking about ever since was the drive home. Getting off the interstate, I drove the back roads through Mississippi and Arkansas and very Southern Illinois. There were some very pretty river valleys and trees in bloom, and a whole, whole lot of run-down, underfunded, overwhelmed rural communities.

I stopped by a public library in Mississippi, in a town that had been described in a guidebook as so beautiful that Ulysses S. Grant ordered it not to be burnt. It was a pretty little example of an old deep south town—tulip and magnolia trees, giant Georgian houses, a town square that featured two drugstores with real soda fountains and a hardware store with an old proprietor sitting on the porch.

(One side of the square had a memorial to the town’s first African American sheriff, killed in the line of duty nearly 20 years ago; the other side had six memorials and historical markers honoring the Confederacy. The library was on the Confederate, giant-beautiful-homes side of the square.)

The library was dark, heavy, and small, featuring a circulating collection heavy on paperback romances, an extensive local and southern history collection, and a prominent and heavily used job hunting section. Five behemoth computers hulked on the only available desks; three were designated specifically for job hunters. All the patrons were young and African American; the two visible staff members were older white ladies, who did not say a word to the patrons or to me during the half hour I spent browsing, entirely within arm’s length of their service desk. I finally introduced myself and asked a few questions about the building, the town population (around 8,000), and the services. Youth services? “We’ve got some games and toys over there,” one of the ladies said. They’d also had an Easter coloring contest. What about teens? Basically, she said, we let them use the computers, as long as nobody else is waiting. Otherwise, the school handles it. “We don’t have the budget,” she said. Yep, I agreed. It’s hard to fit programming in a shoestring budget.

But it was on the way back north that I saw truly grinding poverty. The January 31 ice storm that left parts of Kentucky without power for three weeks destroyed trees for hundreds of miles. Nearly two months later, broken trees littered the entire route from Memphis to Carbondale; in some places, limbs still protruded through broken ceilings and walls of clearly inhabited homes and trailers. My brother, who works in the forest in Southern Illinois, took me on a tour of the area; he pointed out caves and birds and way more trees than I want to know about, but also showed me the courthouse in Thebes where Dred Scott was once held. It is now boarded up, neglected, crumbling, and condemned on the hillside, overlooking the municipal “park”—a weedy patch of floodplain with a couple of motorhomes parked in continuous broken-down residence. The lone swingset had been knocked over and lay, rusting, on its side. My brother talked about the crime and drug problems they’d had down here, the things they’d found dumped or burned or abandoned in the forest. It was heartbreaking. And it went on and on and on, in homes and courthouses and schools and gas stations. “Do they even have a library here?,” I asked. My brother just laughed. I looked it up when I got back home; the closest library is 21 miles away. And it’s only open three and a half days a week.

That got me thinking. You hear a lot of libraries say “we don’t have money,” but that can mean very different things. There’s a big difference between “we can’t buy a Wii system for the library” and “we only turn on the lights in the stacks if somebody needs something.” As the recession grinds on, it’s certainly possible that more libraries will have to turn to desperation measures to stay open at all; in these cases, how do you maintain media literacy programming? How do you operate when you can’t even afford shoestrings?

I started brainstorming truly cheap media literacy ideas. Some things I came up with:

  • Board games, as we know, can be great group activities. Library doesn’t have games? Games with missing pieces are easy to find in libraries (and in our homes, garage sales, thrift shops…). Use the boards to create new games, or—better yet—have the kids invent games for younger kids. Find out what the local HeadStart or school is working on and get to work. Got a Candyland board but no dice? Make cards with words like “ice,” “cat,” and “on.” Each player takes a card on her turn and gets to move one space for each rhyming word they can think of. Got dice but no board? Multiplication, probabilities, secret codes, hangman—numbers make good games, too.
  • The most ubiquitous of the new media is probably the cell phone; even in poor communities, many families have one. The cheapest options come with few extras, though, and things like texting may cost users a comparative fortune in fees. Hold a financial literacy session to teach teens how to read cell phone packages, how to compare options, and how services work. They might even find a better option than they have now.
  • Got an outdated globe or atlas? Teach geographic information by getting GPS coordinates for places that exist now, but aren’t on the old map. Give students the latitude and longitude of, say, Rangoon, Burma; leave it to them to figure out that Burma is now Myanmar. Ask users to annotate the atlas. What teen wouldn’t relish writing in a library book?
  • Recycle. Is there a city or better-off town nearby who might be better able to buy new resources? If so, what happens to the old ones? Even seriously outdated materials could be useful; imagine the zines students could make from old magazines or World Book encyclopedias. Use the characters from newspaper comics to pastiche new comics. “Publish” teen comics by posting them in the library or, if possible, on the library’s web site.
  • Network. Maybe the police department would be willing to co-host a teen night. Maybe the schools would collaborate. Cultivate the talents of local residents. Reach out to universities within a day’s drive and suggest community engagement programs. And by all means, contact the librarians in all the nearby towns. They may have great ideas or resources; they may help collaborate on grant applications. Most of all, though, they’ll understand the situation and may be in need of support themselves.

It feels ridiculous for me, a fortunate student, to advise working librarians who are dealing with problems way beyond my ken. My hat’s off to you, underserved rural librarians of America; you deserve support and encouragement, and I do hope you are praised and appreciated—and that you keep finding creative ways to keep kids engaged in their lives and their libraries.

Now come on, 590MLL. Anybody got fantastic cheap, cheaparific programming ideas? Let’s have ‘em in the comments!


  1. I'll bite! Here are few ideas for inexpensive/free programs for teens off the top of my head.

    * How about writing? It's cheap, pens and paper. You could work on diary entries or creative writing skills. Create a project where you have teens write about things that impact their lives or their community. Collaborate on stories, or create alternate endings for books or movies that they liked or didn't like.

    *Poetry slams - no equipment needed.

    *Share your talent events (think America's Got Talent / American Idol without nasty judges). If you have teens who have special talents and can get them to share them with others this could work.

    *Scavenger hunts - in or around the library. Having fun while teaching how to use the library.

    *Book clubs - though you'd need enough copies of book for everyone.

    *Space - simply provide a welcoming space for teens to hang out.

    *Workshops - college, alternatives to college, how to find a job, managing money, etc.

    I'd love to hear more ideas!

  2. Oooh, along with poetry slams, flowing/freestyling would be good!

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  4. And the class brainstorming ideas are...

    $1000 to $0 Programming Ideas
    - podcasting kits...they have the computers, just need digital recorders, mics, and editing software
    - Host a viral video competition
    - Buy a Wii or XBox and several games.
    - a couple digital cameras
    - movie nights with pizza and popcorn..
    - Digital video
    - Flip cameras
    - poetry slams, open mic nights
    - flip video is cheap
    - buying board games and starting a board gaming night
    - D&D nights
    - creating digital stories and posting them online or "open mic" type night
    - zine creation group
    - bringing in outside presenters for help w/media-related activities
    - DDR (Dance Dance Revolution)
    - creating and printing a literary zine
    - hire professional artist to sketch a mural and have teens paint it in the community room
    - you could buy a lot of software. we did a digital music creator program that was fun
    - video creation workshops, buy cameras and use freeware.
    - see if people in the community that do media would be willing to volunteer some time (free)
    - old fashioned book discussion groups...or book and movie groups
    - drawing graphic novels/comics workshop--having outside artist do a workshop
    - buy some digital cameras, let students take photos and have them speak about them (visual literacy)
    - Photoshop, Illustrator, other image programs--kids could use them to create an online art gallery
    - have an art class then use funds to mount/frame artwork
    - rosetta stone - teaching languages to kids or teens
    - creating web pages
    - Writing workshop, cheap repros of kids' work, reading night
    - craft class yesterday
    - creating comic strips like in class. you could buy some graphic novels and have a small program with that and the sites
    - Work with local TV or radio stations to do some basic broadcasting.
    - bring in local HS and/or college drama clubs for a drama program
    - Have them do some found object collages. Buy the boxes (old cigar boxes work).
    - collages w/recycled materials
    - buy supplies for more than one craft program...
    - could still do web design on a smaller scale
    - talent nights - showcase your talent & library provides basic snacks
    - book discussions or poetry slams on a smaller scale
    - teach using online resources (although those are expensive if the library doesn't already subscribe)
    - karaoke machines?
    - weekend instensive writing
    - workshops - college/finding a job
    - a do-it yourself American Idol
    - the library here has the Entimology program at Iowa State to come and show their bugs.
    - MySpace, Facebook workshops
    - wii- has american idol karaoke
    - battle of the bands (high school kids) = cheap/free!
    - scavenger hunts around the library; put together some kind of scavenger hunt where the kids need to use different existing media in the library to find answers. Give candy to the ones who complete
    - beg and borrow musicians and music stores to bring their instruments and let the kids get hands-on
    - legos! kids love it here. those can be expensive, but got ours donated
    - oragami
    - provide space to hang out
    - library video (free) + microwave popcorn + lemonade mix = $10 party
    - buy 10 decks of cards
    - get the local gardening club to donate materials for a gardening workshop
    - use deleted magazines for collage crafts- kids bring own notebook/ box to cover
    - if you have the computers you still can do podcasts with Audacity since it is free
    - you could make or alter images in free image programs
    - creating digital stories can be done virtual free if you already have the computers
    - ask teens to come up with ideas - often have creative ideas since they don't usually have much money
    - Have a music discussion group--have students analyze the meanings of lyrics of different songs
    [14:23] [Laura_R] good point, clair!
    - Teach financial literacy by giving them a $10 budget to design a program...
    - set up some kind of comic swap
    - announce an online competition (organized by someone else) and support kids to apply
    - What about having a program on freeware?
    - pick best of - movies, books, tv shows
    - buddy nights for older kids to read/play games with younger kids
    - have displays made by teens with those best of
    - Make your own community maps