In summer 2021, PLIX launched a Rural & Tribal Library Toolkit Co-Design project. A research team from the Public Library Innovation Exchange (PLIX) at the MIT Media Lab collaborated with eight rural public libraries to co-design a toolkit that addresses the challenges of delivering creative pK-12 STEM learning programs in low-resource environments.
In this case study, we share the story of one of those libraries: Lake Andes Carnegie Public Library.
Mary Jo Parker is the Library Director of the library.
The library itself is tiny (1000 square feet facility) and aging—built in 1914. It’s currently located across the street from the Charles Mix County Courthouse in Lake Andes, South Dakota.
Plans are underway to move to a new, larger, ADA-compliant facility directly across the street from the school in 2022, seen below.
Mary Jo will have two to three times the space in her new building, and plans to create a makerspace within it and offer more STEAM programming.
Lake Andes is largely low-income: 90% of the local schools’ students qualify for federal meal programs. The Yankton Sioux Reservation abuts Lake Andes and adds another 400 or so people to the town’s small population of just 879 residents. The nearest “big town”—15,000 people—is 75 miles away. Lake Andes is rural, remote, and low-income.
Mary Jo’s most loyal patrons frequently stop by the library after school, so she likes having snacks available for them. That’s why Mary Jo thought the PLIX Space Food activity looked like the best option for getting started with our materials. As the pandemic worsened in South Dakota, a food-based activity seemed non-ideal: “With COVID outbreak we have really lost a lot of attendance at the Library, plus I don't want kids preparing food right now,” she wrote. Mary Jo turned her attention instead to the PLIX Beautiful Symmetry activity.
In particular, she saw Beautiful Symmetry’s potential to connect to a local cultural tradition: the Lone Star quilt. Every student at the high school—including a large percentage who affiliate with the local tribe—receives one of these handmade masterpieces upon graduation. Younger residents in Lake Andes don’t know much about quilting anymore, and so few graduating seniors appreciate the extraordinary gift their large quilts represent. Mary Jo explained, “The Native American Star Quilt is easily recognized by people who reside in our small town. Few have actually constructed a quilt or realize that the making of the Star quilt is a math project!” Could she and her patrons collaborate on a large quilt together, she wondered, using a pattern like the one in the quilts local students get?
Mary Jo defined the goal of the project: exploring symmetry as it relates to the Native American culture. The quilt pattern—sometimes called the “Lone Star” or “Morning Star”—has significance as a treasured design to Native American people, existing in their tradition long before tribal members began making quilts. Its symmetry creates different effects—stimulating or calming—depending on how colors are combined and arranged. Local quilters frequently use Medicine Wheel hues—black, red, yellow and white—in their designs.
Parallelograms comprise the design, and colors are laid out in each quilt using principles of symmetry covered in the PLIX Beautiful Symmetry zine: rotation, reflection, and translation. In the proposed activity, each patron would first work on paper to define their designs. Then they’d sew their own square in fabric, and each participant would bring home and hang their individual project.
Later, patrons would collaborate on a larger quilt that they all design and assemble together.
The complete 58” x 58” wall hanging would use the colors of the Medicine Wheel (black, red, yellow and white) and adorn the new library space.
Mary Jo is also using "Quiltsmart" to help make sure the pieces patrons work on fit together successfully.
Quilting is an ambitious undertaking! Mary Jo has engaged a local Native American artisan who is very familiar with Star Quilt construction to help patrons with their starter projects and the final wall hanging. Aside from lending her artistic expertise to the project, the professional quilter will also relate a model of local entrepreneurship to Mary Jo’s teen patrons who may not have considered starting their own business.
The artisan will explain how the panels fit together to complete a “star” and demonstrate the process she uses for constructing. Mary Jo is realistic about the possibility of imperfections in the finished project, sharing that she’d heard “Every quilt is supposed to have a mistake, because that’s what makes it yours.” To make the task go more smoothly for novice stitchers and ensure success, Mary Jo’s patron-collaborators will use an iron-on pattern kit.
“I am inspired by creativity,” Mary Jo shared in our design journal. “I like to see a project through to the end. I like to enjoy the journey.” The spikes in coronavirus infections in the Great Plains states delayed her launch of this longer, ongoing, collaborative project, but she remains enthusiastic. She has shared the co-design journey with other librarians throughout South Dakota. The state library heard word of her project, and invited her to write an article about it for the bimonthly newsletter that goes out to all librarians in the state. Imagining how she might help other PLIX members begin a project, Mary Jo offered to add her project materials to the PLIX website, such as the Lone Star template. “This template would give people like me a starting place.”
We began this project knowing a few things: Public libraries are critical hubs for non-formal STEM learning and hold great promise for promoting STEM equity and access—Mary Jo confirmed that her patrons depend on her. Despite strong interest among libraries to offer STEM learning programs, existing curricula and materials are frequently not designed for low-resource environments and many library staff feel unprepared to lead STEM programs and have more demands on their time than their urban and suburban counterparts—Mary Jo mentioned “When I do a STEAM project I have to read up on it a lot more.” This adds to the planning time that she does not have to spare. In addition, the tools and materials most often suggested for STEM learning activities—such as microprocessors, 3D printers, and laser cutters, let alone fully-equipped makerspaces—tend to be cost-prohibitive for rural and tribal library budgets—Mary Jo’s project would be made easier with a sewing machine, but the whole project could be constructed with needle and thread as well. Finally, access to local STEM experts can be challenging, if there are no research universities or science-intensive industries nearby—Mary Jo expanded the idea of what a STEM expert was to include a local artisan who uses symmetry in her craft.
At heart, expanding our activity toolkit to make PLIX activities more readily useable by rural and tribal librarians working in contexts like Mary Jo’s and facing similar challenges was the fundamental motivation for this project, and Mary Jo’s quilts exemplify what we’d hoped to see as we began this collaboration with over two dozen libraries this year.