Public Libraries Provide Opportunities for STEM Learning

January 1st, 2016

This article was migrated from a previous version of the Knowledge Base. The date stamp does not reflect the original publication date.


For decades, public libraries have evolved to become venues for informal science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, hosting programs and exhibits that inspire children and adults alike, and supporting them in their lifelong learning. For example, as the role of the modern library has transformed from a repository of physical books to an information, activity and community center, the Chicago Public Library system, via the MacArthur-funded YouMedia initiative and IMLS-funded Maker Lab, has emerged as a leader in the Maker Movement. The NSF-funded STAR Library Network has developed traveling exhibits about space, health, and technological discovery that have reached more than 350,000 people across the US (Fitzhugh, et. al. 2013). And the IMLS-funded Learning Labs in Libraries and Museums project has engaged youth in digital media creation.

This article will explore some of the strengths and opportunities that make libraries conducive to informal STEM learning.

Findings from Research and Evaluation 

Reaching Underserved Audiences

Libraries are also uniquely positioned to engage diverse populations in STEM.  According to the Pew survey on Public Libraries and Hispanics, 72% of Hispanic respondents have visited a library in person, and 80% of black respondents (Brown 2015).  These populations that are traditionally underrepresented among visitors to informal STEM education institutions such as science museums.

According to a 2015 ALA factsheet, there are currently 119,487 libraries of all types in the United States.  Small and rural libraries make up approximately 80% of public libraries in the United States (Swan 2013). This means that libraries are well-positioned to reach rural audiences, which are traditionally underserved by museums, science centers, and other large ISE institutions. One example of such a program is the NSF-funded Pushing the Limits: Building Capacity to Enhance Public Understanding of Math and Science Through Rural Libraries (PTL) project, which developed a model to support STEM programming in rural and small libraries. This took the form of a combination of a science book club and science cafe, and was supported by professional development for librarians and scientist facilitators to administer PTL programming. The PTL project development was informed by front-end and formative evaluation, and has also released a summative evaluation which focuses on the effectiveness of the PTL project in meeting its goals for the library professionals, their patrons, and their science partners.

Libraries as Community Technology Centers

Libraries have embraced their growing role of democratizing access to technology. According to the 2014 American Library Association Digital Inclusion Survey, 98% of public libraries offer free wifi, and 90% offer technology training services (Bertot  2014). The American Library Association’s State of America’s Libraries Report (ALA 2016) emphasizes the growing trend of libraries offering digital literacy services for both children and adults.

Libraries are also playing a key role in introducing their patrons to emerging technologies such as 3D printing, laser cutting, and digital production through making and tinkering experiences (ALA 2016). These can take the form of both physical makerspaces and maker-related library programming.

The Library Space

In the past decade, there has been a shift in the view of the library building.  It is no longer seen simply as a place to house physical collections, but also as a community venue.  This reimagining of a library’s physical space provides several opportunities to engage visitors in STEM through computer labs, physical makerspaces, production studios for digital media, and more.  The library can be used to showcase traveling exhibits, as in the STARNet project.

Library Programing

Library programming is another way to engage patrons with STEM content.  Some examples include TERC’s Math off the Shelf (MotS) program, which created interdisciplinary mathematics activities in cooperation with library educators (Kliman 2013), and the NSF-funded Robotics and E-Textiles Backpacks for Family Learning project, which engages youth and their families in engineering education.  STEM programming can also be integrated across disciplines, as in the Poetry & Science in Natural History Museums and Libraries project. While many professional librarians do not also have STEM content expertise, there are opportunities for professional development in facilitating STEM activities, as well as partnerships with community organizations, ISE institutions, and national initiatives.

Directions for Future Research 

Some future Knowledge Base articles related to STEM learning in libraries could include:

  • STEM Exhibits in Public Libraries
  • Professional Development for Librarians Conducting STEM Programs
  • STEM Programs in Public Libraries
  • Making and Tinkering in Public Libraries
  • Increasing Digital Literacy Through Libraries


Bertot, J.C., Real, B., Lee, J., McDermott, A.J., & Jaeger, P.T. (2015). 2014 Digital Inclusion Survey: Findings and Results. College Park, MD: Information Policy & Access Center, University of Maryland College Park. Retrieved from

Brown, A. & Lopez, M. (2015). Public Libraries and Hispanics: Immigrant Hispanics Use Libraries Less, but Those Who Do Appreciate Them the Most. Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center. Retrieved from

Clark, L. & Perry, K. (2015). After Access: Libraries and Digital Empowerment. Chicago, IL: American Library Association. Retrieved from

Fitzhugh, G., Elworth, J., & Coulon, V. (2013). STAR_Net Summative Evaluation Report. Retrieved from

Kliman, M., Jaumot-Pascaul, N., & Martin, V. (2013). How wide is a squid eye? Integrating mathematics into public library programs for the elementary grades. Afterschool Matters, Spring, 9–15. Retrieved from

Rosa, K. (Ed.). (2016). The State of America’s Libraries 2016: A Report from the American Library Association. Chicago, IL: American Library Association.

Swan, D.W., Grimes, J. & Owens, T. (2013). The State of Small and Rural Libraries in the United States. Research Brief series, no. 5 (IMLS-2013-RB-05). Washington, DC: Institute of Museum and Library Services. Retrieved from

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