As the world goes digital, libraries everywhere have to adapt to a world where fewer people, let alone teenagers, are picking up printed books. But in D.C., library programs that have nothing to do with dead-tree books and everything to do with creativity and learning are drawing a whole new generation into their hallowed halls.
“Music is technology so it’s something that the library felt...promotes lifelong learning,” said Jamila Felton, a librarian who works with teens at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Public Library.
So she brought in Beat Club DC, a digital music workshop that has been introducing elementary and high school students to electronic music —the same stuff as Alicia Keys, Daft Punk, Justin Timberlake and Run DMC. With easy-to-use electronic instruments, anyone can immediately produce beats similar to the ones they jam to.
Barrett Jones is the founder of this one-man-digital band. Traveling to public libraries with a high concentration of teens, he’s able to fit all his equipment in a backpack, a vintage brown leather carry-on bag and a pushcart.
“Music is technology so it’s something that the library felt...promotes lifelong learning.”
On a folding table, he always has a MacBook Pro and Kaoss Pad, a touchpad used by DJs to modify sound. In front of these machines are five small oscillators that can each generate a hundred beat and bass lines. A jumble of wires connects all the devices, including the two medium sized speakers, to the sound system’s hub: an 8-channel mixer.
“These instruments are easy to play. Very beginner friendly. You could basically touch the equipment and start music. That way it’s much easier for a person, who doesn’t have any musical experience, to get up and start running,” says Jones as he sets up shop at the Woodridge Neighborhood Library in Northeast.
Jones, a local musician who took guitar and trumpet lessons as a boy, is no way dismissing the beauty of playing music through traditional means. He just doesn’t want the experience of learning new instruments to be intimidating on the first try like worrying about hitting the wrong keys or not understanding the notes on the music sheet.
At the second-floor meeting room of the Woodridge branch, a structure that once served as an air raid shelter, Jones warns a librarian coordinating his arrival that the session will be loud. Eric White, who manages the branch’s teen and adult collection, shoots back: “Go for it! Turn it on!”
A group of young people from ages five to 13, with some parents, arrives. Looking at the unfamiliar widgets and gizmos on the table, they first stand by the door. After Jones introduces himself and does a demo, he beckons everyone to the table and hands one of the oscillators to each participant, introducing them to the different beats they can produce by a simple swirl or the heaviness of their touch on the device’s touchpad.
Then the performances begin.
“Everybody loves cheese!” squeals a five-year-old boy to the microphone, while another participant's drum beats repeat in the background.
“I love candy. I looooove candy,” sings 11-year-old Jelaniby Byrd, as Jones slows down his voice.
While the budding Jay-Zs may have some work ahead of them in the lyrics department, the kids appeared to all be having fun.
“It was tight how more than one person can play one instrument,” says 13-year-old Antwan Bridgeman, a Perry Street Prep student who came with three of his neighborhood friends.
His friend, Judah Lloyd, 13 of Washington Latin Public Charter School adds, “It’s fun and easy for people to participate.”
When one of the parents asks Jones, “Why use these pads? Why not use the keyboard?” toward the end of the workshop, the younger crowd immediately chimes in:
“They’re cooler!” “More variety!” “They’re easier!” “They’re smaller!”
When Jones created Beat Club DC, he certainly had portability in mind. He wanted equipment that he can easily lug around and fit inside his blue Volkswagen Beetle. That way, he can travel light to different locations where youth congregate.
“That’s really important because I’m trying to connect to communities,” he said.
The communities he refers to are ones that have little to no access to arts programs and the digital equipment he owns. Jones says this was one of the main reasons he started his organization.
He has also brought his workshop to young people at AHC, Inc., an affordable housing development in Arlington, and to elementary school students in West Baltimore, Md.
This summer, Beat Club DC has jammed at Southeast Library; Rosedale and Dorothy I. Height/Benning in Northeast; Watha T. Daniel-Shaw Library, Petworth and Mt. Pleasant in Northwest. It has also played at the main branch Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Teen Space.
A former librarian at government agencies and think tanks, Jones pitched his idea to the D.C. Public Library in the spring 2012. The institution, which has been seeking ways to attract more teens with trendy workshops such as hip-hop and poetry, signed him up.
“We can easily attract children because their parents bring them. Or daycare providers bring them. But we rely on teenagers to come on their own. That’s a real hard process because they have so many options,” says Micki Freeny, the library’s coordinator of children and youth services.
Jones’ mission to introduce different technology to underserved communities also matched the institution’s goal to bridge the city’s digital divide.
Young people were also front and center when the library developed Digital Commons. This brand-new creative and technology space is filled with the latest computer software, apps, tablets and even a 3-D printer. Unveiled in mid-July at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, the center hopes to establish more teen-oriented activities that can enhance young people’s education experience and their technology skills.
Incorporating Beat Club DC to the library is a way to open young people’s minds, says Felton, who will soon become the teen programming partnership coordinator. Even though the sounds are fun and familiar to them, creating the music with Jones’ digital instruments is still a novelty.
“The activity is literacy based. We have items in our collection that talk about music production. So the collection supports that as well,” says Felton.
Listen to a recording created at the Woodridge session of Beat Club D.C. below.