If You Build It They Will Come: Erin Berman Brings Imagination and Innovation to the Library

Community Profile

2016 Library Journal Mover and Shaker Erin Berman creates the programs and services her community needs.

Erin Berman is a self-proclaimed maker. She loves costuming and creating art, and prior to her library life was a dramaturg in the theater – someone who researches the historical background on a production for the benefit of the cast and crew. But “theater is a very jealous mistress” Berman laughs, and she began seeking what other roads life had in store. Enter the library, stage left.

All the World’s a Library

Berman was inspired to attend the San José State University School of Information after a teacher noted that, with her theater research background, she’d be a natural librarian. Combined with her love of technology, she dove into programming and database design courses with an idea of working on back end systems. That career path quickly changed once Berman started volunteering at a local San Luis Obispo, California, public library.

“Once I started volunteering I thought ‘Oh my gosh I’m home – this is where I’m supposed to be,’” Berman says. “I always enjoyed public service, I always loved working with teens especially so it was a great opportunity.” Because she was pursuing the MLIS degree Berman was given leeway to try new things at the library, and eventually was offered a paid internship to work with the children’s librarian.

“It completely changed everything,” Berman says. “I started focusing on teen, youth and public library services.”

It turned out to be the perfect fit for Berman, who recalls her own challenging teenage years without a positive adult role model to talk to. “People forget that teenagers have great ideas and are fun to talk to,” she says. “Your teenage years define and shape who you are, who you become. The books we read, the activities we do, and especially the adults we have in our life can make a huge impact on who you become later on.”

She began to understand the library as a safe space where teens can come and just be themselves, where librarians listen to what they want, respect their choices and provide them with information without judgment.

“What’s the library’s responsibility? We’re not here to tell you what’s right and wrong, we’re supposed to be the people to provide you with the information and then you decide what to do with it. If you don’t have the information you don’t have a choice.” And for Berman, life is all about choices and what you make of them.

Around the World and Back Again

Berman finished San José State University School of Information courses in 2011 but due to the lack of available jobs at the time, took the opportunity to see the world through a job teaching English in a small village in Georgia, former Soviet Union. Once she was back in the states she was fortunate to get a librarian job at San José Public Library (SJPL). SJPL, with its close connections to Silicon Valley and San José State University (SJSU), does things a little differently. 

“All branch librarians are generalists, and get to do everything,” Berman explains. “All the librarians are expected to do storytime, for example. People do have specialty areas, but everyone is free to have suggestions and to do things in other areas.”

Berman, pictured right at the SJPL booth at ComiCon, took on the role of teen volunteer coordinator, bringing teens back to the library by allowing them design and run their own programs. And within a couple of months she started making suggestions for other areas of library improvement, creating new programs which were not all successful, but each one offered a learning experience.

A mini maker faire was inspired by Berman’s love of crafting and by the tagline she created: Innovate Create Discover. She recruited other maker-librarians to set up booths, coordinated TechShop, a local makerspace, invited a local high school robotics team, partnered with SJSU, and other local technology businesses. Over 200 people showed up to create.

Another project was the Virtual Privacy Lab, a fun, educational tool where users learn about digital privacy. The end result is a privacy information toolkit tailored to each person’s internet usage needs. The popular lab has created five to six thousand toolkits so far, and is available in English, Spanish and Vietnamese to make it accessible to more of San Jose’s diverse community.

“We talked to the community and found there were lots of different definitions of privacy, people use the internet differently,” Berman says. “We provide quick tools and tips. We wanted something that was as fun as privacy education can be. Privacy is a very intimidating project, and [other] privacy information online is very doom and gloom.”

SJPL added a ‘privacy at your library’ section detailing the library’s own privacy policies. “Because we should be transparent,” Berman states, “it’s our hope that other libraries will not only link to the lab from their site, but that they’ll be inspired to create a section for their own library and be transparent with their own practices.”

Full STEAM Ahead

Building on her success, Berman and fellow SJPL librarians created STEAMStacks: programs that are Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math and maker focused.

“We’re focusing on creative problem solving,” Berman explains. “You have to teach the fundamentals of the tools in order to use them, but the end goal is not [only] how to use the tools: we want people to walk away with problem solving skills, things you can apply to any of life’s challenges.”

In summer 2016 the library opened TeenHQ, a new space in the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. branch, featuring an open makerspace. “We’re giving the teens an outlet to tinker around with their hands, and have a space where it’s safe to do so,” Berman says. Teens can come in and get trained on the equipment, or just hang out and use sewing machines, hand tools, wood, plastic, yarn – basic maker items.

And the next project, Berman’s “baby”, is the Maker[Space]Ship, a 39-foot, brightly colored bus custom designed workstations to allow for 20 children or 10-15 adults.

San Jose, Berman notes, is the 10th largest city in the United States by square footage, making it difficult for the entire population to access public libraries. Berman’s focus is on reaching low access communities, using the mobile Maker[Space]Ship to engage, understand their needs and develop programs for all ages and demographics. The successful programs can be adopted in the branch libraries for the benefit of even more people.

“We went in with a human-centered design thinking approach, looking at what the community wanted: how might we inspire people to solve problems creatively,” Berman says. “Libraries have offered really great programs for a long time but we’re focusing on the fact that we’re part of the education system, so our programming should reflect that and have measurable outcomes and learning objectives for everything.”

Onward and Upward 

Taking everything she’s learned through school, life and work into consideration, Berman, now the library’s innovations manager, constantly listens to her community’s needs to provide programs and services that they can relate to and use.

“Working and talking with our community is something [SJPL] really values,” Berman says. “We’ve been talking to the community once we have an idea to get feedback on how to use it, but we can do a better job talking to them before they use it. I can assume what people want all day long, but it’s better if I go out and talk to the community.” 

In honor of all of her work, innovation and community engagement at the library, Berman (pictured, right, presenting with Kate Roberts at Internet Librarian conference).was chosen as a Mover and Shaker by Library Journal in 2016. It’s a fitting award for the imaginative, inclusive innovative librarian.

“Tell me what works for you and that’s what we’ll respect,” is Berman’s motto. “Librarians have the ability to treat our patrons like that. And I love that about public libraries.”