Geeking Out

Building community around fans and fandoms

February 3, 2015

Screen cap from Emily Graslie's Brain Scoop web show
Screen cap from Emily Graslie's Brain Scoop web show

During the Women in Geekdom panel on Saturday, five self-proclaimed nerds shared their thoughts on how libraries can build communities by reaching out to local fans/patrons and creating programming that attracts people of all ages.

The panel was moderated by Samantha Nelson, writer for the Onion A.V. Club, and included Emily Graslie, chief curiosity correspondent for science and education at the Field Museum and host of the Brain Scoop web show; Mo Fong, director of K-12 education outreach at Google; Molly Jane Kremer of Challenger Comics and writer at DoomRocket.com, and Tricia Bobeda, co-host and executive producer of the podcast Nerdette.

“Nerd is a verb; it’s not what you love, it’s how much you love it,” said Bobeda, explaining that her love of geek culture and background in public radio inspired her to create a podcast that showed women were interested in science, space, and Star Wars, too. The intimacy of podcasting as a medium, she said, is an effective tool for building communities and she could see libraries using it for just that.

Echoing this sentiment, Fong said that women choose to study computer science based on exposure and encouragement, and libraries can be the ones who expose them to computers and encourage them to pursue it.

But outreach is only effective if people connect with the library. Graslie connected libraries to museums and said, “While we are repositories of information, I like to communicate the ways our audiences can interact with us.”

Panelists agreed that while geek culture is plagued with some negative stereotypes (some of which are true), it is almost intrinsically about community building and can translate directly into libraries. “People tend to think of gamers as anti-social, but gamers love to talk to other gamers,” Nelson said. “Libraries are a great space for that.”

Bobeda added that people interested in certain topics feel a sense of community with others who share their interests. “We tend to think of membership as ‘people pay dues and so they’re part of this community,’ ” she said. “But membership means more than people’s dollars. It’s about creating community and that’s what libraries do.”

Librarians need not do it alone. Speaking from an educational standpoint, Fong explained that computer science programming allows for collaboration between libraries and parents, libraries and students, and students with students. “You can use library space to have students create programs collaboratively,” she said.

Graslie explained that she turned to the digital community to “foster greater connection” because she was working at a museum in a small town in Montana. Even though she’s in Chicago now, the majority of her work is still done online. “People want to find like-minded people and projects. It strengthens the dialogue because libraries can encourage dialogue online and then invite [participants] back into the physical space,” she said. “I was searching for a safe space to come together with a like-minded community.”

Kremer agreed hastily, adding that many geeks or nerds can be introverted. “Introverted people open up in safe spaces; libraries can be that hub,” she said.

Nelson pointed out that one issue with geekdom is that it can have en element of pretension or be somewhat unwelcoming to new fans. “Geekdom can be intimidating, so libraries can be that first space for people to get that exposure,” she said. And whether a librarian is a fan or knowledgeable about a certain topic or not, he or she could always turn to others in their community to help develop programs around them.

“Podcasting seems passive, but that’s what makes it a safe space,” Bobeda said. “We aren’t afraid to show ourselves as beginners. As adults being a beginner is a great way to engage kids because it makes them be the teachers. They feel more empowered to be mentors and teach other kids. It’s so much less scary to have a peer teaching you.”

For librarians who want to create computer science programming but don’t feel they have the background or expertise, Fong presented two websites—madewithcode.com and cs-first.com. Made with Code is more targeted toward girls and young women; by signing up to “host a Made with Code party,” registrants receive a box with instructions and tools to encourage young female patrons’ interest in computer science and coding. “This is something you could implement right away,” Fong said. “With hosting a party, the library is just there to be a space; everything is already included.”

She added that only 18% of college graduates in computer science are women. This is a big dive from the 1980s when it was around 30%. Fong encouraged librarians to use CS-First to create and host clubs that can be run on an ongoing basis or in snippets.

“I’m a professional amateur,” Graslie said, explaining that she actually studied art in college and started her science career with asking questions. “I turned it into a web series where I ask amateur questions. We’re all learning together. It’s different from the empty vessel model where people are empty vessels and the professor has all the answers and pours them into you. Facilitating discussions to allow kids to become an authority is so empowering for them.”

“Libraries are a great place for getting around the pretension or assumptions that come with comic book culture,” Kremer said, like the idea that girls aren’t interested in comics or want certain ones. “As long as there is a kind person to answer your questions, it will be okay. Once you start diving into fandom, you go into other ones.”

But how can librarians make it clear that geeky programming is social and collaborative, and attract kids and parents?

“I hated everything as a teenager,” Graslie said. “Parents are encouraged with the potential to engage with their kids. Having it at a library lends credibility because people assume there’s an educational component.”

Bobeda also stressed that relationships between information online is linked together with very little context. “Journalists and librarians are conduits for context,” she said. “In some communities, the digital divide is an issue. Librarians have the street cred because it’s a physical space that’s safe. For parents, a comic shop or a friend’s basement may not seem safe for a tween daughter, but a library is.”

Kremer added that comic book writers are a great draw for adults and children, and holding mini conventions in a library can be a great way to create community.

“It’s giving parents an opportunity to get to know their kids,” Nelson added.

Fong pointed out that en masse, being a nerd is not seen as cool. “We at Google are working with Hollywood. We need to slowly change perceptions in media,” she said, explaining that many of these messages are embedded and develop over time. “Something happens for perceptions to change and we can reverse it.”

“Libraries need to be reactionary to popular trends, but we also call the shots on what’s cool,” Graslie said, explaining that there are only four women hosting science channels on YouTube. “We have a responsibility to change images by calling things like misogyny out. Libraries can do that and take a stance. We are defining what it means to be in these roles and libraries can facilitate those communities and discussions.”