Portland Public Library hopes to boost science literacy

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PORTLAND — The Portland Public Library will be a pilot site for a project to enhance public exposure to science.

The project, funded in part by a $1.1 million grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, will help the library and five others bring science literacy to the community.

To build this capacity, the library will offer access to scientific tools and equipment, books, media and professionals within the scientific community.

“It’s exciting to bring a more focused approach to science,” said Samantha Duckworth, the library’s science and technology team leader. Duckworth said libraries provide an unique venue for the public.

The Portland Public Library is one of six pilot sites across Maine and Massachusetts. The Auburn Public Library and Jesup Memorial Library in Bar Harbor are the other locations in Maine. Portland is the largest pilot site in the project.

Duckworth and Sarah Campbell, executive director of the library, said the theme during the first year of the grant will be phenology, which is the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially as it relates to climate, plant and animal life. Campbell said these are all important topics in the Portland area.

“Science literacy means some ability to understand how we use science in everyday life,” Campbell said.

Duckworth said a focus of the project will be connections with community partners. She said state library agencies are working to promote a learning network, so libraries in rural areas of Maine can have access to programming.

“We are really trying to position ourselves as a trusted resource,” she said.

Campbell said there will be opportunities for the public to hear scientists speak, have access to scientific materials and be able to check out tools, such as a microscope, they might not otherwise have access to. She said opportunities will range from fun, playful activities, to more timely concerns, such as the science behind opiate addiction.

“We often try to wrap these very relatable science talks to issues of the community,” Campbell said.

The Maine State Library was the principal investigator of the grant. Cornerstones of Science, a Brunswick-based organization which works with libraries to connect the public with the scientific community, was the co-principal investigator. The grant from IMLS is a one-to-one matching grant, with IMLS contributing just under $500,000 and Cornerstones of Science, along with nearly 30 other organizations, contributing the rest.

Cynthia Randall, executive director of Cornerstones of Science, said the goal is to create a public demand for science by pulling them into libraries. She said the project could not have happened without IMLS.

“We want (libraries) to be attracting above and beyond those who usually use libraries,” Randall said. She said to do this, it takes a library director and staff who view libraries as community hubs and a place for the creation of knowledge, not simply “a repository of books.”

Randall said the grant will be disbursed to the libraries as they make an 18-month plan to implement. She said the project will help create guides for state library agencies to follow so other libraries can become science centers, regardless of their organizational structures.

“Lots of great stuff will come out of this,” Randall said.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

Samantha Duckworth, the science and technology team leader at the Portland Public Library, demonstrates how to use a microscope available at the library.

Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.