It’s four o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon, and, in an old Victorian library in a small town in South Wales, big things are happening. The computer room is crammed with children, all intently focused and engaged. Working independently or in pairs, they are building games and animations in Scratch. This is the Penarth Library Code Club, and, as you may have guessed, it’s a roaring success. The club is very popular: every workstation has at least one occupant, and library staff have even offered their own laptops so that more children can join in. Some late arrivals have to be turned away, as the room simply won’t hold any more people. It’s vibrant, educational, and a long way from the stereotypes of dusty books and severe, shushing librarians.
When you think of coding, it’s probably a fair bet that public libraries are not the first things to spring to mind. Indeed, most Code Clubs are run in schools, but libraries are also an important venue offering young coders the chance to learn new skills outside of the classroom. While public libraries have no formal or official obligation to support the National Curriculum in schools, many have taken it upon themselves to engage with and support the new focus on computing and programming at both primary and secondary level. It’s particularly telling that this drive to engage with programming has come from a sector which is conventionally seen as reluctant to embrace or adapt to emerging technologies. It’s also interesting that library-based Code Clubs are significantly more common in Wales. Code Club notes that 3.6% of active clubs across the UK are in libraries; in Wales, however, the figure stands at 6.2%. There is, of course, a very strong element of local pride at work here, especially since the merger of Code Club and Raspberry Pi. Almost all Pis sold worldwide are made in the Sony factory in Pencoed, just 20 miles away from Penarth: significant numbers of jobs have been created, and there is genuinely an enormous amount of admiration in the area for the the tiny computer. It’s not surprising that locals both young and old are keen to get to grips with coding in general, and coding on the Pi in particular.
The librarians of the Vale of Glamorgan are one group who have particularly embraced technology, coding, and digital making, and key to this enthusiasm are Phil Gauci, a Library Support Officer, and James Emery, who works in digital development. In addition to Penarth, there are three other full-time libraries in the Vale, together with five part-time ones run by volunteers. Phil and James have been energetically mobilising colleagues across the area to encourage local children to get coding. Their efforts have been so successful that they are now planning to move on to introducing the children to physical computing: inspired by Technoclubs hosted by the libraries of Neath Port Talbot and funded by Carnegie UK, they planned to run robotics workshops using Lego Mindstorms and Scratch. However, the relatively high cost of the hardware renders it inappropriate for public libraries, especially given the serious reductions in funding faced by most services.
Fortunately, an alternative solution was available in the form of the Raspberry Pi. Phil and James started using Pis in Penarth Library in 2014; they have now tripled the number of units in operation, and are working on introducing them across the Vale. In order to meet the high levels of demand from prospective club members, they are beginning to run additional sessions at weekends, as well as putting on special events: this half term, 40 children gathered in Penarth, Dinas Powys, Cowbridge, and Barry libraries to make model robots with flashing LED antennae, writing the code in both Scratch and Python on Raspberry Pis. The sessions proved very popular, and plans are afoot to run further sessions exploring Sonic Pi and Minecraft, among other things.
How do Phil and James see libraries as fitting into the overall mission of Code Clubs and the Raspberry Pi Foundation, then? James explains:
Our clubs are more dynamic than traditional code clubs because we welcome seasoned coders alongside those who are just starting out. The kids who turn up will often come from different schools and it’s really exciting to see how they share and interact with others’ projects. We’re hoping to keep improving our own skills and understanding so that we can take Code Club to the next level and run workshops all across the Vale, creating some new partnerships along the way. It’s all about promoting the library service to a new audience, who may not be aware of how much we’ve changed and what we now offer.
Libraries have for some time had a role to play in encouraging information literacy among adult users. Now they are extending this to the next generation of aspiring programmers, and their efforts really seem to be paying off.
We currently have a vacancy for Code Club’s Regional Coordinator covering Wales, and we’re also recruiting Regional Coordinators for Yorkshire & North East and for the South West. The deadline for applications is 9am on Monday 21 March: go to Code Club’s jobs page to find out more.