STEM activity

Why Are Libraries Critical to STEM* Education in the 21st Century?

Public Library visitor statistics

1. That's where the people are.

Every day, millions of people visit public libraries in the U.S. Total annual visits are about 1.6 billion. Statistics gathered by the American Library Association show that high percentages of families with children, including minority groups visit libraries, making them representative of each community's diverse population.

2. For over one hundred years, U.S. libraries have been providing opportunities for lifelong learning.

Every person's education is an ongoing and lifelong experience that includes family, school, and community. Research shows that a young person's academic success and career choices depend on all three. The spark that inspires a child's interest in STEM can come from an informal learning experience in a public setting, such as a museum or a library. Then the child's family, school, and community can support the child's interest and efforts to gain an in-depth formal education in STEM.

3. Public libraries are at the center of civic life.

Because so many policy issues involve STEM-related issues, a basic understanding of STEM is part of informed citizenry. With nearly 17,000 branches across the country, there's a public library in almost every community in the U.S. They've taken the place of the "public square" by providing a place where members of a community can gather for information, access to the internet, education programming, and discussions.

4. Libraries are helping citizens build 21st century skills - such as critical thinking and scientific literacy.

For a long time, libraries have been supporting formal education efforts by providing literacy programs for preschoolers, students, and adults. Now, libraries across the country are envisioning ways to help their patrons build 21st Century skills, which includes providing hands-on STEM learning experiences. Just as 21st Century skills include innovation and creativity, libraries are thinking of new ways to engage their patrons in STEM learning. Possible activities range from inviting an entomologist to take kids outside to find insects to letting a local astronomy club set up telescopes in the parking lot for a nighttime star party. When it comes to STEM, the only limit is the sky and the universe beyond.

Libraries from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine are hosting Science Saturdays, Whacky Wednesdays, Robot Races, and Maker Spaces. With help from librarians, kids and grownups are busy creating, building, innovating, and learning.

For more about the 21st Century skills initiative, see Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) at

* STEM is the acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math.

Stories and Case Studies

Egyptology, Mummification, and Hieroglyphics at the Gadsden Public Library

Small Town, Big Impact: Mary Wood Weldon Memorial Library in Glasgow, Kentucky