Libraries change lives. I believe it and I live it. Still, I was surprised to be reminded of the fact at a most unlikely event, a technology symposium.

In late September, Washington’s public libraries were invited to take part in a two-day, information-packed symposium called “Beyond our Doors: Connecting for a Broader Future.” Sponsored by Washington State Library, we heard from industry experts about broadband networks, innovations and alternatives for service, federal programs and policies, the roles that libraries are playing in organizing open data and ways we can engage, partner with and transform communities.

Speaking on this last topic was Irma Olguin Jr., CEO and co-founder of Bitwise Industries, a custom-software company focused on education, place and technology. Bitwise also has a technology program, Geekwise Academy, which trains people of all ages.

Olguin shared her humble beginnings, growing up in a Latino family of field laborers in the rural outskirts of Fresno, Calif.College was never a consideration for Olguin or her peers. Getting out of the fields to work in a gas station or manage a store was the ultimate dream for most.

So how did Olguin rise above her modest beginnings to lead a multimillion dollar company?

Olguin said much of her success can be attributed to lucky happenstance in her youth, but it also took people and institutions reaching out to her with opportunities and support.

For the librarians in the room, Olguin encouraged us to create opportunities for people, but also to consider the barriers they face. Are there ways we can help eliminate or overcome these barriers?

Another message was clear to me. The opportunities libraries provide are important, but we can be even more impactful through strategic partnerships, much like the ones Olquin has developed through Geekwise Academy.

Whitman County Library has seen success through this model. Funding from Innovia Foundation, Avista Foundation, The Libey family, Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, Thrifty Grandmothers and so many others has supplemented our tax-funded budget allowing for increased STEM education throughout our county.

As a result, we provide as many in-school and afterschool technology programs as we can afford. Students learn to code using Ozobots, micro:bit, and Lego Mindstorms. They create working electronic circuits with Snap Circuits, invent with littleBits, and explore what’s inside computers, learning how they work by taking them apart. They use Ozobots purchased by Friends of the Library and kits like Roominate and BookArt borrowed from Washington State Library.

Washington State Library is another invaluable partner in providing our residents with technology opportunities. With outstanding leadership from Secretary of State Kim Wyman and Washington State Librarian Cindy Aden, federal funding is steered toward initiatives that have the greatest effect on our state’s residents.

Thanks to support from Washington State Library and this federal funding from the Institute for Museums and Library Services Act, we provide many products and services that we couldn’t afford otherwise; services like OverDrive downloadable books, NewsBank, Microsoft Academy testing and certification, the Whitman County Heritage online collection, virtual reality and other technology programs.

Our partnership with the Washington State University Center for Civic Engagement has been extremely impactful as well. Student volunteers teach Crazy 8s math curriculum in a number of locations and a new STEM Club after school every Wednesday in Albion.

Imagine the value of college students mentoring local kids. Maybe this is their first glimpse of higher education. For some, it could be a lucky happenstance, like the ones that changed Irma Olguin Jr.’s life.


Kristie Kirkpatrick is the director of the Whitman County Library.

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