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How libraries are staying relevant in the digital age

Words by Sarah Hubbard
Photos by Sarah Hubbard and Zoe Ekonomou

If you think that libraries are only for books, think again. As the world becomes more digital, libraries must look for a way to stay relevant. One of the ways libraries have kept up with technology is through makerspaces. These are creative spaces that often include advanced technology, such as 3-D printers and Adobe Creative Cloud software, and are available for patrons to use either free or with minimal charges. Recently, several makerspaces have popped up in Midwest libraries.

Des Moines – Forest Avenue Library

The Forest Avenue Library in Des Moines, Iowa, has makerspace events for adults and children. The library began its makerspace programming in April 2016 with youth classes. Adult makerspace programming began five months later.

Youth programming includes activities for kids from 3rd to 8th grade every Wednesday night. “MaKey MaKey,” for example, is a makerspace activity that shows kids how to make basic circuits through everyday objects like coins and fruit.

“MaKey MaKey” is a program used to introduce circuitry to kids.

Jennifer Thomas, the youth makerspace coordinator, says the video game Minecraft is the most popular youth makerspace activity.

Adult programming is for ages 16 and up and takes place every Monday night. 3-D printing is among the most popular adult classes. Philip Delgado, the adult makerspace coordinator, said summer makerspace classes will build a drone using 3-D printing and basic motors.

“We’ll have people from the Federal Aviation Administration come out and talk about drone use and regulation in Des Moines,” Delgado said. “We’ll be able to do test flights for the drones we make, too. I think it will be a very popular, exciting event.”

The Forest Avenue makerspace is the only location within the Des Moines Public Library system, but Delgado and Thomas hope the programming will expand to other branches in the future. Although the Forest Avenue Library serves a lower-income community, the makerspace program attracts people from all walks of life.

Unlike other libraries, the Forest Avenue Library uses a pop-up system for its makerspace instead of reserving a permanent spot. These makerspaces are funded by the interest of the brick fundraiser. Donors to the library could purchase a commemorative brick to be laid in front of the library. The money they donated went into a trust, which generates the interest that funds the makerspaces.

St. Paul – Saint Paul Public Library – George Latimer Central Library – Innovation Lab
Wood projects that have been created with the laser cutter at the George Latimer Central Library Innovation Lab decorate the space.

The Innovation Lab at George Latimer Central Library in St. Paul, Minnesota has been open for about a year. The space is exclusively for adults. ages 18 and older. The lab has 293 members, offers 82 programs and averages 42 appointments per month. The Innovation Lab mainly offers classes during the evening, but equipment is available for use at any time.

“Adults want to come in and be taught a skill. They don’t necessarily want to come in and play around with technology they aren’t familiar with,” said Amanda Feist, the librarian for the Innovation Lab.

“We’re located very close to Catholic Charities, which serves a large population of homeless people in St. Paul,” Feist said. “Over time, we’ve noticed a lot of homeless people coming to the library to get involved in the Innovation Lab.” She said the most popular piece of technology among that demographic is the sewing machine, which they use to repair their clothes or make new ones from donated fabric.

Equipment available at the Innovation Lab includes 3-D printing, laser cutting and engraving, VHS converters and digital turntables for archiving, community sewing machines, a soundproofed recording studio and several software packages.

Minneapolis – Minneapolis Central Library – Best Buy Teen Tech Center
The Best Buy Teen Tech Center space in Minneapolis Central Library boasts a large space for innovation and creation.

The Best Buy Teen Tech Center opened in February 2013. The makerspace is located in the Minneapolis Central Library and is exclusively for youth aged 12-19.  As of January 2017, it boasts 320 members.

The Teen Tech center is open Monday through Thursday from 3-8 p.m. It is part of the Clubhouse Network, a program of the Museum of Science, Boston in collaboration with the MIT Media Lab. Amelia Hansa is the coordinator for the space.

“We’re here to let kids explore, but there’s more to it than that,” Hansa said. “We focus on the kids, building relationships with them while they face challenges and grow creatively.”

Hansa said one of the kids who came into use the recording studio eventually picked up other skills.

“He was very invested in his music,” Hansa said. “Our recording studio is what drew him to the Teen Tech Center in the first place. Over time, he branched out to using the sewing machines. Of all the tech we have here, this surly young man wanted to sew. So not only did he branch out in terms of what technology he used, he picked up a female-dominated hobby.”

Makerspaces allow library patrons to explore their interests while also helping them discover new ones. They have proven incredibly popular, and programming is expanding rapidly at locations across the Midwest. New makerspaces, in and out of libraries, are popping up more and more frequently.

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