Maker Spaces in Public Libraries


I was pleasantly surprised by the Innisfil Public Library’s talk on maker spaces in their library. I walked away from Check Out a Skill presentation at the Ontario Library Association Superconference 2013 energized and hopeful for the future of public libraries.

Innisfil is a small Southern Ontario community about 87 kilometers away from Toronto. Although it was described as combined urban and rural, it tips towards rural. The library’s foray into maker spaces started as early as 2008, when it took a chance by adopting an open source integrated library system. With a culture that supported risk taking, they then looked at transforming their mandate. One of the things that came from user consultations  is that IPL wanted to “enable content creation.” This mandate adaptation enabled a change in programming to focus on supporting maker culture or “cultivating a hacker ethic” and how it would look in a public library setting.

Stakeholders, like the library board members and library staff, need to be on board with the huge changes in mandate. There may be some resistance to change understandably, but some strategies were in place to win them over. The board members got additional training on what maker culture meant, and access to explore iPads as well. Also staff were encouraged to play with tools and collaborate on a small-scale projects within a safe environment. The community was engaged through a kickoff gala and a scavenger hunt staged through the town.

Maker spaces includes 2 major components: children’s after school programs, which were in need of re-energizing, and the computer lab. Many public libraries have these programs or services.  There were a lot of great ideas for maker projects in after school programs:

  • creating small robots with Lego Mindstorms then adding iPad use to animate a story
  • light up badge
  • Playdough creations that move with simple electronic circuitry

Arduinos are simple electronic devices in do-it-yourself kits and the librarians find they provide a big wow factor in maker projects. Related is Makey Makey for more kits leading to more creative inventions with simple electronics. Part of the lessons learned  include the ability to recognize some programs may not have the intended outcome, so there is a need to adapt them on fly as some projects may not have worked well in a group setting. But all in all, Innisfil Public Library saw increased attendance in its after school programs. The library has cycled through different themes to bring back popular programs. Users responded by going to different branches to catch their favourite programs.

IPL had all the basics when moving from computer lab to digital media lab. The cost of upgrading software programs has gone down substantially. For example there are some sophisticated audio and video editing tools out there, which previously were the domain of professionals. Programs ran the gamut from Introduction to MS Word to Getting Published. The publishing course grew out of an extension of people learning to use Word. Once they converted their documents then they could also convert them to .pdf files for sharing. A logical progression was to further extend their sharing or publishing. So the move from an individual creating a story to sharing it with the community really makes the leap into maker culture.  Sharing and collaborating are common themes in the transforming nature of maker spaces.

The digital media lab, including guitars, sound and video editing, attracted new users including local businesses completing their own ads to creative teens. It got a laugh but now suddenly the adults were not complaining about teens hanging out and being loud in library, as they were engaged in making music or music videos.

Finally a heart-warming story of  how maker spaces has been embraced by the people of Innisfil. A young girl, who wrote a musical, came excitedly to the reference desk and wanted to perform it at the library.

(Thanks to Sarah Simpkin, Mandy Pethick and Aaron DeVries for a great talk.)

Other Resources:

MIT Media Lab
San Francisco Exploratorium explains science in a very kid-oriented fashion.
Arduino projects or small electrical devices

– Brenda Wong


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