There’s something unusual sitting in the parking lot of the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Ind. Pay a visit to the 50-foot trailer and you might be surprised with what you find. Inside are various tools for cutting and shaping wooden objects, an electronics work bench, an injection molding machine and one of the most advanced gadgets for inventors, a 3-D printer.
Allen County is one of just a handful of public libraries that have set up multipurpose workshops for patrons who want to share and collaborate in order to create and build things. The terms used to describe these spaces include “makerspaces,” “fab labs” or “hackerspaces.”
So why does the Allen County Public Library have a high-tech lab for would-be designers, engineers and inventors? “The library is in the learning business, not just the book business,” said Director Jeff Krull. “Anytime libraries come across an opportunity for people to learn and grow, they should do it.”
There are nearly 10,000 public libraries in the U.S., and patrons increasingly rely on them for access to technology. More than 90 percent of public libraries offer formal or informal technology training, according to a recent survey conducted by the American Library Association. Much of that training relates to instruction for computer skills, general software applications and Internet use.
Makerspaces and fab labs cater to a particular type of library patron: inventors, artists, entrepreneurs, crafters and youth groups. The technology used in these workshops can revolutionize the manufacturing process, allowing designs and creations that can be modified to suit individuals in ways not possible with mass production.
Makerspace: A makerspace is a location where people with common interests — often in computers, technology, science, digital or electronic art (but also in many other realms) — can meet, socialize and collaborate. Makerspaces incorporate elements of machine shops, workshops or studios where hackers can come together to share resources and knowledge to build and make things.
Maker Meetups: A maker meetup is where groups of people with similar interests meet to work together, collaborate, create and share resources.
Contact Summit: The Contact Summit bills itself as a “working festival of innovation where the Net’s leading minds and entrepreneurs can connect with the people who are building the social technologies of tomorrow.” Held in different cities, the event focuses on peer-to-peer solutions in technology, business, arts, education and government.
Fab lab: The term “fab lab” traditionally refers to fabrication labs, which began as an outreach project from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Bits and Atoms. These fab labs share core capabilities, so that people and projects can be shared across them. In New York, the Fayetteville Free Library’s fab lab doesn’t emulate these fab labs exactly, preferring to call its lab a fabulous lab and leaving specific capabilities up to the needs of the community it serves.
Photo: Patrons at the Fayetteville Free
Library in Fayetteville, N.Y., use the fab lab’s 3-D printer.
Krull believes that the lab at the Allen County library has worked out well, but for libraries looking to bring members of the community into their physical space, the county’s approach may not be the best option. “While the trailer is located right across the street from the library building, it is not drawing patrons inside,” Krull said. He thinks it would be advantageous to move the space into one of the library buildings. Currently, with the relatively small size of the trailer, makerspace programs must be limited to 12 users at a time.
Looking ahead, Considine would like to offer the Fayetteville fab lab to youth camps with a nominal fee for materials. On previous trips to the library, elementary-schoolchildren have shown interest in the possibility of making missing game and Lego pieces. She also plans to showcase the wide variety of patron creations.
Krull’s plans include extensive programming over the summer — some free, some with a modest charge. He is also looking at bringing the space into a larger, permanent location.
Allen County and Fayetteville have created quite a buzz among librarians interested in offering nontraditional services that use cutting-edge technology.
Both Krull and Considine feel that creating access to emerging technologies is completely in line with the needs a public library serves.
Many libraries view these projects as test beds for other communities to embrace the future, according to Marcia Warner, past president of the Public Library Association, a division of the American Library Association. “Libraries have always been about books, information and an educated citizenry,” she said. “It seems like a natural progression to move into an area of facilitating information and material creation.”
The librarians offering access to the first makerspace and fab labs agree about their impact. “By providing access and opportunity to experiences, libraries provide a pathway for transformation,” Considine said. “Technology is not the death of the public library today. It will, however, change libraries as they rethink their space and role.”
Libraries, historically, retool continually, and the pace of evolution of the library promises only to move more quickly.
Pat Newcombe is the associate dean for library and information services at the Western New England University School of Law Library. Nicole Belbin is head of access services at Western New England University School of Law Library.