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Nebraska Makerspaces Ignite Creativity in Libraries Statewide

Thirty-one community libraries across the state will be temporary homes for public makerspaces, where residents can use tools like laser cutters, 3-D printers, vinyl cutters, heat presses and more.

In 2017, the Institute of Museum and Library Services awarded the Nebraska Library Commission a $530,732 grant, which made it possible for the agency to rotate four makerspaces where people could make and create using shared equipment at public libraries across the state.

Every 20 weeks these makerspaces move between 31 participating libraries, which are selected through an application process. When libraries have less space, shared mini studios and micro studios allow for more makerspaces. Gov. Pete Ricketts’ office announced earlier this month the final five hosts of Nebraska’s Innovation Studios: Transforming Rural Communities makerspaces.

Project Manager JoAnn McManus said the commission selected libraries residing in communities of 25,000 people or less. Most cities in the state meet this requirement, she said.

“We suspected that if we could bring a makerspace to communities for 20 weeks that the community would find out fairly rapidly if this was something residents had an interest in,” McManus said. “They didn’t have to pay money upfront and they could use the machines and find out what was most interesting and useful to the people in their communities. It’s been working out really well.”

Library staff are trained at the commission’s headquarters in Lincoln before the makerspaces are installed at their sites, and then again after the equipment is placed, she said. The makerspaces feature a laser cutter, 3-D printer, vinyl cutter, heat press and more.

“It was really easy to get people started and, of course, in Nebraska with such a rural background many of us grew up making things and designing things,” McManus said. “We really do kind of have that entrepreneurial interest, so I think it’s a good fit for rural Nebraska and other rural communities across the country.”

The commission partnered with the Nebraska Innovation Studio, a makerspace at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), when writing the grant proposal.

Max Wheeler, an instructional designer at the studio, said the UNL makerspace also serves as a training ground for library staff and will eventually be the hub for all makerspaces statewide.

“There’s something special about making something yourself and customizing for you,” Wheeler said. “It’s that sense of pride you get when you assemble IKEA furniture, but it’s concentrated in one place. Giving people the opportunity to make things with their hands is somewhat of a novel concept for people and when you do finally make something you get a sense of accomplishment like nothing else.”

He said other partners have varying roles depending on each group, such as city workers who assist in unloading equipment and installing it upon arrival or those who donate raw materials for residents to use.

McManus said the commission primarily keeps the makerspaces stocked. She said wood and glassware for the laser cutter and vinyl to create custom T-shirts on the heat press are constantly being ordered to keep up with demand. Another, seemingly unlikely, favorite is the button press, she said.

“Those button makers have been really popular because a lot of times kids are the No. 1 customer in libraries, and they want to get started on something easy,” she said. “So, they do the button maker and then they take the buttons home and they say ‘oh mom, dad we’ve got to go back to the library.’ Then mom and dad are now getting into some of the other machines. We kind of like those low-tech quick and easy making machines just because it really brings other people into the library.”

Since the project began in 2017, the commission has consistently heard feedback from public library directors that the makerspaces are attracting new people, she said. Groups of residents become trained on a specific machine during nightly classes advertised during the first four to five weeks after the equipment is installed. Participants’ names are then added to a Web-based certification database that can be accessed by any library.

“The reason why we do it on a single database is because we know and we have seen it that after the studio leaves … we have seen people follow that makerspace because they want to do some more etching on jars and so they’ll drive 60 miles to where that station now is at a different library,” McManus said.

Makerspaces will continue to rotate around the state until June 30, 2020, when the project concludes. McManus said the commission plans to distribute the still-viable makerspace equipment to the 31 selected libraries.

“They have really had a lot of success in the community’s enthusiasm to get some of those same machines,” she said. “So, we do have those libraries moving forward, maybe not on a full innovation studio, but definitely some of the favorite machines that they had.”

Patrick Groves was a staff writer for Government Technology from 2019 to 2020.