Making Spaces 

Make It at the Library expands in year two

A room at the Idaho Commission for Libraries in Boise is filled with small groups of librarians and, contrary to expectations, it is anything but quiet. Hovering around heaps of plastic components, the groups are focused on achieving the same objective: building an Extreme Kicking Machine. Using Fischertechnik construction sets (its components resemble a cross between Legos and an Erector Set), each group works with girders, gears, pins, levers, axles, and even small-scale, battery-powered engines to build a machine that will send a ping-pong ball soaring through the air. This is the makerspace movement in action.

A "makerspace" is much what it sounds like: a space where something is made. But makerspaces (sometimes called "hackerspaces") aren't factories, studios or an extra room in a home or office; rather, they're technology, tools and training brought together in an environment conducive to collaboration.

Make It At The Library, launched with five libraries last year by the Idaho Commission for Libraries, is Idaho's approach to the makerspace movement.

"[W]e knew we wanted to expand," said Erica Compton, ICFL program coordinator.

This year, of the 11 libraries that applied, six were chosen to participate in the yearlong training program based on criteria such as potential for community partnerships and community need. In an effort to supplement and expand existing programs, each of the five pilot libraries was also asked to send an additional staff member for training.

According to Compton, only Maryland has attempted something similar, but was unable to follow-up initial training sessions with the funding necessary to supply equipment and materials. That makes Idaho "the first to take it to the statewide level." And higher.

"We're kind of pushing the envelope, and what we're doing is really getting a lot of national attention," Compton said. "Although we are certainly not the first to [explore] the Maker Movement, the concept of having it available in the library, with free access to anyone in the community, is pretty unique."

As a result, ICFL has received multiple invitations to present at conferences across the world. A 2013 videoconference, "Innovation in U.S. Libraries," generated keen interest in Idaho's program from Germany and France.ICFL has accomplished all of this on a tight budget. According to Compton, the entire pilot cost $50,000, which included everything from travel to training to equipment. Funding for the program has come entirely from federal grants through the Library Services and Technology Act. Asked whether any state funds are anticipated, Compton said, "we're not holding our breath."

Idaho-based PCS Edventures understands pushing the educational envelope: The company uses tools like the Fischertechnik sets as part of a STEM-based training program it created. Kellie Dean, Edventures' director of training, facilitated the Extreme Kicking Machine challenge and was impressed--though not surprised--by the librarians' abilities.

"As a whole, these people are incredibly creative and inventive," said Dean. "They have all stepped way out of their boxes and really gotten into it. I'm impressed with how engaged and open-minded they all are."

Dean originally planned to give each group a "curriculum build"--projects that are completed using illustrated, step-by-step instructions. That idea evaporated once Dean saw the level of complexity the librarians were capable of during a free-build session.

Arranged for display at the front of the room, the free-builds included a scaled, miniature table with chairs, a model of the human eye and a replica of the Colosseum.

"I wanted to give them a challenge," said Dean, "and I wanted them to experience implementing changes during the design process."

When it came time to see if the Extreme Kicking Machines could actually kick, the groups were visibly nervous as each attempted to launch a ping-pong ball into the air. Some balls barely managed to roll slowly off the table, while others sailed a foot in the air. When all was said and done, the winning group humbly said it was a difficult, often complex endeavor. Which is the point: trying out ideas, failing, then trying again and succeeding, is the experience these librarians hope to facilitate in their young patrons.

"This is a way for kids to see their own progress," said Dean. "It's a way for them to take learning into their own hands and see some really positive results. It could even be life changing; since a lot of these kids don't even realize the types of learning they're engaged in. It's not until they're done and someone points out to them they've been working on a mechanical engineering problem that they say, 'Hey, this is totally in my back pocket.'"

But without exposure to these opportunities, kids might never have that epiphany.

"[W]hat these librarians are just beginning to realize, is that they are the bridge between formal, classroom education and where kids can ultimately go," said Dean.

Snake River School and Community Library, located just west of Blackfoot, participated in last year's pilot. This year, three staff members are attending training in order to replace departed co-workers. Based on their community's reaction to Make It At The Library, all three believe this kind of programming will continue to expand.

"Our library is not a quiet, read-your-book kind of library anymore," said assistant librarian Kim Jones. "[W]e're almost continuously in makerspace mode."

Whether it's a quilter using the fabric die-cutting machine, children participating in a crochet class or high-schoolers honing their AutoCAD skills on the 3-D printer, the library hosts every age of community creator.

"Last week, we even had a call from a local business," said Jones. "The owner of a fabrication company asked if he could use the 3-D printer to create a model of a camshaft design he's been working on."

The ICFL is seeing this kind of thing happening throughout the state. "This program has hands-down changed the way our librarians look at their library," said Compton. "Across the board, there is a strong desire to turn Make It At The Library into a core offering."

Looking to the future, Compton sees the programs' growth across the state.

"We want to really open it up, so that every community is makerspacing all over the place," she said.

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