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In my last column “Is It Time to Rebuild & Retool Public Libraries and Make ‘TechShops’?” we explored what the future of libraries not only could be, but what many thought should be. It’s an important topic worthy of followups throughout the year, and I’m thrilled to see over 200 comments, from librarians to loyal patrons to hackerspace members. It’s one of the most lively discussions we’ve had, with dozens of examples of libraries changing and innovating, and that’s what this article hopes to celebrate. I’ve collected some of the great comments, examples, articles, and programs sent in from folks on the ground making big changes in libraries around the world.

As one librarian emailed me and said: “We still have a lot of work to do. We need people to talk about this, thank you so much for showing we’re more than JUST BOOKS.”

Let’s recap:

…public libraries — the availability of free education for all — represent the collective commitment of a community to their future. They symbolize what is most important, a commitment to educating the next generation. The role of a public library should also adapt over time, and that time is finally here. It’s time to plan how we’re going to build the future and what place public libraries have, should have, or won’t have. The goal of this article is to get everyone talking about one of our great resources, the public library, and its future.

…Some of you will likely say that hackerspaces and TechShops are filling the void where a public library could have evolved to — that’s probably true. I think public libraries are one of those “use it or lose” it things we have in a society. Given the current state of budgets all over the USA, I think unless they’re seen as the future, we might just lose them.

  • How can we encourage American innovation?
  • How can we get kids access to laser cutters, CAD, 3D printers, and tools to design and build?
  • How can we train each other for the jobs and skills needed in the 21st century?
  • How can we spark the creativity and imagination of kids?
  • How can America be a world leader in design and engineering?

That’s from the article, now let’s see what’s happening from the links, articles, and programs around the world.



“Virtual Dave” Lankes is an associate professor at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies. In this video he talks about what the future of libraries should be.


Paulo writes:

The Transformation Lab has produced new visions for the physical library of the future…

Denmark: Aarhus Public Librarie implemented this project called Transformation Lab that goes with Torrone’s ideas.
England: IdeaStore is a different approach to library service where learning plays a major role: http://www.ideastore.co.uk/
There are other libraries, mostly in northern Europe, where new approaches are being tried in order to expand library roles.



The time for libraries is now, by Ned Potter. He writes:

The idea of this is to position the information professional as someone who will be increasingly important in an information-driven world, and to try and market the library in a more positive light. It’s inspired by the Shift Happens deck, as so much of the jaw-dropping information which that presentation contains seems to strengthen The Case for the Librarian… I’ve created these slides to act as library advocacy, so obviously I’d love them to be seen outside of the echo chamber — if you can think of any way for me to achieve this, let me know! The deck is available under a Creative Commons license via Slideshare, so please feel free to embed it anywhere you see fit — I can honestly say I’ve never put so much work into a bunch of slides, so I’d love to see it in as many places as possible…


Oleg writes:

This concept of shifting the role of public libraries from repositories to centers of creative action has been a theme in the writings of Phil Shapiro at PC World since his December 31, 2008, article Should Public Libraries Be Welcoming Homes for Ingenuity? In it, he wrote “Public libraries are physical homes for the human imagination. The human imagination is represented physically in books, but also in the things we build and make.”

In the article, there are some great thoughts:

Public libraries are about books, right? Yes, books. And something other than books, too. Public libraries are physical homes for the human imagination. The human imagination is represented physically in books, but also in the things we build and make. The media we make. The contraptions we devise. The songs we compose. The art we make.

Traditionally, we haven’t thought of public libraries as “houses of ingenuity,” but maybe that’s the direction in which they’re headed. Maybe people will start heading over to the public library because they’ve been wondering about something. And they want to talk to a library staffer who is good at soldering, or is good at Google SketchUp, or is handy at prototyping, or who likes to build solar charged lawn mowers, or has incredible talent at making a cat feeder from a VCR, or who is excellent at animation using free software.

Maybe ingenuity belongs in public libraries. And guess what? Ingenuity doesn’t go home on Fridays at 6 pm. Ingenuity stays up late Friday evening and way into Saturday morning because ingenuity is so close to getting it right. Ingenuity is working with neighbors in a community building in a way that’s never been done before. Figuring things out, solving problems, bringing value to each other via a process. Within a library. Via a process.

And ingenuity is intergenerational, because the kids always have the best ideas. And the kids learn to listen and respect one another, because that is ingenuity’s way. And some teenager mutters to her friend on her way to school, “There is no place I’d rather be than at the public library. No place. If I could move in there, I would.” And she’s carrying a wrench in her hands when she says this. On her tee-shirt is the question: “What do you know about Nikola Tesla?”

Phil Shapiro has written a lot on this subject, here are some of the library-related articles from him — all wonderful thought starters:


What does it mean to assign “value” to public libraries? by Eleanor Jo Rodger in American Libraries magazine:

Valuable is not about our professional values; in the paradigm of the value of public libraries, we are the producers, not the consumers of services. Our personal sense of what is valuable really doesn’t matter much at all unless it matches that of our customers.

Discussions of value usually arise when overall support for libraries is threatened. The dialogue is back now, in part, because library budgets are being reduced from coast to coast. Money is tight, so again we struggle to understand what it means to be truly valuable.

The first truth is that library budgets are shrinking, but not because funders do not love or appreciate libraries. They do. However, there’s not enough public money to go around. If your family income dropped by 20%, how would you feel if one of your five children insisted that her allowance should not be reduced? Let the other kids’ expenses for food, clothing, medical care, and tuition take the hit, not hers. She’s more important. That’s how we sound to city councils when revenues are down and we say, “Let reductions come from other departments. The library is really, really important.”

The second truth is that now, more than ever, library leaders should be asking, “What can we do to create more public value?” Note that the question is not about how to get more money, add more services, or serve more people. Public libraries are valuable because they create public value. How do they do that?


A new book The Atlas of New Librarianship by R. David Lankes was mentioned a few times, it’s not out yet, but looks great:

Libraries have existed for millennia, but today the library field is searching for solid footing in an increasingly fragmented (and increasingly digital) information environment. What is librarianship when it is unmoored from cataloging, books, buildings, and committees? In The Atlas of New Librarianship, R. David Lankes offers a guide to this new landscape for practitioners. He describes a new librarianship based not on books and artifacts but on knowledge and learning; and he suggests a new mission for librarians: to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities.


Nate Hill: “Library Outposts, a New Service Model for Urban Public Libraries”

Library Outposts are storefront library service points, no more than 1500 sq. ft. in size, centrally located in busy commercial districts or near transportation hubs. The storefront presence makes the Outpost agile and adaptable to the particular features of each community, providing fundamental library service and serving as a gateway to the full range of programs, classes, and events offered throughout the larger service ecology. The space is easily transformable; one moment a silent reading room, another moment a performance art space, another moment a forum for a community group meeting. Storefront library facilities have been attempted in the past with limited success, but the Outpost model takes advantage of emerging technologies to reconsider the distribution of library content and materials (you know, like books, DVDs, etc.) and invent itself as something entirely different. Presently a few libraries offer similar services: Houston Public Library has a few small, tech-heavy locations, Contra Costa Public Library offers material vending machines in the BART stations, and with the generous help of the Gates Foundation, New Orleans Public Library has opened some storefront facilities that have been received enthusiastically by the community. The Outpost model combines these practices and takes them to the next level.


Meg writes:

Yes. One of my students at Syracuse University’s School of Information suspects Phillip Torrone has been snooping around our class. … we’ve been insisting on this very transformation of public libraries all semester (we blog about it here). I’m a librarian in Upstate NY and my artist partner and I, in addition to putting techshops and FabLabs in public libraries, also want to model library programming off the example of The Public School, THE PUBLIC SCHOOL is a school with no curriculum. At the moment, it operates as follows: first, classes are proposed by the public (I want to learn this or I want to teach this); then, people have the opportunity to sign up for the classes (I also want to learn that); finally, when enough people have expressed interest, the school finds a teacher and offers the class to those who signed up. Elated to see this article written up so well. I’m on your side and will do what I can to make this happen.

Rad Librarian writes:

I am a YA librarian at a large, busy, urban library. Many of our users desperately need our more ‘traditional’ library services, and we are typically very busy meeting those needs. In my free time I also do work with our local Free Geek outpost, and occasionally visit our local Hack Factory. I have long wished that my library, Free Geek and our local Makers shared a facility (we also need a gym for youth to get their ya-yas out.) Because you know, I am starting to see the folks in need of our ‘traditional’ library services showing up at these other places. Those homeless teens and low income adults using the library’s free Internet and meeting with Legal Aid are also showing up at circuit bending, multimedia production and hands-on science programs we’ve offered, and they show up at Free Geek on the weekends to learn about building computers. It’s all food for the mind, and if you are able to spare some attention for something beyond basic survival, well, wouldn’t it be great if you could find that for free at the library too? I personally think libraries should have attached gyms, wood shops and sound/video production labs. I don’t think any of these needs or uses are mutually exclusive. It’s all about learnin’ and doin’.


Michael writes:

We have school groups touring the library at least one day a week. We had an Irish dancing group in. It’s Teen Tech Week, and our Youth Services Department has several things going. We have an oral history project. We’ve added two new services: online language learning and additional ebooks. We’re having a full-day workshop for nonprofits. We have an elder services group meeting in the library on a daily basis for computer training and more. We’re hosting a traveling exhibition on Negro League baseball. The local hockey team will be there for an autograph session. A walk-a-thon. An author event. A self-publishing workshop. Twice-daily computer classes in a variety of programs. Our library foundation is hosting a more extensive author event. We proctor a variety of exams as a public service. We provide 150 public computers with free Internet access. We provide free Wi-Fi. Those are just the things I can think of off the top of my head. And through it all, we have kids and adults and teens reading, browsing the stacks, researching papers, doing homeschool research projects, playing games (oh, yeah, we also lend video games, as well as movies and music), talking, studying, etc. These are all things our community finds valuable, and we work with lots of different groups to make them happen.


jdonlon writes:

I work in a college library and grew up using the public library system. I liken the public library to the gun in the wild west in the sense that it is the great equalizer. A person with nothing can self educate and create opportunities for themselves via education. As a young hobbyist, I always thought it would be great if the library could offer “kits” to make stuff or “arts and crafts” areas where we could create and build. It is such a logical step to have the books and then have the space, tools, expertise, access to build and create. It is like open source code — everyone benefits. I do agree that it has to be tempered somehow so that people know how to use tools properly and are competent. Great idea!


Katherine writes:

As a librarian and an enthusiastic participant in the Maker movement, I have to say this is a thought-provoking idea. I think a big question that supporters of this idea have to ask themselves is “What are libraries FOR?” Not the knee-jerk, simple answer – “books, internet, e-readers” and the like – but the more complex answer, the answer that gets at the heart of why taxpayers in many communities passionately defend their libraries while perhaps not using them as much as they could.

Public libraries are payed for with tax dollars because knowledge is considered to be fundamental to democracy and a democratic society. Along these lines, knowledge is considered to be a public good.

One of the central issues for discussion, particularly when someone takes this to city council or to funding agencies is about “knowledge” and how we acquire it. Makers, I think, take for granted that really nifty knowledge can be learned from direct experience — we assume this because this is what our own experience has taught us. Right now, libraries are about books and the printed word (while the Internet is developing into being about lots of other multimedia things, for the most part it’s still a lot about text and words), because the prevailing assumption has been that knowledge is best transmitted through the printed word.

The argument that I think needs to be made to Mr. City Bigshot and Ms. Grant Reviewer when pitching this idea of the MakerBrary is that a certain kind of knowledge can only be developed/transmitted/obtained through DOING. And this kind of crafty, problem-solving, maker knowledge is also fundamental to the big umbrella mission of the public library – that of supporting democracy and the goals of a democratic society.


HY writes:

I work at a library and with space at a premium for studying/job searching, large areas with large equipment is not going to happen overnight. I agree that bringing hands-on creativity through engineering to libraries would be great. I also agree with others here that you need to start small. Form a club/organization that meets at a public library. Then offer informational presentations or better yet a teen/older children’s program where teens can operate a robot, or use tools created on-site to solve a problem/challenge. It’s likely parents would stay to see what’s going on, so that’s two demographics covered with limited effort.


Ben writes:

Libraries branch out in any number of directions, including (as you mentioned) tools, but also offering creative workspaces. Look at the Salinas, CA library’s Digital Arts Lab, and at the Charlotte & Mecklenburg Library’s Teen Loft, which includes a recording studio. These things take pioneers, but every community does have to make the decision on its own. That’s what so remarkable and so frustrating about public institutions, and especially institutions so constantly in flux as libraries.


connors934 writes:

Libraries have long been and still are a place for people to learn. Every afternoon, adults and youth gather for tutoring at my local library. There are books and magazines that many people don’t have at home or don’t need in the house. By storing them at a central location like a library, more people can access the information.

By gathering curious people in libraries and spaces for hands on learning, we cultivate creativity and innovation.

Making is one of the best ways for people to learn. When you make something of your own design, you have a reason and a need to find out more. By hosting the makers of the community in their space, they will encourage people to explore and learn through the traditional library resources.

Evening access would be important, as many of the people who might take advantage of these resources either work days or can be nocturnal. Having a facilitator who can adapt instruction and information to meet the diverse needs of an informal learning environment like this will be essential.

By creating resources for making in communities, we are investing in our future. People who know how to learn and make things will have a powerful effect on our society and economy.

The learning environment of a hackerspace/makerspace/techshop will provide a different avenue for education than what people experience in formal classrooms. People in these types of hands-on learning spaces tend to come in with a burning desire for a specific area they want to learn about or a problem they want to solve. While there is a place for workshops designed around specific skills, like soldering, electronic circuits, 3D design, programming for physical computing or personal fabrication, the bulk of users of such a service and space would be individuals with diverse interests.

Check out some of the differences between various learning spaces and their likely participants over on MakerEd.

People who take advantage of access to community learning spaces like what you’ve described tend to be engaged, curious and innovative. As a society, we need to think forward about how we can cultivate these traits across the population. Getting people fired up about what they can do to empower themselves will help us develop the new technologies and skills we need to compete in a globally connected marketplace.

Providing and facilitating learning opportunities through making is consistent to the mission of libraries.


Charlton writes:

As a librarian, a graduate from engineering school and a technojunkie, this article is very poignant. Just as hackers have battled with the negative media connotations of the word, “hacker”, public libraries are constantly having to battle with the stereotype of being a labelled as an “warehouse for books”.

I hope that those leaving comments will have visited a library recently because many libraries offer more than just print materials. Often remote, electronic access to ebooks, audiobooks, newspapers, magazines and research journals are offered. (In response to johngineer) Event programming has existed for quite a while in a variety of forms ranging from smaller computer workshops to larger author events (ex. Steven Levy of Wired will be visiting my own library next month). Homework assistance is a staple at several libraries and staff/volunteers often help kids with math and science homework. Additionally, the availability of meeting room space and free wi-fi have allowed for user groups to utilize the library as a convenient neighborhood meeting spot (my local Linux SIG met for years at a branch location).

However, lets circle back to the question of whether the public library needs to be rebuilt. I would agree with Mr. Torrone that a revamping is healthy, but I would add that the local community needs to help define the change. Libraries were intended to further the intellectual development of the surrounding communities. Books used to be the only way to do so, but that isn’t the case anymore. To that end, integrating a makerspace, fablab and so forth is a wonderful idea.

This is a forum for makers and so the image of the public library should reflect the interest of makers.


Sheryl writes:

Public librarian here. Love the idea of a hackerspace fablab library. Has anyone analyzed the economic benefit to the community of having such a resource? If that benefit could be quantified, it would help get local governments on board.


MakingSociety writes:

Just saw that this already happens in France. Some libraries in Paris let people rent tools for 3 days for only 5 euros per year. Their name so far: bricothèque (like “bricolage” + “bibliothèque” = tinkering + libraries… tinkeries sounds great? )

Tools that you can rent there:
– drill
– hole puncher
– jigsaw
– circular saw
– cutting mosaic (I don’t know how to say)
– sander
– steam stripper
– glue gun
– tool to carpet
– carpet shampooer
– stapler
– voltage tester

It’s mostly little tools useful for little home projects, but it already a beginning! Some people says it’s a kind of “social tinkering.”

Read more about it (in French).


Are you a librarian that is making changes or currently doing maker-related and creative projects in your community? Post in the comments. Are you a patron of a library that is doing amazing things? Post up!

Phillip Torrone

Editor at large – Make magazine. Creative director – Adafruit Industries, contributing editor – Popular Science. Previously: Founded – Hack-a-Day, how-to editor – Engadget, Director of product development – Fallon Worldwide, Technology Director – Braincraft.


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