Soapbox — Is It Time to Retool Public Libraries as TechShops?


Public libraries — the availability of free education for all — represent the collective commitment of a community to their future and 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.

At one time the library was “the living internet” — you went there to look up something hard to find, to do research. Now it’s all at our fingertips through search engines, Wikipedia, and the web. So where does this leave libraries?

Recently I walked by the Borders on Broadway in New York City — it’s going out of business. There are many reasons, but I think most people will agree giant collections of books in giant buildings don’t make much sense (or cents!) any longer. Digital media are usually better online, available in our homes.

Let’s explore what could be ahead for public libraries and how we could collectively transform them into “factories” — not factories that make things, but factories that help make people who want to learn and make things.

Will libraries go away? Will they become hackerspaces, TechShops, and Fab Labs, or have these new, almost-public spaces displaced a new role for libraries? Books themselves are tools of knowledge, so in that sense the library is already a repository for tools. Will we add “real tools” for the 21st century?

Where I live in NYC, there are two or three public libraries within a 15-minute walk. I really tried to use them, but the online interface wasn’t great, the things I wanted to check out were usually taken, and it’s hard to beat “instant” when I have a computer and web connection. Since the Kindle and Kindle apps came out, I haven’t visited the library. Not everyone has an e-reader, but there are predictions that ultimately, e-readers will be free and e-books just 99 cents (that’s less than a late book fine). I work with younger folks, and it’s rare for them to have ever used a public library except at school.

So where have I visited in the last few years that’s a “public-like” space for learning? Hackerspaces, Fab Labs, and TechShops.

A hackerspace is usually a membership-based location featuring workshops, tools, and people who like to make things. Hundreds of hackerspaces have appeared, almost overnight; just about every U.S. state has one, and most large cities do too. Members pitch in to pay the rent and other shared costs. The cost to get one started is usually a year’s rent in your local area for a good-sized location.

Fab Labs are associated with MIT, so they’re more of a sponsored/academic effort. As of July 2010, there were 45 Fab Labs in 16 countries. I like that they all use similar equipment; standardization of laser cutters, CNCs, and computers is good if you’re going to make something and you want others to be able to make it somewhere else. Getting a Fab Lab started can cost as little as $25,000, but realistically it’s likely a few hundred thousand.

TechShop is a commercial venture that’s membership-based, has pretty much all the equipment you need to make anything, and provides workshops and classes. There are currently four locations (Menlo Park, Calif., San Francisco, San Jose, and Raleigh, N.C.); New York and Detroit are to follow. TechShop hopes to have 100 locations in five years. They say it costs $1.5 to $2.5 million to get one started. That’s not too much above the average yearly cost to keep a public library going. Can libraries be TechShops?

If the only public space where 3D printers, laser cutters, and electronics education happens is in fee- or membership-based spaces, that will leave out a segment of the population, who will never have access.

What if we were to convert just 1% or even 10% of the 9,000 U.S. public libraries to TechShops? One percent is about 90 libraries, close to TechShop’s five-year target, and 10% would be 900 locations — not a bad goal.

But why does it matter? I think public libraries are one of those “use it or lose it” assets we have in a society. Given the current state of public budgets, I think unless they’re seen as the future, we might just lose them.

How can America be a world leader in design and engineering?

How can we get kids access to design/build tools like laser cutters and 3D printers?

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?

Many of these aims could be helped by the retooling of one of our greatest resources, the public library. It wouldn’t be easy, but that’s the point — it’d be a challenge worth doing.

We can wait and hope every state thinks about this, or that local hackerspaces can achieve something like it. But why wait? Libraries and librarians are underutilized for skill building. Libraries have the space, they have net connections, they’re in great locations — why not evolve?

It’s scary — laser cutters, CAD stations, CNC, 3D printers, equipment purchases, safety training — I’m sure there are lots of reasons it could never work out, but there are also many reasons it could. Besides, how often do you hear people talking about lining up outside the library because the new 3D printer has arrived and they want to use it?

What do you think the public library should be in the 21st century?

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