Square co-founder Jim McKelvey built the first prototypes for his little white credit card swiper at the TechShop workshop in Menlo Park, Calif. MakerBot’s first 3D printer, the CupCake CNC, grew out of collaborations that began at the NYC Resistor hackerspace in New York City.
Square and MakerBot are just the famous examples. TechShop members have also produced a tiny quadcopter and a DIY underwater robot that both easily hit their goals on Kickstarter. At the Noisebridge hackerspace in San Francisco, members once launched a balloon to the edge of space to take photos and video.
All of these projects were made possible in part by organizations seeking to knock down barriers to making things. Their thousands of members benefit not only from access to expensive equipment the average person is unlikely to own, but also from the connections that form when you work alongside others.
That made it especially exciting to hear that Chicago opened a maker lab in one of its public libraries today. Most maker spaces carry a membership fee of $50-200 a month or are located in an institution like a university, where you are required to be a student or staff member to access equipment. A free lab that is open to the public is a novel concept that will hopefully be a lot more common in the future.
The lab at Chicago Public Library’s Harold Washington Library Center will stock three MakerBot Replicator 2 3D printers, two laser cutters, a milling machine and a vinyl cutter, plus a selection of software. A $249,999 grant will sustain its operation through the end of 2013, at which point it will be re-evaluated. The city will also consider adding maker spaces to other library locations.
I hope they do, and other libraries follow suit. As computers and the internet became more and more mainstream, public libraries offered access to them for free, helping usher in widespread adoption and familiarity. To this day, they make them available to anyone. They also offer librarians and other staff members, providing a supportive space for anyone to be introduced to new technology.
Libraries should, and have in many instances, extend that same treatment to new technology that is promising. Few will be as disruptive as the internet, but resources like Chicago’s maker lab will bring in people who might have never had the chance to build something otherwise. Dozens of people build prototypes and products or even run their businesses out of TechShop, where they also meet other makers full of new ideas. Imagine if libraries offered similar opportunities.
The Chicago library will make the equipment available under the guidance of staff members. While computers get viruses from reckless use, fabrication equipment can outright break from inexperienced tinkering. There will be some interesting lessons to learn for industries like 3D printing, where desktop consumer printers will continue to move toward user friendliness. Right now, 3D printers break under heavy or inexperienced use. I wouldn’t be surprised if that becomes a major problem for the library, even under supervision. Printer designers should watch carefully to see the problems they will need to solve before printers become more popular.
Obviously, not every library can afford hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment and staff hours. The ones that can should take this as a chance to set an agenda: building a nation of makers, or at least people who have the option to be one.