Blog Post

Why public libraries should follow Chicago’s lead and build maker labs

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

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.

11 Responses to “Why public libraries should follow Chicago’s lead and build maker labs”

  1. John Mahoney

    This is a great initiative. I am really happy to see cutting edge equipment going to a place where all people will have access for free. Someone was upset that people were diverting money from reading programs. Personally, this seems like a short sighted critique. People who desire to read will still have access to books and reading programs. Now people have access to equipment that only professionals would be able to use normally. Isn’t the core mission of a library to create access… 20 years ago people would have complained about people who may abuse a computer. Now people cannot imagine a library without a computer. Isn’t this a great evolution… books –> computers –> high tech equipment?

  2. johnlaudun

    “Why is the library environment a better environment than access in a vocational tech educational environment”

    How could anyone confuse making and maker spaces with vocational education? Not that they are dissimilar and I worry about the apparent cultural divide between some “makers” and folks like fabricators, but, honestly, the goal of maker spaces is not about what we call vocational education in this country.

  3. PrincetonAl

    Diverting dollars from basic reading and literacy and education to this forum is questionable at best. Government subsidies for public access make little sense without deeper discussion.

    1) What is the goal of the subsidized access?

    2) Why is the library environment a better environment than access in a vocational tech educational environment, like a high school if education is the goal?

    3) If people can get access to similar equipment for $50 – $200/month, what is the use case and cross-section of folks who can’t afford the $50/month, can’t afford to find someone else to make something for them (if its a one-time need), but otherwise needs recurring access to this equipment? Need some help.

    4) Is the expectation that untrained people will walk in off the street and use Maker equipment, as well as “two laser cutters, a milling machine and a vinyl cutter” ??? Who are these people?

    5) If you can get a low-end Maker device for less than $5,000, and the grant if for $250,000, again is this about access to Maker technology or a whole lot of other stuff?

    6) Also, who, if anyone, profited in this deal besides just the equipment suppliers? Its Chicago, after all. Just asking if anyone is making $100K on a “maintenance agreement”.

    Whole of “government spending is cool and giving free stuff away” is going on here without a lot of analysis.

    Seems like a waste of money given all the holes in basic services in Chicago.

    • Wendy Zdrodowski

      1) to encourage people who would otherwise not know about or have access to this kind of equipment and to encourage the “maker” mindset

      2) A vocational or school environment would limit access – either geographically or by age group. This is for everyone. I’m 46 and I’m looking forward to checking it out.

      3) I am a 46 year-old “nerd” who can’t spare the funds for a hackerspace or makerspace membership at this point, but I am curious and would like to learn more about what kinds of things you can do with this equipment. If I find I enjoy it, then when I can afford it I can take advantage of a member-based space.

      4) You need to attend a training session before using any equipment, and even then it is under supervision

      5) I don’t have 5k – do you?
      6) a valid question but not one that I can answer at the moment.

  4. Sebastien Marion

    There are many wonderful examples for libraries to draw on (from Studio-X, to MakerHaus, to Fablabs, to Detroit’s Techshop) and it’s certainly interesting to concentrate on the library as a learning space and concept center. The discussion thought suffers when presented with what’s taking place in the greater Chicago public education system which recently announced the closure of 50 public Chicago schools, the largest mass school closing in U.S. history.

    Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss has the clearest voice on this issue.

    • Sounds great, I think I’ll run out into an open field and release a camera to near-space this afternoon! Never dreamed it would be this easy.

    • mowcius

      Allan, whilst I agree with this to an extent – when it is in a supervised environment like this, the public will hopefully have limited opportunity to abuse the equipment.
      I would also hope that the people who they have to manage the project are those with an invested interest in the technology and therefore should take good care of what they have.

      From my experience of libraries, the books are generally in good condition and any that are looking a bit worn are re-bound/fixed/replaced. I have no doubt though that the community of current library users will not be the same as the community that will come out of this investment.