Of Makerspaces and Media Labs: Tales From Two Small Libraries

A number of large library systems have successfully implemented makerspaces and media labs (I’m looking at you, Chicago and Chattanooga), but these kind of creative spaces aren’t just for big libraries. Small libraries –  even those with tiny budgets and even tinier spaces –  can do it, too!

Big Creativity at Small Libraries

In our February TechSoup for Libraries webinar, we heard how two small-town librarians implemented very different creation spaces in their very different communities. Missed the webinar? No problem. Read on for a recap. All our webinars are archived, so you can also watch it any time!

Our fabulous webinar presenters were Mary Glendening and Tim Miller.

Mary Glendening is the Director of the Middletown Free Library, in Media, Pennsylvania, a town of roughly 16,000 in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Middletown’s CreateSpace includes digital media equipment, 3D printers, craft cutters, and much more.

Tim Miller, Branch Manager of the Simla Branch Library, reported his experience creating a media lab in an even smaller library: a 2,000 square foot one-room library in Simla, Colorado, a town of just 650 people.

Both libraries are small and didn’t have a dedicated space for media or maker equipment. But they didn’t let that stop them, and neither should other small libraries! As Tim put it: “For those of you with a smaller library...it’s very possible to get a media lab or creation station going.”

Makerspaces vs. Media Labs

If you’re unsure what all this “makerspace” talk is about, I personally like the broad definition used by Make: makerspaces are “publicly-accessible places to design and create.” So makerspaces might include high-tech equipment like 3D printers and laser cutters, but they could just as easily include knitting equipment or other craft supplies.

Media labs are usually focused on audio and video recording; image, sound, and video production; and photography and visual design. Like makerspaces, public library media labs are “community workshops where people...can come together to create things,” as TechSoup for Libraries webinar facilitator Crystal Schimpf put it.

Why Have a Creation Space?

Just like public access computing, makerspaces and media labs offer tools, technologies, and creative opportunities that library patrons might not otherwise be able to afford or access.

Library creation spaces also:

  • Help teach creative thinking skills (Mary noted that the creative, experimental skills cultivated in makerspaces are exactly the kind of skills that young people will need to be successful in the future)

  • Are a safe, non-judgmental space where young people can experiment and learn without being graded the way they would be in school

  • Offer a creative outlet for community members

  • Teach STEM skills

  • Provide opportunities for small business development

  • Attract new audiences that might not be interested in traditional library resources or programming, including kids and teens (and once they’re in the door, these patrons may then take advantage of the other great things the library has to offer)

  • Keep libraries relevant in a changing and increasingly technology-oriented world

How These Two Libraries Got Started

Both the Middletown and Simla libraries received grants to kick off their programs (LSTA and BTOP grants, respectively).

But grants aren't the only way to start up a makerspace or media lab. Libraries can also look for:

  • Technology or funding donations. For example, maybe someone in your community wants to get rid of their old digital camera - that donation would get you one step closer to equipping a media lab.

  • Community partners who may be able to donate space, equipment, or expertise.

  • Organizations like MAKE that offer summer programs and are actively looking for libraries to participate.

Advice From the Librarians Who’ve Been There

Mary and Tim's presentations were packed full of great advice. Here are a few highlights.

1. Make room for play.

As Tim said, “You can have a ton of formalized programs… but if you can set things out for people to just play and have fun, I think you’ll be amazed at the kind of things that come up and the kind of learning that occurs in your library.”

This goes for librarians and staff as well, Tim says:

"You have to be willing to get your hands dirty. Get in there and play with the equipment yourself. And also encourage staff to do that, so they can show people."

2. You don’t need a permanent space, or a very big one.

Both Mary and Tim work in libraries without a dedicated space for maker activities.

Mary’s Middletown Free Library has one program room, and, as she said, they “can’t really have woodworking machines on our carpet and then have story hour come in afterwards.” Her solution was to keep the equipment portable, so it could be moved in and out of the program room as needed.

Check out just a few of the things Mary was able to do with her portable setups:

Tim’s Simla Branch Library is just one room, so space is at an absolute premium:

Despite these space constraints, Simla residents have used the library media lab equipment to record oral histories, design menus for local restaurants, make training videos, experiment with apps, and to conference-in far away authors for book clubs.

3. It’s ok to start small.

Simla got started by just making their laptops and iPads publicly available, rather than locked away in a cabinet.

Then they expanded to add more "Creation Station" equipment, including a Macbook, an iPad with a microphone, and an audio recording device:

4. There’s no right way to do it.

As Mary said: “Making is really all about creativity and there are many different ways to express that creativity.”

Tim echoed the sentiment:

"There’s no right or wrong way to do a makerspace or media lab. The right way is to do it so that it meets your community’s needs."

So your library’s makerspace or media lab might have all the latest high-tech equipment. Or it might have old-school craft tools, like sewing machines (Mary’s library does!) and knitting equipment (as Tim's library does). Or both!

5. Engage your community.

Both librarians emphasized the importance of engaging their communities. Mary did a survey to identify what her community wanted in a makerspace. The surprise answer? They wanted sewing machines, which Mary then added to the Middletown Free Library makerspace.

Mary also took advantage of her equipment’s portability to pack it up and take it out on the road, to events like Kids’ Day at the local Y and the Library Friends’ annual book sale. Taking the equipment outside the library is a great way to connect with new potential makers. She also plans to work more with local schools and home school groups in the future. 

Tim initially found that people were hesitant to use the equipment in Simla’s media lab. His solution? “Infiltrating” community organizations. Partnering with community organizations gave him a chance to “help people where they’re at” and generate additional interest in the technology. Sports and 4H clubs are both popular in his community, so Tim’s next step is to figure out how to use his library’s media lab tools to help people record those important community events.

That's just part of what they presented - thanks to both Tim and Mary for sharing so much great information! To learn even more, watch the archived webinar.

Makerspaces, Media Labs, and You

What about your library? Do you have a makerspace or media lab, or are you considering opening one? Tell us all about it in the comments!

Learn More

Here’s a list of resources the presenters shared:

Images: courtesy of Mary Glendening and Tim Miller