As information becomes more digital, public libraries are striving to redefine their roles. A small number are working to create "hackerspaces," where do-it-yourselfers share sophisticated tools and their expertise.
The Allen County Public Library, which serves the city of Fort Wayne, Ind., has a modest hackerspace inside a trailer in its parking lot. Library director Jeff Krull says hosting it is consistent with the library's mission.
"We see the library as not being in the book business, but being in the learning business and the exploration business and the expand-your-mind business," he says. "We feel this is really in that spirit, that we provide a resource in that community that individuals would not be able to have access to on their own."
The 50-foot trailer is known as the MakerStation and belongs to TekVenture, an educational nonprofit that had struggled to find a building it could afford before it was approached by the library. TekVenture signed an agreement with the library to operate in its parking lot for a year. TekVenture President Greg Jacobs says this partnership made sense.
"The library is a well-established, respectable institution in the area. The library is used by everybody," he says. "Regardless of your stripe in society, you're going to use library facilities."
The Allen County facility includes a CNC router, a computer-controlled power tool that cuts wood, plastic and some metals. The MakerStation also has a lathe, scroll and band saws, an electronics bench and an injection molding machine, which makes objects by heating up recycled plastic chips.
Like any hackerspace worth its salt, it has a 3-D printer, which can produce plastic objects based on a computer file. In recent years, there's been some chatter on the librarian blogs about the rise of 3-D printing. Meg Backus has a blog about "interventionist librarianship" and teaches a course at Syracuse University called "Innovations in Public Libraries."
"People in the library world have noticed that 3-D printers would be a fit for libraries or that the libraries should be paying attention to this technology and how it develops, because this could be a really big deal," Backus says. "I'd be completely surprised if we don't all have 3-D printers in 20 years. That's just going to be a resource we all have."
There's already a 3-D printer, donated by a local computer store, in the Fayetteville Free Library in upstate New York. Not only that, the library was recently awarded $10,000 for the creation of a hackerspace. Lauren Smedley, 29, is the librarian responsible for winning the grant and raising $3,500 in pledges for the hackerspace on the website IndieGoGo.
Smedley walks a visitor into an unoccupied wing of her library with 10-foot-high ceilings. She explains that this was once the home of the Stickley furniture factory.
"People used to make things in this very room, and we're going to offer this community the opportunity to once again make things here," she says. "And it's just a thrill. It's really exciting."
Smedley is calling the Fayetteville hackerspace the "Fabulous Laboratory." It will have about 8,000 square feet and be equipped with a number of sophisticated, computer-controlled power tools. This Fabulous Laboratory doesn't seem out of place in a library that has a cafe, video-gaming stations and iPads available for checkout, and regular author appearances via Skype.
"I really envision this space being a place for people to come and tinker and explore," she says. "We're really looking to have a peer-to-peer training that has proven effective in maker spaces, really, across the world, with some facilitation from the library staff. It's really whatever the community wants to use it for is how we'll support it."
The library is expecting a grant from the state of New York to renovate the wing for the hackerspace and a business incubation center.