Visit the downtown branch of the Chattanooga Public Library and you’ll find the usual stuff: rows of books, magazines, and computers. But walk up to the fourth floor and there’s something unexpected. It’s a “makerspace”—complete with a laser cutter, a zine lab for making paper publications, and a 3-D printer. There’s even a loom.
When it opened in spring 2013, the maker floor—formerly unused and filled with decrepit equipment—became a massive hit, and up to 1,200 patrons attended events there. “Normally you hold a library event and you get six people,” says Meg Backus, the systems administrator and chief maker for Chattanooga. But this new floor gives patrons access to new forms of literacy, ones they hunger after: design, programming, video editing, book writing, and website building. Consider it a glimpse into the future of libraries. They’re becoming places to not just imbibe knowledge but create it—physically. Many people don’t have access to classic hacker spaces, are intimidated by them, or can’t afford them. “But here all you need is a library card,” says CJ Lynce, who runs a similarly equipped space at the Cleveland Public Library.
Chattanooga and Cleveland aren’t the only cities giving this new kind of library a try. A survey by John Burke at Miami University found that 109 libraries in the US had a makerspace or were close to opening one. Others are hosting events like Wikipedia edit-a-thons, where residents plumb the library’s resources to create articles about local history. (One library even has its own farm.) This ferment is attracting patrons; a Pew Internet survey found that these new modes bring in folks who normally shun libraries, typically men and people with limited education.
Ezra Reynolds is an example. As a kid he visited Chattanooga’s main branch regularly but eventually stopped. Today he works assisting people with physical disabilities, and a year ago he adopted a son (now 2) whose arms end below the elbow. When Reynolds heard about the 3-D printer, he made his son a bunch of customized prostheses, including utensil- and pencil-holders. “This is what got me back in the door to the library after probably a 15-year hiatus,” Reynolds says. When he visits the library now, he often shares his new skills. This is another part of the trend: spaces where people interact. Older folks teach sewing to the younger ones, who in turn teach them laser etching.
But what about books? Public Library Association research shows that people have checked out slightly fewer materials in recent years. And Pew found that about a third of patrons are opposed to makerspaces if they displace books. But while I’m just as sentimental about the primacy of hard copy, the librarians aren’t. As they all tell me, their job is helping with access to knowledge—not all of which comes in codex form and much of which is deeply social. Libraries aren’t just warehouses for documents; they’re places to exchange information. “Getting people in a room, talking and teaching each other, is huge,” Backus says. Nor are the makerspaces necessarily expensive. The Chattanooga project cost only $25,000.
You have to give the librarians credit. Stereotype says they’re fusty, but the reality is absolutely the opposite. Over and over they’ve adapted to new information tools, from microfiche to CD-ROMs to the Internet. Now this—possibly the best example I’ve seen of how a storied institution embraces change.