One library wanted more students to work there. One needed a physical space dedicated to teens and technology. Another wanted to create a safe place for students from all over the city. All three solved their problems with makerspaces.
Deerfield Academy’s new library, Hennepin County’s Best Buy Teen Tech Center (its official name) and Boston Public Library’s Teen Central are among a new group of libraries rebranding, reorganizing and renovating to include not only books but also tools. They’re ushering in a new era of digital makerspaces in libraries.
In scenic Deerfield, Massachusetts, Deerfield Academy’s library had several constraints: it was aging, it couldn’t take up more space and very few students were coming to it.
Taking a cue from startup methodology, Peter Warsaw, academic dean of Deerfield, pivoted and piloted. The library began allowing food and added customizable furniture to a few areas.
“We wanted spaces that were unique to the library,” Warsaw said. “We also wanted flexibility because we have no idea what libraries 20 years from now will look like. We’ve visited schools that remodeled last year and are already feeling like they’re lagging behind.”
The pilot worked. More students started coming to the library because, as Warsaw said, it felt less academic, less stuffy. He and other administrators moved ahead with more permanent modifications to the library.
As the $11 million renovation to the library began in 2015, the scope grew. The school added an “innovation lab” to the bottom floor of the library. Deerfield had created something like it before, which the robotics team especially enjoyed. The team liked it so much, in fact, that it moved its large combat and racing arena into the space, occupying such a large portion of the room that it became useless to others.
Assistant Dean and English teacher Peter Nilsson, who coordinates the innovation lab, insists that it is not a makerspace. “There aren’t any 3D printers,” Nilsson said. “We’re focusing on light materials at this point, and we don’t have anything that heavy. There’s still conversations about what makes a makerspace ongoing among faculty.”
The lab does house a number of tools. Among them, according to Nilsson, are “a white screen, a green screen, white boards, foam core, cardboard, paper, nuts and bolts, hammers, rubber bands, et cetera. Workshoppy stuff.” There is also an adjoining room, a collaborative classroom stocked with technology. It can seat 24 people at four work stations with large monitors for digital projects.
A makerspace by any other name is still strewn about with half-finished projects, and Nilsson and Warsaw’s is flourishing. Research help requests from students, a metric used to gauge student engagement with the library’s materials, increased 56 percent from the winter term of the 2014-2015 school to 2015-2016 winter term, according to Deerfield librarians. The library received 5,073 room reservation requests between January and March of 2016, compared to 1,496 requests a year earlier.
The Hennepin County Library in Minneapolis and the Boston Public Library, though separated by half the U.S., have created very similar and very popular spaces.
In 2013, Hennepin County Library in Minneapolis opened the Best Buy Teen Tech Center (BBTTC), a digital makerspace for teens in grades 6-12. It aims to turn the students into creators of media rather than consumers.
According to Youth Program Specialist Amelia Hansa, “consumers to creators” means exposing children to technologies they can use to make things and, who knows, maybe land a job. One “member,” as participants at the BBTTC are called, shared a rap song from his completed album at the space’s most recent showcase. Hansa said she’s working on a cover design and an artist’s statement now.
Unlike Deerfield, a majority white private boarding school, the BBTTC serves a majority black and Latino population, among whom, according to Hansa, there are many homeless or “highly mobile” members.
Hansa’s members sign an agreement and stick to it. “Members check each other,” she said. “It’s not only a creative space but also a place where members feel respected by both adults and their peers.” She counts 275 regular members, with 22 who come every day. Each has signed an agreement that demands respect for both the facilities and fellow creators.
Both libraries place high emphasis on role models as well. Hansa employs a Teen Tech Squad, a paid task force that develops their own advanced projects and helps younger members. She also wanted to introduce more underrepresented voices into STEM, particularly girls—36 percent of her members are female, so she brings in STEM professionals to advise members on projects. Some of them have even given her members summer internships. The Boston Public Library takes on teen mentors who monitor the space and give advice to younger members as well.
In July 2016, the Boston Public Library will complete phase two of the renovations to the Central Library in Copley Square, which houses the Teen Lab, a 2,000 square foot coffee-shop-esque space on the second floor and serves the same age group as the BBTTC. Teen Lab opened in February 2015 alongside phase one of the redesign.
Teen Central has a dual character according to Jessie Snow, Teen Services Team Leader. It focuses on career readiness, offering 20 different types of software, such as the Adobe Creative Cloud suite, but also emphasizes recreation. “We are not a school—in a good way—and that’s one of the reasons teens love to come here,” Snow said. “We have laptops for homework and Playstations for gaming.” Like Deerfield, Teen Central hopes to be less hushed and stuffy than the rest of the library. In a fusion of recreation and vocational learning, though, Snow recently coordinated workshop on making hip-hop beats and establishing a presence on Soundcloud to distribute them.
Since its opening, Snow has seen Teen Central become rapidly popular. “It was a year after the space opened,” she said, “and one day I saw teens on laptops doing doing homework, groups hanging out, groups in the back working on a project together, programs going on with an outside organization, teens gaming, all harmoniously at once. I knew it was a success then.”
The Boston Public Library serves students, mostly black and Latino, majority black and Latino populations. She said her students come because Teen Central is a safe space. “It’s a neutral zone,” Snow said. “It’s not a place where things can play out. That’s something we focus on.”
Each library makerspace focuses on supplementing the efforts of schools. Snow wanted Teen Central to focus on professional software to introduce teens to things they may or may not have in their schools, yet do so in the context of hanging out with friends. Hansa added the BBTTC to the Clubhouse Network, a cohort of after school programs intent on exposing students to technology, to connect her students to others and to vetted project ideas.
All three of these libraries remade themselves with makerspaces, though for reasons that differ as greatly as their student populations. Whether they’re parts of schools or not, they each addressed their issues by creating a makerspace.
They’re not the only ones: MakerFaire.com reports that the number of registered mini maker faires—small events held in informal settings like libraries—have quintupled in the past five years. The movement’s influence keeps growing as teens become more interested in making and establishing their own spaces.