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Public libraries are working to redefine their roles and stay relevant in this digital information age. A small number are working to create something called hackerspaces, where people share sophisticated tools and expertise.
Jon Kalish has the story.
JON KALISH, BYLINE: Libraries have long made computers and Internet access available to the public. And in recent years, dispensing information has also meant providing e-books and other technologies that the founders of the first public libraries could never have imagined. Now, public libraries are experimenting with workspaces known as hackerspaces.
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KALISH: The Allen County Public Library, which serves the city of Fort Wayne, Indiana, 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.
JEFF KRULL: 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. And we feel this is really in that spirit, that we provide a resource to the community that individuals would not be able to have access to on their own.
KALISH: The 50-foot trailer is known as the Maker Station and belongs to TekVenture, an educational non-profit 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.
GREG JACOBS: The library is a well-established respectable institution in the area. The library is used by everybody. Regardless of your stripe in society, you're going to use library facilities.
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KALISH: And now those facilities include a CNC router, a computer-controlled power tool that cuts wood, plastic and some metals. The Maker Station 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. And like any hackerspace worth its salt, they have 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.
MEG BACKUS: 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. I'd be completely surprised if we don't all have 3-D printers in 20 years.
KALISH: 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.
Twenty-nine-year-old librarian Lauren Smedley is responsible for winning the grant, and raising $3,500 in pledges for the hackerspace on the Web site IndieGoGo.
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KALISH: 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.
LAUREN SMEDLEY: 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. And it's just a thrill. It's really exciting.
KALISH: Smedley is calling the Fayetteville hackerspace the Fabulous Laboratory. It'll have about 8,000 square feet and be equipped with a number of sophisticated, computer-controlled power tools. This Fabulous Laboratory may not seem out of place in a library that has a cafe, video gaming stations, iPad's available for check out, and regular author appearances via Skype.
SMEDLEY: I really envision this space being a place for people to come and tinker and explore. 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. You know, it's really whatever the community wants to use it for is that how we'll support it.
KALISH: The library is expecting a grant from the State of New York to renovate the wing for the hackerspace and a business incubation center.
For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish.
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