“Idea Studio’ provides Warwick library-goers with high-tech gadgets for do-it-yourself projects, as well as space for community learning projects
Rhode Island Library Report
WARWICK -- One evening in July, a trickle of patrons walked into the Warwick Public Library off Sandy Lane to learn something new, carrying not books, but broken electrical fixtures.
Warwick resident Eric Wineman, a licensed journeyman electrician, volunteered his time as the guest teacher. He says it was his way of giving back to the library for helping him through a long period of unemployment.
The previous month’s instructor had been Evan Barta, the library’s coordinator of technology, who showed patrons how to speed up their personal computers.
The monthly fix-it event goes by the name “Community Workbench,” one of many offerings of the library’s Idea Studio, where the public may sign up for a variety of computer-related classes and use a 3D printer and other high-tech devices they might not be able to afford to have at home.
As part of a growing trend around the country, these spaces signal a shift in the way libraries view their roles in serving their communities.
Barta said, “We want people to think of the library as the place where community meets to learn things, not just a place to get things to go home.”
“The main thing is that we want this to be a community hub,” he said. “There are a lot of places you can go to get information. It’s not the same as people coming together and learning,” he said.
Resist the urge to keep tightening electric bulbs in sockets, Wineman instructed. After the bulb lights, make one more quarter turn and leave it alone.
This method ensures that a drop of solder at the base of the bulb and a raised tab at the bottom of the socket make a connection, sending electricity through the bulb.
When the bulb repeatedly is screwed in too tightly, the drop of solder on its bottom erodes and the raised tab gets flattened, breaking the connection between the socket and the bulb.
Wineman also doled out repeated safety precautions, explaining that what the amateur doesn’t know about electricity could kill him or burn down his house. As the questions became more complicated, Wineman’s refrain became, “Call a licensed electrician.”
Audrey and Stephen Snow learned that for safety’s sake, they had to replace, rather than repair, a frayed power cord on a space heater.
With Wineman's help, Pat O'Connor got a chandelier working again, although she said she would probably use it on a table rather than trying to reconnect it herself to an electrical box in the ceiling.
More than 1,700 people have attended Idea Studio programs, including about 1,000 people who have taken computer classes, during the first year the Idea Studio has been open, Barta said.
A woman who gave her name only as Doreen said she comes to the Idea Studio to use the equipment that transfers video recordings from tape to DVDs.
James Thomas, who had gone to the library to return some books, noticed the Community Workbench underway and stopped in just to listen.
Thomas, who recently moved to Warwick from Johnston, said, “It seems like they have a lot of cool programs here.”
One patron came to the Community Workbench to ask librarian Barta if he could revive a laptop computer that had been overheating.
“It’s the new librarian,” quipped Barta, who received a master’s degree in library science from the University of Rhode Island in 2009 and has developed his technical expertise independently, building on a childhood curiosity about computers.
The experiment was part of Maker Camp, sponsored by Google, the internet giant, and Make Magazine.
With about $500 in supplies and a curriculum from the sponsors, Barta has led his charges in a series of one-hour projects over several weeks that introduced them to do-it-yourself fun, using everything from PVC pipe and rubber bands to electronic components.
Warwick’s library is among several hundred Maker Camp affiliates in the United States and other countries..
The water fountain experiment counted on the pressure of water falling through a tube to force up a spray in the “fountain,” cut from the bottom of a plastic bottle. Initially, less-than-perfect seals at critical connections in the apparatus stymied the children, dissipating the water pressure and the force necessary for a spray.
Barta was ready to "get out the play-doh" to reinforce the seals, when a group of girls finally succeeded – and couldn’t resist a little gloating in front of the boys.
Jacqueline Gardner, the mother of one of the participants, noted that “science is about trial and error.”
She said she relies on the library system for summer activities for her son, as the family can’t afford a day camp or child care. Gardner said Timothy had participated in a different activity earlier in the day at the library’s Apponaug branch.
Michelle Peterson, the mother of Matthew, 13, and Alex, 10, said she homeschools her children and takes advantage of various enrichment classes the library offers for them.
Just four years later, the group had evolved into the Ladies Library Association. And in 1900 it received a state charter as the Gowanda Free Library.
Today, knitting is perhaps the most popular activity that makes its home in the library’s Idea Studio, said Barta, although the once monthly “Good Knitting” group long pre-dates the opening of that space last year.
Knitting and some other groups, like scrapbooking, are not run by librarians; instead, the library welcomes anyone who wants to start a group around a particular interest, as long as it is open to anyone, said Barta.
“We’ve been doing a lot of programing and events for a long time, but now we’re doing it in a different way,” he said.
The Idea Studio was carved out of a former café space just off the library’s main entrance with a $48,000 grant from the Champlin Foundations that paid for remodeling and equipment costs.
The Idea Studio combines libraries’ traditional emphasis on public education with new high tech tools that help make learning fun and fill the technological gaps in people’s lives.
As Barta was finishing up with the young fountain makers, a woman walked into the Idea Studio and asked for help in using Skype, the video conferencing service, because she had a job interview coming up.
Eric Wineman, the electrician, found out about the job he ultimately landed during the many hours he spent at the Idea Studio while he was unemployed for 18 months.
He also became a fan of the 3D printer, which can be programed to make many objects from plastic.
Instead printing ink on a flat piece of paper, the 3D printer runs both horizontally and vertically, laying down layers of tiny melted plastic dots through a robotic arm.
Cranston was Rhode Island’s first public library to acquire a 3D printer, nearly a year ago.
Cranston's machine arrived just in
Deignan used the printer to create prototype packaging for jewelry of his own design. The original packaging fulfilled a graphic design requirement for graduation, he said.
As an aspiring graphic designer, Deignan said, “Artists have to know everything.”
“I didn’t want to limit myself to web design or print media,” he said. “I was researching how 3D printers work,” he said. “It was a pretty good learning curve.”
Until the Cranston library completes renovations on its new makerspace sometime in the fall, the 3D printer will live in a closet and be available on request, according to librarian Julie Holden.
In addition to the printer, Warwick offers:
- Arduino Uno, a small computer that allows amateur and professional programmers alike to create interactive devices like thermostats, motion detectors, or simple robots.
- Raspberry Pi, an even smaller computer that plugs into a computer monitor or TV and is usually programmed to do one job. Barta is using raspberry pi to loop videos that can save the time and expense of creating posters, putting them up, and taking them down. One library patron used the little computer, the size of a credit card, to create a home weather station, Barta said. The library has six of them.
- A suite of professional graphic design and editing tools that encompass everything from web development to moviemaking
- A high quality scanner that not only digitizes photographs, slides, and documents, but restores color and enables editing of text
- Two pieces of equipment that convert music on vinyl records or cassette tapes into modern media player format
- A laser cutter that works on paper, cardstock, vinyl, fabric, and other materials.
- A video camera that can be used in the library.
Shawn Wallace of AS220, the arts collaborative in Providence, agrees. He runs a lab with a suite of creative digital tools similar to the library’s, but they’re aimed at more technically sophisticated amateur and professional users. AS220 staff trained librarian Holden to use the 3D printer at the Cranston library.
“3D printing is the poster child of the maker movement. It makes the headlines,” Wallace said, “but there are a lot of other things going on.”
The maker movement as a whole has evolved from developments like YouTube and video cell phones, which have enabled people to connect with one another as never before, encouraging an innate human willingness to share information and ideas, he said.
“A lot of people are heading into the electronic field,” he said, with a great deal of overlap among artists, designers, and programmers. AS220’s Fab Lab, short for “Fabrication Lab” is one of hundreds of such digital innovation centers across the United States and in 29 other countries that have been set up by partnerships between local groups and MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms.
The Fab Labs, each with the same array of digital equipment worth about $50,000, are testing grounds for research done at the Center for Bits and Atoms on computerized fabrication and innovative, open-source software. The labs also serve as training centers for the next generation of science and technology educators – including those working in the public schools, according to a Fab Lab website.
Depending on the locale, the projects under development in the worldwide Fab Lab network range from advanced computer networks to analytical instrumentation for agriculture or health care, and even custom housing.
“These collections of skills are becoming part of a new literacy,” said Wallace, of AS220. It’s natural that libraries would want to tap into that,” he said.
“I think we really want people to see the library as a place they can better themselves and have fun,” Barta said in an email.
”Some people will do that through books, but I think more and more research shows that people learn in a wide variety of ways, not just reading. So we want to offer different options.
“ But we also want people to come together and socialize. There are so many interesting people that come through our doors every day that have really amazing skills that we would have never known about had we not tried to reach out in some way. The Idea Studio is one of the ways to reach out and grab those people,” Barta said.
For Barta as a librarian, “there’s a lot of legwork to all this stuff.”
“You need programming and people to come through the door,” he said. “You have to stay at it all the time.”