Peering into dismantled computer cases – wires and hardware exposed – a group of both young and older people is getting a hands-on lesson about cyber security, computers, network builds and data analysis in Phoenix’s Burton Barr Central Library.
Tables with the broken-down computers are gathered in the center of the library’s collaborative working space, called MACH1.
The MACH1 area is known as a “makerspace.” Arriving individuals are greeted with a sign reading “Welcome to MACH1 – space for makers-artists-crafters-hackers.”
Makerspaces are areas where community members can gather and work individually or collaboratively to learn, invent or create. Most are specifically focused on the areas of science, technology, engineering and math, known as STEM. The spaces offer access to equipment, technology and knowledge through workshops and classes.
Burton Barr’s MACH1 space features programs and classes, computers, materials for crafts and projects, sewing machines and supplies – all for free.
One recent Saturday morning event was the Hacker City hack-a-thon. Although hacking can have negative connotations, this event was focused on computer programming projects and learning new skills – not any illegal activities.
Leading the hack-a-thon are two recent high school graduates, Rudolph Ponce, 18, and David Hernandez, 18. The two have been involved with MACH1 since they inadvertently discovered the space nearly a year ago while using the library’s 3-D printer for a physics project.
“The reason we’re doing this is because if you go to any other camp or any other place to find this stuff they’ll charge you an insane amount of money, which is fair because they’re teaching you real life skills, but we don’t want that. We want to do it for free,” Ponce said.
Hernandez said he’s drawn to the world of opportunities available at makerspaces like MACH1.
“There are so many things that you can do. You can build a computer, you can take apart anything you can think of and rebuild it, create a program that will solve humankind programs or something like that,” he said.
The hack-a-thon is only one program offered by MACH1. With daily events and open hours, the public is invited to drop-in at the space, learn something new and take advantage of the materials.
“I think that people are very shocked that it’s free, and when I go out on outreach people have a very hard time believing that we offer so much for free, because we have basic supplies for people to use,” said Kelly Pearson, Burton Barr Central Library’s assistant manager for youth services.
The space also features fabric and sewing machines, which library patrons are invited to use for free and take home their finished products.
“So, they can come in here and hem a pair of pants, or make a shirt for work, or create a little pillow for their room, or they can design some amazing structure out of cardboard, and then they can take it home with them,” she said. “It’s really neat to see how proud they are of what they’ve created.”
The open workspace not only provides an opportunity for those who want to come learn a new skill, but also enables people who want to give back to others as well.
“We had a retired engineer, who has been with us from the beginning, offering advice and guidance, and we had a high schooler who was trying to create a mini Tesla coil, but he was stuck in several spots,” Pearson said. “Well, the engineer came in and sat and worked with him every Tuesday night for about two to three months and taught him how to get over those hurdles…he wound up creating a mini Tesla coil which was really fantastic.”
The library also offers use of the space and its materials to schools.
“Schools are very strapped for funding so they’ll come in here into our makerspace and they’ll teach a lesson on snap circuits using our snap circuits, because their school couldn’t possibly afford to buy those supplies,” Pearson said.
In recent years, libraries have come to offer so many more learning resources beyond books, such as the MACH1 makerspace.
“We have seen our circulation of our reading materials, or our knowledge, our electronic and digital offerings – that is just growing by leaps and bounds, but paired with that we are doing more programming then we have ever done before and we’re watching our attendance at that programming rise,” said Lee Franklin, the library’s community relations manager.
Because of MACH1’s open weekday hours, the public can wander in, ask questions and make suggestions, “and we will create something around that,” Franklin said. “Truly, if someone has an idea about something or is looking for a piece of knowledge about something, start with us.”
MORE PLACES TO ‘MAKE’
Though MACH1 at Burton Barr Central Library is the Phoenix Public Library’s flagship makerspace, the system has makerspaces and programs in various forms at 17 other libraries as well, each reflecting the surrounding community, Franklin said.
“They’re all a little bit unique,” she said. “They’re part of the system but are real in tune with the people that come in the door every day, or call, or access, or are looking for something from the library.”
Mesa residents also have their own place to “make” in THINKspot, located the Red Mountain Branch of Mesa Public Library.
The 2,200 square-foot former computer lab now features a 3-D printer, laptops and two meeting rooms with SMART Board interactive touch-displays and interactive computers. The space also features a green screen studio with a camera, tripod, microphone, teleprompter and editing equipment which patrons can self-reserve after completing a short training.
Sarah Prosory, librarian and THINKspot’s coordinator, said people playing instruments, singing, recording podcasts and creating videos have used the space for their projects.
PRINTING THE FUTURE
The multi-purpose, collaborative space has enabled patrons of all ages to embrace new technology like 3-D printers. Prosory said Mesa’s winter visitor population – known as snowbirds – visit the collaborative working area.
“They’re so curious about things. Some of them feel a little intimidated, but we welcome them because we want them to join us to learn about this new technology,” she said.
And the library will even bring the makerspace to people. The library staff takes the 3-D printers senior citizen group meetings, Prosory said. An added benefit is that using the 3-D printer is free. “We just recoup the cost of the plastic with the 3-D printer,” she said, which is five cents per gram.
Generally, patrons can reserve the printer after completing a short training, but the class is in high demand, Prosory said.
“The 3-D printer is very popular. We do group trainings. This summer, we’ve gotten an outpouring of interest so we’ve had to add trainings continuously – but they fill up really fast,” she said.
With modern options such as self-checkout and online reservations at libraries, makerspaces also give people a place to interact face-to-face within the library, Prosory said. “Our space is designed to encourage that interaction and conversation that we started to see fading,” she said.
Makerspaces can be the first place students pick up STEM skills, “and it gets them excited,” Prosory said. “There are no requirements. It’s not a ‘have to,’ it’s a ‘want to.’ They can explore, freely, for whatever they’re interested in.”
As more libraries incorporate collaborative working spaces, each one will take on elements from the environment and people from which it was created, Prosory said.
“While we might do similar things, it’s fabulous for the community to be able to visit different libraries and have access to different things,” Prosory said. “We don’t want them all to be the same.”