Coming soon to your local library: 3-D printers and soldering irons

Students use the equipment at the HATCH makerspace, hosted by the Watertown Free Public Library.
Students use the equipment at the HATCH makerspace, hosted by the Watertown Free Public Library.

At the Arsenal Project mall in Watertown, there are a set of sliding doors between a GameStop and a Pearl Vision that bear unlikely signage: HATCH, Watertown Free Public Library.

Behind those doors is the city’s contribution to the growing maker movement, the hands-on educational community that is rallying around do-it-yourself hardware creation.

The HATCH makerspace, which officially opened in January, is overseen by the library and provides free access to 3-D printers, sewing machines, soldering equipment, basic hand tools, Arduino electronics systems and computer programming software.

It’s part of a bigger evolution among libraries looking to shed the dusty books-only stereotype in favor of programming that keeps them relevant and participating in the so-called “innovation economy.”

“The maker movement started getting traction in the library community probably three or four years ago,” WFPL assistant director Caitlin Browne said. And now, libraries around Massachusetts are beginning to incorporate more makerspaces into their facilities.

On the North Shore, the Beverly Public Library hosts a 20-person 3-D printing workshop once a month. Those classes tend to fill up a month in advance, director Patricia Cirone said. And while Beverly’s library isn’t currently planning to “get into saws and hammers,” she sees 3-D printing as a way to support an emerging pattern in her community.

“With the economy changing, more people are doing small business and entrepreneurship on the side,” Cirone said. “I think a library needs to be responsive to that economic trend.”

For the neighboring Peabody Institute Library, establishing its Creativity Lab makerspace last year was all about expanding the educational vision of its namesake, the philanthropist and entrepreneur George Peabody.

“I think technology support is very important because we have to think about education as a way for people to be better qualified for evolving job markets,” director Martha Holden said.

11041706_1557949694465082_2632656735763741364_nPatrons of the HATCH makerspace, which is hosted by the Watertown Free Public Library. Photo courtesy of the Watertown Free Public Library.

Making use of some 1,500 square feet in the library’s basement, the lab features much of the same offerings as Watertown’s HATCH, but also provides a milling machine, laser cutter, woodworking and audio recording equipment to library patrons. Peabody also staffs a full-time employee, programming librarian Mike Ahearn.

An MIT graduate with degrees in comparative media studies and computer science, Ahearn divides the programming into two halves: directed subject-oriented classes and open hours during which patrons can work on projects of their choosing.

The availability of 3-D printing creates a lot of buzz, Ahearn said, but getting the word out about the Creativity Lab remains the biggest challenge.

“It’s very hard to reach people and it’s not particular to the technology or this makerspace, but any programming,” Holden said.

Still, any time the lab announces a new class, the program is quickly filled and a wait list established, Ahearn said. He also regularly receives emails from neighboring libraries asking how to go about creating a similar space.

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A group of students work on projects at the HATCH makerspace in Watertown. Photo: Watertown Free Public Library. 

In Boston, the city’s central branch is undergoing an enormous update. Those plans include allocations for the Teen Central space, which opened in February and is centered around 10 high-end computers outfitted with creative software like Adobe’s Creative Suite and two 82-inch screens featuring video gaming systems. Two recent hires are still fleshing out curriculum for that hardware, but the space is open for experimentation in the meantime, Michael Colford, the director of library services, said.

Keeping with the trend, Teen Central also provides 3-D printing capabilities to its patrons, but there are no plans to go “full blown” makerspace, Colford said. “We made a conscious decision with Teen Central to stick with a digital makerspace,” he said.

Adults will have to wait until early summer 2016 for their own parallel space. At that time, the Kirstein Business Library will become the Kirstein Business Library and Innovation Center. The center will replicate the Teen Central hardware and provide space for hackathons, painting, weaving, “or whatever,” Colford said. Plans for that space will be discussed in a public meeting on June 28.

Watertown’s HATCH makerspace is currently only staffed by volunteers, but Browne hopes to one day fold library staff into its programming. The Arsenal Project has donated the space through September 2016, and many of those volunteers come from foot traffic generated at the mall. “The whole process really has been the essence of a maker movement,” Browne said.

George is a regular contributor to BetaBoston, and can be reached at george.levines@gmail.com.
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