A Place to Create: Suburban Chicago Public Library Forges Ahead with New Makerspace

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By Steve Zalusky

Makerspaces – places where people can create, build and craft - are leaving their mark in libraries across the United States, radically transforming both their interior design and the way they are perceived.

Allowing library patrons to transcend their traditional role as users and stir their creativity by actually making things, makerspaces are shining examples of how libraries promote community engagement.

One of the latest to adopt the trend is a library in suburban Chicago, the Ela Area Public Library in Lake Zurich, Illinois.

Recently, the library opened The Forge, a makerspace Executive Director Matt Womack said the inspiration came from a visit to a library in Aarhus, Denmark.

Womack said the Forge is located at the heart of the library, just like its Danish inspiration.

“Their makerspace is front and center, visible, in front of the entry when you first walk into the library. And most of the makerspaces that we have seen in libraries are a little hidden and maybe tucked away in a basement or in the back. We wanted it to be really visible and really upfront."

Womack said one goal is to give people the opportunity to build skills that perhaps they haven't built before, both with new technology and even more familiar technology like crafting and sewing. It is also, he said, a way to build communities.

"We want to make sure that our library is a place where people can create and express themselves, and we do that both in terms of reading, but also in terms of creating objects and creating content."

The library already has a digital media lab that gives people a chance to create audio-visual content. The makerspace is an example of how the library is building on that innovative foundation.

"The plan is for this space to grow and have new content, new tools as people show an interest and the budget allows us to increase the capabilities of what we have," he said.

The library has already made an impressive start, judging from the open house rollout.

At one table, one could hear the whirring of the 3D printer, where spaghetti-like strands were converted into a toy octopus.

A trip inside a space filled with computers, vinyl cutters and sewing machines revealed children creating bracelets out of crafting kits and library workers taking computer generated designs and turning them into stickers decorating the walls.

The space was a true generational melting pot, with people of all ages gathered to ask questions, watch demonstrations and take part in activities.

“This is a space for all ages,” Womack said. “It's not just for kids. It's not just for teens. It's not just for adults. It's for everybody.

"This isn't just about librarians teaching people how to sew," he said. "This is about the community learning how to do things together and finding experts in the community that might want to teach others and share their hobbies."

Visitors included James Polites and his sons Daniel and Joey.

Daniel was excited about the 3D printer, saying he wanted to create Rubik's Cube parts.

James Polites said, "I'm an engineer. We have a 3D printer at work. It's exciting to see some of this kind of stuff and build with my sons."

In the sewing area, jean Wiechel, a resident of the nearby Zurich Meadows senior complex peppered the library’s Christen Wiser with questions.

“This is really fantastic. It is so amazing for a library to offer all of this,” Weichel said.

Wiser later explained that the sewing machine is “a new way of getting crafters into the library and help beginning crafters pick up a new skill or encourage who can't provide the material themselves to be able to have a place where they can go and use a sewing machine for free.”

Leah White, head of popular materials and manager of the space, summed up the intent of the Forge to the crowd gathered for the opening ceremony. She said, "Forge was created with this specific community in mind. The patrons of our library are already makers. We serve so many artists and engineers and crafters and programmers and people who are into technology and people who are into the arts.

“This space is also for people who maybe want to create but just didn't know that they wanted to until they saw this space. If you haven't had time, if you didn't think that you were creative, i urge you to go into Forge and check it out, because I can guarantee there is something in there for you too. This space is also for people who just don't know that they are makers yet. It's a place to connect. It's a place to create."