The Chicago Public Library Maker Lab gives everyone access to some amazing toys | Feature | Chicago Reader

The Chicago Public Library Maker Lab gives everyone access to some amazing toys 

From curtains to medical models, this is the place to go to play with ideas in physical form.

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Maker Lab librarian John Christensen shows a patron an item that was made with the 3-D printer. - CITY OF CHICAGO PHOTOGRAPHER
  • Maker Lab librarian John Christensen shows a patron an item that was made with the 3-D printer.
  • City of Chicago Photographer

With the rise of the maker movement in the mid-2000s came the creation of "maker spaces," places where people with shared interests and ideas could come together to create and engage with tools and technology and learn from each other. In July 2013, the Harold Washington Library opened the first publicly accessible maker space in Chicago, the Harold Washington Maker Lab.

Chicago Public Library librarians Sasha Neri and John Christensen have worked in the Maker Lab from the time of its founding. Neri splits her time with adult services, but Christensen is in the Maker Lab full-time. Before they started working there, neither of them had any knowledge about maker technology. But their background as librarians aided their transition into the maker world. "It helps to be a librarian because you know how to find information and sort through the good information and the bad information," Neri says. "With the maker ecosystem, everyone is really happy to be like, 'Oh, you want me to come to the library and show you this thing? Sure, why not?!'"

Harold Washington Maker Lab
Mon-Thu 1-8 PM, Fri-Sat 10 AM-4 PM,
Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State, 312-747-4300,
Class enrollment begins 15 minutes before scheduled start time.  F

The Maker Lab offers a wide range of technology, including a 3-D printer, electronic and laser cutters, and a CNC router, a computer-controlled machine that can carve wood and plastic. Users can explore the space and equipment through two-hour classes led by Maker Lab librarians. Classes are free and typically revolve around the high-tech materials the space offers. But there are also some classes that teach skills such as cupcake decorating, flower arranging, and calligraphy.

One of the library's 3-D printers - CITY OF CHICAGO PHOTOGRAPHER
  • One of the library's 3-D printers
  • City of Chicago Photographer

The Maker Lab also offers open shop hours where makers can use the space for personal projects. There's no need to sign up in advance, but all equipment must stay in the lab. "We've had some people come in that are prototyping projects they want to develop and we've had people come in and make stuff to sell at craft fairs or shops," Christensen says.

The Maker Lab was initially envisioned as a six-month-long pop-up project to explore the role of maker labs in public libraries, but the feedback from the community was overwhelmingly positive. "When the six months came, we were doing really good here, and it was very popular," Christensen says. "So I think it's going to remain an ongoing thing for the library."

The welcoming, friendly environment of the library makes the space accessible to people who are interested in maker technology but have little experience and might feel intimidated by maker spaces full of experts. "Here you can come in and you can try this stuff and we'll help you with every step," Christensen says.

Along the wall just inside the entrance of the Maker Lab there's a display of old projects created by visitors. Among them is a 3-D printed model of a partial skull, one of the most notable projects completed at the lab so far. "Some doctors from a local teaching hospital came to us and they were going to do surgery on a child that had a skull defect," Christensen says. "They had the scans, but they wanted a physical model that could actually fit the plate before doing surgery. So we took those scans, converted them to a file that could be printed on the 3-D printer, and printed the entire skull. It actually did help them with the surgery, and they decided to get their own 3-D printer to have in their lab."

  • The laser cutter
  • City of Chicago Photographer

But some of the most memorable maker projects have had much lower stakes. "This woman came in between workshops to make curtains," Neri says. "She was talking about how she moved into a place that had a bunch of windows, but she went to the store and the curtains were expensive. So she knew we had a sewing machine and came in and sewed curtains. An everyday hero."

One regular at the Maker Lab is Judi Chow, who is in her 60s and lives a short walk away from the library. She first started visiting after noticing the space by chance and signing up for a class. But after several of them, she started to work on independent projects. So far, she's made earrings and keychains to give away, and she's currently using the laser printer to work on a larger project, an engraving that will eventually be a wedding gift. "I really enjoy it," she says. "You're creating things, and they are very friendly and knowledgeable here. I really appreciate that the library has the Maker Lab."

But for Neri and Christensen, the role of the Maker Lab in the community is an extension of the role of the public library. "Libraries have always been a workshop for ideas where people go and learn things and apply them," Christensen says. "This is a workshop for ideas in physical form. You have an idea and you make into an object. It's an extension of digital literacy."

"Our role has always been in lifelong learning," Neri says. "People see a library as a place that they should be able to learn. It's such a beautiful fit to have a community based around different skills people can obtain."   v

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