Chicago Public Library Nourishes Young Minds with Technology

The Chicago Public Library has unveiled a Maker Lab for 3D design and printing at the Harold Washington branch downtown.

The Maker Lab is a partnership with the Museum of Science and Industry and Inventables — a Chicago-based company that sells materials for manufacturing and design.

The new Lab at Harold Washington Library includes 3D engineering software, 3D printers, and free workshops on designing products in the lab.  The Lab is located in one of the smaller rooms on the third floor of the building in a space that, in the past, has usually held small photo galleries of collections of historic books.

Now, the space is filled with rows of computers, several 3D printers, and a large worktable showcasing some designs that have been printed in plastic.  If you sign up for a workshop online, you can create a design on the lab’s computers with open source software like Inkscape or SketchUp and then make your creation reality with the help of the Lab’s staff.

The Maker Lab is part of a larger plan to integrate the Chicago Public Library system with Chicago’s tech scene, says Andrea Seanz, First Deputy Commissioner of Chicago Public Library.  The Harold Washington branch, which is the system’s central branch, is located in the South Loop and surrounded by universities, residential buildings and the historic Printers Row neighborhood.

The area’s community organizations, like the Near South Planning Board, want the South Loop to be a thriving business area as well.  Andrea Seanz shares this desire to bring learning opportunities to the library that will benefit the community as a whole and even help stimulate business.  The Maker Lab is only at the Harold Washington branch now, but the innovation initiative may reach other branches as well.

The Maker Lab was built partly because the library “should be a place to test new ideas,” says Seanz.  Seanz wants the Harold Washington branch to serve not only as a public library but as a community space that stimulates minds and promotes local business through collaborative learning and innovation.

Other innovation experiments are kicking off Harold Washington, like hosting three so-called Geeks in Residence from Public Good Software who will offer on-site advice on creating technology and starting a business.  A Girls Who Code group is also in the works.  Beyond the walls of Harold Washington, the library system’s website may be enhanced this fall with new social capabilities that will allow patrons to rate and review what they borrow and interact online.

Harold Washington Library’s existing community space for technology, the YouMedia Lab, is a space for youth interested in learning about and creating media in a collaborative environment. Now, with the Maker Lab, there is a space for library patrons of all ages to interact around product design and manufacturing and take part in a learning community centered on technology and business.

We want all of our branches to serve as access points to the tech sector in Chicago,” says Seanz.  The city is committed to growing the tech sector and we see the library as a place where people can become exposed to the resources available, the ideas, and the business development opportunities.

“And for people who have beginner tech skills, the library is an access point to the digital world.”

Inventables, who is leading the training in the Maker Lab, shares this desire to integrate affordable manufacturing with Chicago’s technology sector and entrepreneurship scene.

The Harold Washington branch already contains a business, science and technology collection, a patent office, and workshops on topics like creating a business plan and small business taxes.  You can ask a librarian for advice, you can use the free wifi or a public computer.

Now, the branch may also become a place where patrons not only research and study but begin to create and innovate.  While the Maker Lab is only at the Harold Washington branch for the next six months, the innovation initiative may expand and the city’s next tech hub might be coming to your neighborhood public library. ❒

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