Makerspaces are sprouting up in public libraries across the country.

The best ones teem with powerful computers, 3D printers, high-speed Internet hookups, and other tools for techies, business people and creators like artists.

dospace photoLibrary makerspaces in cities such as Washington, moreover, are far more than mere gadget-filled rooms.

They also provide a chance for rich and poor alike to learn, stake out common interests with other people, and collaborate.

Not every makerspace is in a public library or school. A promising standalone is in Omaha, Nebraska.

Business leaders there have redone an old Borders Bookstore and set up the noncommercial Do Space (for-profits such as TechShops also exist).

You can get a hands-on with a laser cutter or take a course in Windows 10, just to mention two of many possibilities.

For several years now, along with some librarians, I’ve been advocating the creation of a national digital library endowment—and ahead I’ll tell how the Omaha vision could fit in and strengthen rather than weaken the book culture.

Omaha success stories

Read the success stories that have unfolded since Do Space’s opening last November.

plasticraptor_thumb.jpgTom Shaw, a guest blogger for Do Space, remembers how his father, an amateur radio operator, built a 50-foot antenna in the backyard.

The father “even used a bow and arrow to launch wires into the trees of the woods behind our house to boost the radio antenna’s range.”

Shaw tried to interest in his own son in constructing fighting robots, as part of the do-er sprit. No dice.

But thanks to Do Space, father and son could team up to build a plastic dinosaur raptor with movable parts, and, of course, the Shaws in the future can go on to more advanced projects.

Even more importantly, think of all the people on the wrong side of the digital divide who can benefit. Commendably, Do Space is near a major local transportation hub, no small detail for the car-less who want upgrade job skills.

Heartiest kudos, then, to Heritage Services, the coalition of Omaha philanthropists responsible for Do Space.

Friendly suggestion: More cross promo for books between Do Space and the Omaha Public Library

At the same time, mightn’t Do Space and public libraries work more closely together?

I toured the Do Space Web site and found disappointingly few mentions of books even though the Omaha Public Library is a partner and even though Do Space Executive Director Rebecca Stavick spent five years at OPL.

BiblioTechPromo2ab.pngLast month a National Public Radio piece referred to Do Space as “a library with no books.”  Do Space is worlds apart from Bibliotech, a virtual and physical library in San Antonio, Texas, which offer e-books even if physical books aren’t around (YouTube here). Still, both Do Space and Bibliotech share traits. Both are places for learning and collaboration, not just for borrowing.

With those common traits in mind, as well as another one, self-improvement, isn’t it possible we could better coordinate standalone tech-tool libraries with more traditional libraries focused on actual content and its absorption and enjoyment? Or maybe even blend the Omaha and San Antonio visions in a new model in appropriate locations?

Meanwhile here’s what I’d suggest for the present Do Space if this isn’t happening there already. Line your walls with big-screen computer monitors with ways for users to send books to smartphones and tablets. OverDrive and other vendors already are working this territory, and apparently Blibiotech has such a capability. Also continue promoting the local library’s e-book app, but go far beyond on the monitors for your tech-loving vistors.

Feature technical and scientific books, how-tos of all kinds, good science fiction, other literature, picture books for the gadget-fixated young, the right art books and appropriate local titles, among others. Start librarian-led book clubs, including the cell phone kind, if they don’t exist. Encourage users to begin their own book clubs as well, or, if they prefer, clubs that mix books and tech. While people can learn from each other and in classes, let’s also encourage them to learn from books, too—especially from recreational reading driven by curiosity.

Books as empathy encouragers—and imparters of civic lessons

countofmontecristoI’m not just talking about the mere soaking up of facts. Check out The K-12 and economic cases for a national digital library endowment, or the executive summary, on the LibraryCity site.

Notice the discussion of the right books as encouragers of empathy? This is not such a bad goal when race relations have frayed, and when some violence-prone activists itch to crack each other’s heads open.

On top of that, empathy is just plain good for business—both in employee-boss relations and in understanding of markets.

Books can even impart civics lessons. In The Count of Monte Christo (free Feedbooks edition here), an apolitical young sailor is dragged into the grand feud between the royalists and likewise crooked foes. We do not just learn of the follies of tolerating a corrupt, crony-oriented government: we also find out how politics can show up when we least expect it.

A lesson here for young techies? Edmond Dantes, the victim-protagonist of the Alex Dumas classic, spends years in dungeons in part because he does not understand how “the system” of his era works.

Dantes triumphs later in his own way. But I’m confident he would rather have avoided his travails or at least have better coped with them, and the right books might have helped, as promoters of analytical capabilities and sustained thoughts in general.

Furthermore, remember that so often the tech alone is meaningless without content, or an audience around to absorb it. What’s more, if nothing else, books can be business tools in the direct sense. Planning the TeleRead site’s future, for example, I’ve benefited from Joe Pulizzi’s Content, Inc. Jeff Bezos, Mark Cuban and countless others have told of the importance of books to their success in business.

Yes, I recognize the reality of a statement from Cameo Austin, a father of four, who says his children show “more of a rapport with computers rather than with a book.” But—assuming he isn’t counting e-books as real books, which they are—he and others must not be complacent. Let’s care about books along with gadgets.

It isn’t as if Do Space  or the Web site lacks any sign of books. But at least if you go by the blog and the publicity about the organization, they are not as conspicuous physically or virtually as they could be. A Google search of the Do Space Web sites reveal only around 50 results for “book” or “books,” and we’re talking about rather dry stuff, as opposed to, say, a lively SF book club announcement from either Do Space or the Omaha Public Library. Or how about book-related videos of special interest to techies interested in future-related works—or relevantly inspirational novels like October Sky? Or showings of, say, the movie based on the just-mentioned book?

I would hope, then, that in keeping with the laudable partnership with the public library, Do Space would experiment with new ways to get books on the minds of the technical. In the opposite direction, the library should encourage booklovers to understand all the additional choices that they can enjoy if they master the basics of e-book literacy (whether the issue is finding the right device, reducing screen glare or learning proper navigational techniques for e-books). Maybe this is happening already at the OPL to an extent. If so, the more the better.

Both standalone makerspaces and libraries should especially care about e-reading apps such as Moon+ Reader Pro, which are far more powerful than the usual software for Kindles and the like, and which offer easy access to nonDRMed free classics and other books that young reader can legally keep forever.

How a national digital library endowment could help books and tech alike

A national digital library endowment could encourage more of these book-gadget synergies. Not every place, however, is fortune enough to have a philanthropic community with the resources of Omaha’s. How many Do Spaces will you find in small towns in the Mississippi Delta? Or even well-stocked public libraries?

America’s public libraries, including even Omaha’s, have been hurting for cash. On the average, they can spend only around $4 per year on books and other content, and the issue isn’t just that—it’s also the need for more spending on tech and people, especially minorities and especially in areas such as professional development and outreach, including massive promotion of books and libraries in the media. School libraries are also cash-strapped. The Obama-encouraged Open eBooks initiative is a laudable start, but far from enough. It essentially targets children from low-income families—at a time when entire middle-class families could also benefit from many more books in their lives.

In all those ways the endowment could help. The endowment among other things could support both public and academic systems online (the function of the two kinds of libraries overlap but are not the same).

A special reason to care about the national digital library endowment idea now

While libraries should be apolitical—open to the ideas of everyone, even their know-nothing enemies—we now have a new justification for the endowment in the form of our bizarre and scary presidential race. Suppose Donald Trump reaches the Oval Office.

“I love the poorly educated,” Trump said after winning the Republican caucus in Nevada. Fully quoted, Trump in effect was just claiming that everyone there loved him, from Ph.D.s on down. But he might as well have been saying, “The ignorant and dumb are my easiest marks,” and he may also be unwittingly hinting of bad news ahead for such egg-headed organizations as the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Public libraries, after all, can be dangerous institutions, given their dedication to access to information, some of the very stuff that fascists and near-fascists fear the most.

Horror of horrors, libraries even spread scientific information on, say, global climate change. Trump-friendly not. The Donald himself is a textbook example of the need for a more enlightened citizenry, future politicians included. Often he seems blithely oblivious to such basics as separation of powers between the federal government and the states, and I don’t think this is just because he is so eager to pander to to the ignorant.

Libertarians, and no, I’m hardly among them, especially should support well-funded public libraries rich in the information and other tools we need to counter tyrants and potential tyrants of all intellectual levels.

Although I hope that the endowment eventually will be a public agency for the sake of openness and accept tax money as well as philanthropic donations, it could start out as a nonprofit outside government—a good form of Trump-proofing even though this would happen just as a matter of course.

Riskier not to start an endowment

I’d love to see the two national digital library systems as a goal for the very near future. But at the start, yes, the endowment if need be could focus on the biggest needs of existing local, state and academic libraries. The major risk isn’t in starting an endowment working in close partnership with libraries of all kinds and at all levels. Rather, in this year of existential issues for Americans, it’s in not starting an endowment, whether we end up with two national digital library systems or one.

Ideally, then, people in Omaha can think of those book-starved towns in Mississippi, show some empathy and encourage a certain local citizen (hello, Warren Buffett?) to support the endowment idea. Same for other billionaires.

The money is there even in the current political environment—if we look beyond tax dollars

Just 400 Americans are together worth more than $2 trillion. A mere crumb of a crumb of that could start a national digital library endowment with a goal of $15-$20 trillion in the first five years, and such an initiative would jibe perfectly with the Giving Pledge from Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

I don’t see this duo and other billionaires as personally running the endowment—that’s for professionals. But they could encourage its creation and serve as advisors, and if local philanthropists like the ones behind Do Space and Bibliotech can also provide ideas and feedback, then so much the better.

Where to begin?

Where to begin my renewed push for a national digital library endowment—beyond seeing if people at the grassroots level show interest? I’ll be making the issue sides of both the Clinton and Sanders campaigns aware of this proposal. Big foundations pay close attention to policymakers. Trump? No. Waste of time.

At the same time I won’t give up on conservatives and libertarians. The late William F. Buckley, Jr., loved the idea of well stocked national digital libraries and wrote two “On the Right” columns in favor of them after I emailed him out of the blue.

I’d be delighted to see the Obama White House reach the same level of enthusiasm—for well-stocked national digital libraries for all—that WFB did.

Along the way, let’s also work for the endowment as a way to help fund local libraries and related activities, such as makerspaces.

Related: TeleRead Editor Chris Meadows on libraries as, among other things, sandboxes for the innovative. Also see pro-endowment articles in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Library Journal and Education Week. Big thanks to Jim Duncan, executive director of the Colorado Library Consortium, for coauthoring the latter two articles. He and other librarians, such as Library Services Dean Tom Peters at Missouri State University, have helped me refine the digital library vision on which I’ve been working since the 1990s.


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