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The Modern Library

February 10, 2015  By Victoria Gaitskell

In the 1450s, Johannes Gutenberg’s development of combining metal moveable type, oil-based ink, and the wooden hand press into a printing process led to an explosion of popular literacy – fostering new possibilities for every person in the civilized to read and write. But now, in 2014, literacy has acquired a broader definition. In many North American towns and cities, public libraries are revising their services based on a definition of literacy that includes not just the ability to read and write words, but also the ability to operate digital technology and program digital code.  

Public libraries now offer computer programming, 3D printing, and maker spaces as components of literacy. This expanded definition, together with partial funding from the Metcalf Foundation, led the Toronto Public Library (TPL) to create a $44,000 digital media lab, called the Digital Innovation Hub, which drew considerable attention from the press when it opened in February at its popular downtown Toronto Reference Library location, near the heavily trafficked intersection of Bloor and Yonge Streets.

“Literacy comes in several forms, and new technology plays a bigger and bigger role in how people acquire knowledge,” explains Ab Velasco, Project Leader, Digital Content and Innovation for TPL, who recently gave me a tour of the new Hub. “From the early days of computers, the library has made digital technology available to the public and supported them in learning how to use it, so the Hub is just an extension of the same principle.”


Velasco says the taskforce which planned the Hub consisted of TPL staff from a cross-section of such departments as IT, Web Services, Policy and Planning, and Marketing and Communications, aided by a survey of the TPL community and consultations with other libraries. He says Fayetteville Free Library (in a suburb of Syracuse, New York) was the trailblazer in creating facilities like the Hub and that its model has since been followed by libraries in Edmonton, Chicago and Innisfil (20 minutes south of Barrie, Ontario).

How the Hub works
For free and for up to two hours a day, TPL cardholders can reserve one of the Hub’s nine workstations, each dedicated to either Audio/Video Editing, 3D Scanning, VCR-to-Digital Conversion, Web/Graphic/3D Design, or Coding/Programming. Users can obtain help from one of the digital design technicians constantly on duty whose expertise varies among each of the processes for which the Hub is equipped. Users can also book time on an array of other high-tech devices, including:

– One of two MakerBot Replicator 2 3D printers (about $2,500 each),
– High-definition video cameras,
– A green screen (background for digital photography or videography that enables the image or video being shot to be superimposed on a second image or video),
– A variety of big-name-brand tablets and laptops, and
– Smart Pens (electronic ballpoint pens that digitize, store, and transfer what is written or drawn to a computer).

In a Learning Centre beside the Hub, the Library provides training sessions (some up to 2 1/2 hour long) on subjects like Photoshop (Parts I and II), Website Design (Parts 1 and II), Introductory 3D Design, and 3D Printer Certification.  March Break classes for students are offered for 3D Printing, Video, or DJ-ing. Again, all classes are free to TPL cardholders and require only advance booking (although spaces are limited.)  

Next, Velasco says, a course on Computer Programming will be added. And because high-school teachers have expressed the desire to build digital literacy amongst their students, TPL is developing a School Visits Program for the Hub, as well as video training modules. A further $50,000 from the Metcalf Foundation will enable TPL to develop and deliver outreach technology programs to youth in underemployed areas. Additionally, two more Digital Innovation Hubs are scheduled for TPL’s Fort York and Scarborough Civic Centre locations – two new branches expected to open later this year, bringing TPL’s total number of branches to exactly 100. 

3D printing and maker space
Velasco says since the first Hub opened, 3D printing has proven especially popular, and the 20 3D Printer Certification classes TPL had scheduled for February and March were fully booked within three days. The certification courses are mandatory before using TPL’s 3D printers. About 60 of the 300 people who signed up for them also obtained their first TPL card at the same time.

Just as TPL charges users nominal fees for black-and-white and colour copies, 3D-printer users pay a surcharge of $1 plus five cents per minute, with a two-hour-a-day limit on printer time. Thus users can print a consumer-grade project, such as a smartphone case, in about 90 minutes for about $5.50; but if they wanted to print something more complicated and time-consuming, such as an engineering or architectural prototype, Velasco says they instead would have to use one of Toronto’s commercial suppliers of 3D printing. TPL also does not allow 3D printing of weapons, sexually explicit materials, and other items that contravene the Library’s published Rules of Conduct.

Some of the Hub’s other newfangled gear is aimed at the “maker” community. This is a subculture of do-it-yourselfers who enjoy creating things in their spare time, often new and unique inventions, using electronics, robotics, 3D printing, computer numerical controls, metalworking, or woodworking. The theme of Make Magazine, one of the niche publications for this community, is to celebrate “your right to tweak, hack, and bend any technology to your own will.”

Items in the Hub’s inventory that might especially appeal to makers  include:

– Raspberry Pi computers (tiny, cheap computers expressly designed for educational applications and experiments),
– Arduino kits (open-source  electronic boards that can control just about any do-it-yourself hardware project; Getting your coffee maker to tweet you after it finishes brewing), and
– Makey Makey kits (a device that lets you turn random objects, such as fruit or Play-Doh figurines, into computer-operating keys).

Part and parcel of the maker experience is that it generally occurs in collaborative spaces where people can connect and learn from each other as they tinker. Velasco comments: “Technology is great, but it becomes greater with a community and face-to-face interaction that utilizes, defines, and conceptualizes it. What is unique about the Hub is that we are hoping to build and foster a similar sense of community and collaborative learning here.”   

“To succeed in today’s digital world, Torontonians need the opportunity to use emerging technologies in spaces that encourage collaboration and creativity,” stated City Librarian Jane Pyper, when TPL’s first Hub was introduced.  In fact, TPL has codified these objectives as one of the four major initiatives comprising its 2012-2015 Strategic Plan; namely, to “Catalyze & Connect a City of  Innovators, Entrepreneurs & Creators.”

TPL’s Website reads: “Through partnerships, transformations of our physical and virtual spaces, and the use of new and emerging technologies, Toronto Public Library creates cultural and creative destinations that stimulate and support creativity, encourage collaboration, and spark experimentation and innovation for creators and entrepreneurs of all ages.”

So far, these partnerships include outreach to such local maker spaces and communities as HackLab.TO, MakerKids, and Site 3 coLaboratory, because, “all these spaces are very much about community defining the space and the technology, and that’s the feeling we’re trying to go for,” confirms Velasco.

Another partnership has enabled the Reference Library to bring on site the Toronto Mini Maker Faire, scheduled for November 22 and 23, 2014. Other partnerships have resulted in Monthly Meetups – drop-in programs in the Reference Library’s Atrium with speakers and performances on such topics as Robotics: Creating a Star Wars Droid and When Wearable Tech Meets Art. Yet another of TPL’s innovations in collaboration is a Repair Café session where people can bring a broken household item and get help fixing it amid their neighbours.  
TPL also recently inaugurated an Innovators in Residence program, commencing with 3D printing expert and digital fabrication artist Derek Quenneville of 3DPhacktory. Besides working on site for a six-week residency, Quenneville is slated to create a video training module; offer classes, demonstrations, and drop-in appointments for TPL’s customers; blog for TPL; and make himself generally available. Because the Hub is young, Velasco says further elaborations are still under consideration and will partly reflect how TPL staff witness people making use of the new facilities.

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