23 March 2023

The Future of Tech: Your Local Library

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The Windy City is leading the way when it comes to innovating libraries, making a trip to the local branch a multimedia experience, especially for those who might not have access to the technology otherwise. The libraries offer patrons the chance to use cutting-edge technology in one of the "maker labs," which are stocked with 3D printers and laser cutters. There's a permanent maker lab at the main library, and rotating labs that tour the smaller branches.

In addition to the maker labs, which offer demonstrations and workshops, there are Finch Robots available for check out. Shaped like stingrays, they teach kids about computer science. Visitors use the maker labs not only to learn, but to pursue their own business ideas and experiment with entrepreneurship. One woman uses the laser cutters to design jewelry that she sells on Etsy. Another patron uses a 3D printer to prototype guitar pieces he's looking to manufacture on a commercial scale.

The libraries aren't just there for making things: They offer a crucial gateway to the web. In Chicago, the "digital divide" between people with Internet access and those without is huge: 40% of the city's residents don't have access at home. That's far higher than the national average, according to the Pew Research Center.

All of Chicago's 80 library branches offer free Internet (making it the largest provider of free access in the city). Some branches even let patrons check out a remote Internet access device and a laptop to take home.

A survey funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found that nearly half of people living below the poverty line counted on their local library for Internet and computer access. As technology advances, the need for those services will increase.

There's also a particular emphasis on using libraries to provide outreach to young people. The Chicago Public Library developed YouMedia, a program to help high school students build technology skills through work with 3D printers, digital music programs and video and animation software.

The program started in 2009 with a $2 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation, which funded five branches and served over 1,500 teenagers. An additional $2 million, awarded last year, will help the program expand into many of Chicago's other branches.

Click here to access the full article on CNNMoney.

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