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
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
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.
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