September 23, 2017

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Ideas from the Labs at DC Public Library

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The second session of School Library Journal’s Maker Workshop, a four-week Lead the Change online course, started off with Nicholas Kerelchuk, the popular services manager at the Labs at DC Public Library (DCPL). His presentation, “Lessons from the Dream Lab,” gave an inside look at the four unique spaces that make up the Labs. Experimentation is the modus operandi in all of them, and after hearing what Kerelchuk had to say, their motto, “We break it better,” makes perfect sense. Kerelchuk had a lot to squeeze into his half-hour slot. Yet he managed to impart plenty of insight and solid strategy on executing and building out innovative maker programs.

In the beginning

“There’s been an evolution [here] from both administrator and programming standpoints,” he began. “We started with the premise that libraries should transform, innovate, inspire, educate, and build stronger communities.” As Kerelchuk and his team began to create the DCPL of the future, they first had to ask,“What is that future?”

The answer to that question first started to crystallize as all the DCPL technology was consolidated in one digital commons area of 13,000 square feet. All the computers for public use were in that commons, and with such a large room, the team had space in which to innovate.

Dreaming big

Innovate they did. “That’s how Dream Lab got started. Our mantra became ‘testing for tomorrow,’” said Kerelchuk.

Part of Dream Lab is a meeting space. DC is a burgeoning tech community where office space is very expensive. DCPL wanted to connect with those young entrepreneurs, so part of Dream Lab is a meeting space. “The public library is the original co-working space,” noted Kerelchuk.

Each glass cubicle fits five to 10 individuals who are building one venture or another, and use is growing steadily. From freelance writers to software engineers, what matters is their drive. “We don’t care what they’re working on or selling,” added Kerelchuk.

The team also brought in emergent tech, setting up computer banks with specialty software, such as coding software and Adobe Suite. All DCPL programs are driven by that software. They soon found themselves inundated with users, so the larger entity of the Labs at DC Public Library, encompassing Dream Lab, was born in June 2015.

Fab, in more ways that one

While most definitely fabulous, Fab Lab is short for Fabrication Lab. More or less a traditional maker space, it was the second section of the Labs to open. “Maker spaces can be anything, even a room with five sewing machines,” as long as you’re targeting your demo, said Kerelchuk. Customers find 3-D printers and scanners, a laser cutter, CNC machines, hands-on instruction, and Raspberry Pi projects. Fab Lab is always messy, which is the way Kerelchuk likes it. Artists come in to scan their sculpture for portfolios; Dream Lab denizens come in to make prototypes, such as controllers for games; school classes and senior and adaptive services groups make themselves at home. “The 3-D printers are the rock stars of the space,” shared Kerelchuk. To cover consumables, a small fee is charged for use of the 3-D printers (Most users spend $2–3 per project). Patrons who don’t want to use the equipment themselves can avail themselves of the drop-off service.

In production

Studio Lab arrived next, which is actually two large production spaces. The digital production room has beat machines, equalizers, and Midi instruments. The control room is hooked into a larger room with a green screen. From there, recordings of live bands, short films, YouTube videos by kids, and Kickstarter videos emerge, just for starters.

Thanks for the memories

The latest evolution of the Labs opened just last month. Memory Lab, a personal digital archiving station, is arguably the most successful Lab to date, which, says Kerelchuk, “was a shock, but made sense.” Patrons bring old and archaic media, such as VHS tapes, film reels, and floppy disks to convert and store for posterity. The team was able to secure a National Digital Stewardship Resident. Jamie Mears has been assigned to DCPL for a year to evaluate any weak spots in the Memory Lab service. Those in-demand residents usually go to government agencies or archive-dedicated organizations, but Kerelchuk and his team came up with a winning pitch: “We pointed out that the public has an archival issue. Our problem was connecting to the community to show them the importance of personal digital archiving in an age where everything is recorded on social media platforms and in the cloud.”

So….how is all this done?

“We can’t do it without partnerships, the bloodline of our labs,” insisted Kerelchuk. One such partner is DCTech Meetups. About 2,000 of its entrepreneur members meet at DCPL per month in total, with 500–800 showing up each time. Those meetings are an opportunity for entrepreneurs to pitch their products to seed funders and others who can help them in some way. Typically, the group will have 15–20 product showings per meeting.

Another successful partnership is with Knowledge Commons DC, an organization that offers large-scale, live courses, free to the community, at sites throughout the city. “Our staffers can jump in to teach 10,000 KCDC members,” noted Kerelchuk. “It’s good for them, and we get new people into our system.”

Staffers are partners in the truest sense of the word, and they are another key to making a program as big as the Labs successful. “We had to heavily invest in staff,” said Kerelchuk. “And we changed the way we funded outside professional development.” Lynda.com accounts were the first tool leveraged for staff development. The need for such instruction was real. “Adobe Creative Suite is vast. You could study it for a year and not be an expert,” noted Kerelchuk. “We needed to send them to maker fairs and engineering and coding classes. We put a large chunk of our PD budget into retaining and growing our staff in this way.”

Previously, staff turnover had been an issue, with many staffers not being certified librarians, instead holding various degrees and from different backgrounds. Kerelchuk saw this kind of professional development as a way of showing appreciation. “We’re saying you need to be a part of the library of the 21st century.” The move has, indeed, curbed the turnover rate.

How were particular employees chosen for such professional development? “We needed to find passionate people for emerging technology,” said Kerelchuk. An invitation to apply went out to all 600 employees in the 26 DCPL locations, and the mantle they’d be picking up was made clear. “We said, ‘You’ll become engineers yourself; It’s a lot of work; You’ll be trouble shooting.’” The selection team wound up picking 12.

The initial approach was to structure responsibilities by expertise in one area, say, 3D printing or scanning. While that had its benefits, the silo approach is now morphing into a “utility” structure, where staff members can all oversee different areas as needed.

What’s next?

The Labs will be moving out of the main library building in downtown DC in four or five months. The new space will be 20,000 square feet. Whatever that massive space holds, the one constant is sure to be change.

The Washington, DC population is extremely diverse, but it’s also continually transforming. Roughly 1,000 people move in a month and typically leave within two or three years. So being a work in progress is pretty much a permanent condition at DCPL. “We always want to be in beta, with our services, outreach, everything. The community is always changing, so we should be, too,” Kerelchuk explained.

The slogan for the Labs is “We break it better,” since failing is learning, said Kerelchuk. That’s why the DCPL team is “outcome based,” focused on success stories. “Libraries have always been metrics, numbers based,” explained Kerelchuk. “Who’s coming in, how many books they’re checking out. But we are looking at success stories, who learned to code, who got a job. Numbers are only half of the story. What comes after is the important part.”

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Christina Vercelletto About Christina Vercelletto

Christina Vercelletto is School Library Journal’s former news editor. An award-winning writer and editor, Vercelletto has held staff positions at Babytalk, Parenting, Scholastic Parent & Child, and NYMetroParents.com.

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Our newest installment of Maker Workshop will feature up-to-the-minute content to help you develop a rich maker program for your school or library. Join us to learn new ways of sparking engagement and hands-on learning directly from experts doing inspiring work that you can emulate, regardless of your library’s size or budget.
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Launch a coding program in your library that will promote digital literacy and impact your community. You’ll learn how to run computer programming courses that will introduce your patrons to new career paths and technologies. We’ll explore all facets of building coding programming for your library such as making your case for funding, hosting Code Clubs and Hackathons, and curating free resources and technologies available online.