March 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Lessons from New Jersey’s Annual Makers Day

Chances are many of us grew up wanting to do something that would make the world a better place. In New Jersey, that seems to be an even more common dream. From Thomas Edison’s light bulb, Bell Laboratories, and the famous “Trenton Makes, the World Takes” bridge, our state’s culture is solidly built on thinkers, makers, and doers.

Yet I’ve always been more about people than things, so when maker spaces started to take center stage in our industry, it puzzled me that so many people thought they were just about “tech stuff.”  We marvel at the 3-D scanning, video editing, and product design software, but at times forget the people who controlling—and creating—that very same tech. What about the manufacturers? The artists? The handcrafters? We saw showy spaces, but they didn’t cultivate a way for the community to really use those tools.

It seems that I wasn’t alone in my belief that makers exist in all of us.

Inspiration, then determination

When Doug Baldwin, the emerging technologies librarian at Piscataway Public Library (PPL), thought out loud about developing a single-day statewide event that would bring makers together, a group of us figured we’d see if anyone was interested.

We’re lucky to have a staff at PPL that isn’t scared to try new things. But not only were we talking about supporting the organization of a statewide structure, but simultaneously planning events in our individual location as well. Yikes! Before we lost our nerve, we set a date of March 21, 2015 for the first statewide celebration of maker culture.

It’s hard to describe how unprepared we were to take on a project of this magnitude. We thought we’d have to beg others to get involved, but in just a few short months, there were over 150 different locations registered. Libraries, museums, schools, and commercial makerspaces across all 21 counties were committed to offering demonstrations, vendor presentations, craft and DIY activities, open houses for their makerspaces, and much more. We were proud and thrilled, but we were also overwhelmed by how much was required from our (very) small group.

A family exploring sewing basics at Piscataway Library.

A family exploring sewing basics at Piscataway Public Library.

Failure was not an option

The results were as varied as the individual locations and people involved. If you had walked into any number of the 150 NJ Makers Day sites in 2015, you would have seen one unique event after another. The overall vision of New Jersey Makers Day is to provide an opportunity for organizations to collaborate and host events for their communities to celebrate, promote, and, in some cases, introduce maker culture, as well as the values associated with making, tinkering, and STEM and STEAM-based learning.

U.S. Senator Cory Booker and author/innovator Cory Doctorow recorded keynotes that enhanced the event by providing a broader perspective beyond New Jersey. Many locations broadcast the speeches throughout the day.

At PPL, you would have been hard-pressed not to find something to appeal to you. We had vendors set up at tables throughout our large meeting room. Representatives of local businesses and schools talked about maker-related tools or classes they offered, or to share the products that they were involved in creating. We roped off a section so that the high school robotics club could demonstrate life-sized robots! In the children’s room, we had K’nex, Snap Circuits, MakeyMakey microcontroller kits, and craft supplies. We even created special NJ Makers Day mazes, word searches, and coloring pages. Elsewhere in the building, we featured tools from the Make It Yourself (MiY) Lab, the library’s makerspace. Throughout the day participants made buttons, sewed, crafted jewelry, checked out our 3-D printer, played with Vex Robots and Finch Robots, raced BrushBots, and more. We also scheduled workshops in our “Coding Café.”

A boy explores building at Piscataway Library,

A boy explores building at Piscataway Library,

Ready to try?

If you’d like to start a maker day in your corner of the world, keep in mind that, like any large- scale event, it’s often easier to break it down into smaller pieces. New Jersey tends to take on an initiative like this by making it statewide, but you may need to focus on just a large city, county, or region. There’s no right or wrong way to approach it.

Step 1: Gather people you trust. The very first thing we did was reach out to like-minded individuals in different parts of our state with whom to collaborate. We personally contacted a few librarians in the north and south who we knew were already doing amazing things with makerspaces. We wanted a planning team that understood the needs of the different geographical regions of the state. Aside from PPL, that committee included librarians from Hillsdale Public Library and Gloucester County Library System. With the buy-in of those key players, we were able to take the next step.

Step 2: Secure funding. Luckily, we got early support from LibraryLinkNJ, the New Jersey Library Cooperative, which made a financial commitment for the initial two years. With this sponsorship, we could create a budget and determine what we could offer to interested locations in the way of marketing tools, professional development and training opportunities, and—perhaps most important—giveaways.

Step 3: Create a process for registration. It was important that site locations be officially registered. That would aid in the promotion of the event on a statewide scale. Registration is also the best way to log statistics, encourage communication, and assess retention. Having contact information also allowed us to invite location leaders to monthly online meetings.

Step 4: Find and cultivate partnerships. Our group was adamant that this wouldn’t be a strictly library-centric event. We were determined to break out of our comfort zone and rely on the expertise of our community members, those making and creating every day. We wanted to do more than tell people how great libraries are; we needed to illustrate the value of libraries as community networks. Organizers at site locations were encouraged to reach out to local talent, businesses, town government, and other organizations to participate.

Our planning committee took it a step further and requested training workshops and/or financial support from bigger fish: SparkFun Electronics,  littleBits, BirdBrain Technologies, and Soldering Sunday. We also reached out to commercial sponsors, such as AC Moore arts and crafts stores, that participated by hosting maker events all around NJ. State-specific organizations, including ManufactureNJ and NJ School-Age Care Coalition, were an active part of the planning, bringing legislative attention, suggesting methods for sustainability, and hosting local events.

Step 5: Promote! We created accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. We worked with a local graphic designer at Blue Tomato Graphics to create a logo, postcards for outreach events, and posters. All images were available to all registered locations to use in customized local promotion and social media campaigns. We received a lot of promotional support from the NJ State Library.

Step 6: Provide Feedback Forms.  We prepared and shared feedback forms with all the site leaders, asking that they be distributed to their individual participants on the day of the event. We also sent survey forms for the organizers themselves.

The Clifton (NJ) High School Robotics Club setting up shop.

The Clifton (NJ) High School Makerspace Club setting up shop.

The little idea that worked

When the final numbers for NJ Makers Day 2015 started to roll in and we realized that over 15,000 individuals had attended events, we were blown away.

Of course, it’s always important to see the results of your endeavors through others’ eyes. We thoughtfully reviewed all those feedback forms and found the response to be overwhelmingly positive for individual participants and leaders alike.  Any negatives shared were considered and incorporated into planning the next NJ Makers Day event.

Yes, I said next. There was an inside joke hat we were, under no circumstance, allowed to even think about NJ Makers Day 2016 until after the first one was wrapped. But before we knew it, we were setting dates for the second annual event, even bigger and better. This time, we’ve planned an event of two days, March 18 and 19, to include a weekday for schools and colleges. In addition to the continued backing from LibraryLinkNJ and the NJ State Library, we are especially happy for an enhanced partnership with the New Jersey Library Association, which allows for more flexibility in seeking sustainable funding, since our professional association is a 501(c)3. With tremendous community support statewide, we are delighted to be able to continue NJ Makers Day in a big way, and with well over 250 locations already committed, I’d say that there is proof in the pudding. Whatever it takes, it’ll certainly be worth it.


Kate Jaggers is Supervising Librarian of the User Services Department at Piscataway (NJ) Public Library. Kate’s primary role on the NJMD Planning Committee is to encourage everyone’s big ideas while also keeping them grounded in reality.

Extra Helping header

This article was featured in our free Extra Helping enewsletter.
Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to you twice a week.

Facts Matter: Information Literacy for the Real World
Libraries and news organizations are joining forces in a variety of ways to promote news literacy, create innovative community programming, and help patrons/students identify misinformation. This online course will teach you how to partner with local news organizations to promote news literacy through a range of programs—including a citizen journalism hub at your library.