Monday, 18 May 2015

Fab Futures : Devon and Chattanooga

On 2nd May a baby was born - thanks to whom I had the opportunity to attend the Fab Futures: public libraries in the digital age conference at Exeter Library. No, I'm not talking about the royal baby (!) but my manager's first-born: as my manager knew he would be on paternity leave at this time of year, he had asked me if I'd be interested in going to the conference in his stead. As you can imagine, I didn't say no!

Useful bits first: the original conference programme. For a full overview of the day, I would recommend you also have a look at Claire Back's excellent Storify. Some short video clips are available on Exeter Library's YouTube channel.

A FabLab at Exeter Library
A few years ago, Devon County Economic Development team were setting up projects that would help residents develop their skills, learn new ones, inspire them to try something different - and therefore find employment or create their own by becoming self-employed. But how do you bring digital making and cutting-edge technology to a very rural county like Devon?
At the time, Exeter Library was being refurbished. As Ciara Eastell, Head of Libraries, Culture and Heritage at Devon County Council tells it, she got a phone call and was asked: "Would you like a FabLab in Exeter Library?" The idea of a FabLab tied in with the vision for the role of the library in the 21st century. Exeter Library was already running Raspberry Pi jams and Devon library service was part of the Enterprising Libraries programme whose aims are connected to local economic growth.

The funding came from Devon Council and external grants: £170,000 in total. Tips on setting up, from Tom Dixon, Public Information Manager at Devon County Council:
 - get as much advice as possible;
 - it's not easy to navigate Council procurement rules to get the equipment you want;
 - volunteers are crucial: you need to link with the local people who are already interested.

The FabLab Devon business model [that was the phrase used] has evolved over a pilot 12-months period. There is now a charge for courses, a membership scheme for using the equipment as well as pay-as-you-go options (people pay for the materials they use).
The FabLab contributes to the library running costs but also to its visitor numbers. It is used by tech-savvy or tech-curious individuals but also by local businesses such as a textile designer and a skateboard maker!
The next stage in the project is to bring FabLabs to other parts of the county.

 The children section at Exeter Library
(No link with what I'm saying; just because it looks nice, and I like the "Hello adults" sign)

  • Devon Libraries are looking into becoming a mutual (the route York took) in the near future - the FabLab is seen as important for this next incarnation.
  • Exeter Library has just joined the Business & IP Centre National Network. People using the BIPC at Exeter will be able to get intellectual property information for their product idea, use the FabLab to make a prototype and simply walk back into the Centre for support to start a business or market their product.
  • The FabLab volunteers do not replace staff but bring added value to the service; they have specific knowledge that staff do not / would not be expected to have.
  • Staff need to be given the opportunity to start projects based on their talents and interests - that's how the Raspberry Pi jams at Exeter Library started!
Funnily enough, one of the first questions asked by the audience was about the IT department. Apparently, the Devon IT department has been involved but "it's still a learning curve"... (what a polite way to put it!) The Council IT is not responsible for the equipment in the FabLab.
How to recruit volunteers with the relevant skills: Devon Libraries advertised the FabLab along with details of the skills they were looking for in volunteers. Fran, one of the volunteers (and textile designer mentioned above), said what attracted her was the fact it's a collaborative space: "the range of people you meet is amazing and you learn so much". Devon currently has the luxury of having too many FabLab volunteers! When showcasing what the FabLab does, there are always enthusiastic people coming forward. Linking up with other local groups with similar interests e.g. Code Club volunteers, Raspberry Pi Foundation events, also helps.

Raspberry Pi jam

Webcast with Corinne Hill, Chattanooga Public Library
Unfortunately, Jane Kunze from the Main Library at Aarhus, Denmark, couldn't make it at the last minute so instead the conference organisers arranged to link up with Corinne Hill from Chattanooga Public Library (the one with the wondrous 4th Floor) over Google Hangout.
[Updated 19/05/15] An edited version of the Hangout recording is now available on YouTube.

US libraries don't seem to have the same budget troubles as UK libraries (ahem) but Corinne Hill's talk was inspiring nevertheless. I can't agree with everything she says, but she does have a refreshingly frank vision of what libraries and librarians should be today! Sample quotes and bits of information below.
  • "Maker Spaces in libraries where only the staff can use the kit are totally missing the point."
  • In the 4th Floor people just come and do stuff: "it's more tinkering than anything else" [but they seem to have a LOT of kit]. There is no membership, just a small fee to cover the cost of the materials used.
  • A lot of events at Chattanooga 4th Floor are in partnership with other organisations; it's not the library staff running them.
  • Money for the 4th Floor came from a technology in libraries fund from the Tennessee State Library, which was before then used on new computers.
  • Libraries should stop using so much of their budget on reference collections and use it on FabLab activities instead.
  • You need to have the right team to create and develop something like the 4th Floor. Chattanooga changed the culture of the library service by changing the person specifications when recruiting new staff. Qualities needed in job applicants now include: being curious, keeping up with technology developments independently (the Library is not going to train them).

In the next instalment: my notes from the talk by Richard Clifford of MAKLab (Glasgow) and the FabLabs "national perspective" afternoon session.

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