When Trent Miller realized that Madison’s Central Library would be a vast empty building for a brief time — after the collection was moved out and before demolition for a renovation began — the library gallery coordinator knew he had to organize a major art show.

Bookless,” the resulting one-day, one-night 100-exhibiter art show and fundraiser that closed out the main library building’s original incarnation in January, drew an estimated 5,000 people.

Library staff were already at work designing a media production lab for the new library, teen services librarian Jesse Vieau tells me, when Bookless took place. The enthusiastic reception for the event, where partiers splashed the walls with graffiti before they came down, ate, drank, danced and posed by the hundreds in a photo booth, convinced Vieau and Miller that technology could be used for so much more in the library’s next life.

While brainstorming about ways to gather people together for creative exchange continued, the initiative was dubbed the “Bubbler.” The name — a Wisconsin word for drinking fountain — worked both for its local resonance and as term for a community gathering space, Vieau says. It stuck.

As now envisioned, the Bubbler will be a program incorporating elements of the “maker” movement that will radiate out from the new central library downtown into the branch public libraries. It will be an ongoing series of workshops and demonstrations where people share skills and tools and where participants make anything from T-shirts to musical recordings to self-published books.

If that sounds like an extension of the lectures and workshops that have long taken place in libraries, it is. But it is also, librarians say, part of a revolution that will transform public libraries from places of book learning to places where inventors, artists, entrepreneurs and crafters also learn from each other.

“We’re still checking out record numbers of materials, but there are definitely a lot more things you don’t traditionally think of going on at libraries,” Miller says.

Public libraries all over the country are embracing innovative ways of letting community members share their skills with one another, says Laura Damon-Moore. She is a co-creator of The Library as Incubator Project, a blog on library innovation begun as an assignment at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Library and Information Studies. The project, with its blog, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest presences, now draws thousands of regular visitors.

The digital revolution required a different focus for libraries, Damon-Moore says. In part that has meant different tools — databases and ebooks instead of reference books and paper novels. “But there is also a greater sense that a library is a place where you take part in a hands-on activity and come away having developed a new skill,” says Damon-Moore, now working as youth librarian at the Edgerton Public Library.

The Fayetteville Free Library in Fayetteville, N.Y., was one of the first public libraries to develop a makerspace in the library, Damon-Moore tells me. It used targeted fundraising to build Fab Lab, a fabrication laboratory that makes available to the public such high-tech equipment as a 3-D printer, which produces three-dimensional plastic objects from digital designs.

The Library as Incubator Project chronicles other library initiatives. At the Sacramento Public Library, for example, participants in the library’s writing classes can self-publish using the Espresso Book Machine, which automatically prints, cuts and binds a paperback book in minutes. Not all library makerspaces are high-tech. The Idea Box at the Oak Park Public Library outside Chicago is a glass-enclosed space where artists and others put on interactive presentations that invite participation by every visitor to the library.

The increased emphasis on how-to workshops sounds to me like something that might be a better fit at a community center, but Damon-Moore argues that it is just an extension of the library’s traditional role as archiver and distributor of community knowledge and history. If a community has someone who does chain saw sculpture, she asks, why not have that artist come in to teach his art to others, rather than just record that aspect of local history with a box of photos of the sculpture in the archive?

This trend toward active learning in libraries grew out of the contemporary DIY (do-it-yourself) culture that became well-known through online sources like MAKE Magazine and hacker (think skilled production, not computer-crashing mischief) websites, Damon-Moore says.

Bringing it into the library was natural for a new generation of librarians familiar with the movement’s very active online presence.

Damon-Moore estimates that there are dozens of public libraries with “full-blown” makerspaces, dedicated rooms and high-tech equipment. Hundreds more are deepening their involvement in community programming in ways that reflect the current DIY and maker cultures that value skills development for self-sufficient living.

The development of the Bubbler program did not require approval by the Library Board, but library director Greg Mickells tells me that board members have been supportive. The program will include one dedicated room in the new central library, but events will pop up in other public meeting spaces in the central library and the branch libraries. While acquisition of about $100,000 in technological equipment is planned as part of the $29.5 million central library reconstruction project, the Bubbler’s focus is going to be on programming rather than “gadgets,” Mickells says.

The library will look to partner with existing makerspaces, like Sector 67, a collaborative on Madison’s east side, to bring their high-tech equipment to the library. “We hope to make that type of expertise and innovation accessible to the community,” Mickells says.

The library would be a coordinator of the process and distributor of the products, a role that will be sustainable. One area that Mickells thinks is a natural fit for Madison is publishing. Writers could learn how to self-publish their work, which the library then could distribute, he says. “What we’re hoping to do is celebrate ideas, promote creativity, connect people and enrich lives.”

That doesn’t mean abandoning the library’s traditional role, Mickells stresses. “Books remain a very important aspect of our service to the community.”

And in fact, the library already has some programming that fits the Bubbler model, including an animation program at the Goodman South Madison Branch Library developed with a $25,000 grant from the Goodman Foundation.

The animation workstations used in the program are built on an iPad platform and can be picked up and brought to the Boys and Girls Club or any of the other community organizations that Goodman Branch Library works with, says Vieau.

“Anyone who sees them wants to get their hands on them,” he tells me.

Vieau sees the Bubbler program as giving youths the chance to explore hands-on skills that they may, or may not, like enough to pursue as a job or to study further in school.

The success of the Bookless fundraiser is just one indicator of a taste for maker programming in Madison, Miller tells me. At Curiosity Fest, a gathering for creative, technical and business innovators held Dec. 13 at the High Noon Saloon, Miller gave a pitch on the Bubbler to the 100 or more attendees.

“I asked how many people would be interested in presenting at the library, and every person in the audience raised their hand,” he says.

The makerspace experience is a natural draw for young people, but adults, too, revel in the opportunity to learn to use new tools and develop new skills, Damon-Moore says.

At a workshop this fall at the west-side Sequoya Branch Library on cyanotype, a photographic process that produces a distinctive electric blue-colored print, participants updated the 19th century process by using copy machines and transparency printers. Creating the print through the painstaking process had one woman exclaiming: “I feel like a child again,” Damon-Moore recalls.

She calls her own recent experience with a workshop on drawing and painting “life-changing.”

“It’s changed the way I think about the work that I make. I just let it be. Allowing yourself to embrace skills and tools you might not have ever played with before — it can be very freeing.”

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