Sonya Holm writes that 3D printers, sewing machines, laser cutters and occasionally dogs are just as much a part of the library today as is the lending of books.
The most trusted of our institutions is undergoing a silent evolution.
Libraries have been around for thousands of years as reliable sources of information and keepers of history and stories. Now the books are silently accompanied by a variety of technologies and machines.
The Palmerston North Library is called “the living room of the city” with five branches, a special youth area and a mobile library.
It also has Blueprint, the library’s “makerspace” that provides public access to equipment and knowledge.
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The self-confessed “general geek” Harley Bell, the community building coordinator at Blueprint, says while it’s not the only library makerspace in New Zealand, “we’re probably the biggest”.
Blueprint is organized in zones. Each contains various devices and tools including CNC routers, 3D printers, plastic mold makers, electronics, sewing machines, craft and vinyl cutters, and laser cutters.
The space is a combination repair shop, education zone, and resource for handymen, startups, and small businesses.
Sign making, key chain making, t-shirt printing are just a few examples, the possibilities of which are only limited by the imagination.
The electronics area is often used to repair household appliances, says Bell.
“People come in and we help them fix things.
“We’ve had people fixing dehumidifiers, weed eaters, electric guitars and headphones because the wires in them are so awful and fragile.”
The sewing room has proven popular with equipment such as an overlock, lockstitch and coverstitch machine.
“We always have them set up and ready to go, so people can just work and sew when they need to and then leave.”
The library’s first 3D printer, a popular item, was purchased in 2014.
The originals “still work well” but have been supplemented with newer models including resin printers for super fine detail work.
“They take people into space” and are “out and about all day, every day, with people’s jobs”.
There is a cost associated with 3D printing, which is charged at a variable rate per gram depending on the machine and design used.
“They’re very popular with people who play board games, dungeon and dragons and things like that because you get these super fine details and then people paint them and play with them.”
A Dungeons & Dragons miniature costs around $4-$5.
Blueprint’s ethos is to “teach people how to use the equipment or techniques to do it”.
The staff are always available and have a wealth of knowledge, but they cannot do the work for you.
When discussing project ideas, Bell says staff try not to push people one way or another, but speak up if they think the project will fail.
“There are certainly times when we’ve had to withdraw people from Grand Designs who don’t quite hit the mark.”
The space is also used by people who need a one-off device or equipment for their new business idea.
“We’ve had quite a few people come in and make their signs for the company or start working on their projects.”
Bell explains that they’re not set up for high-volume production and the space is shared, so no one can “cut on the CNC for six hours [router]“.
There are 65 public libraries with 329 branches across New Zealand.
“Libraries are now, along with museums, among the most trusted institutions in the world,” said Hillary Beaton, Managing Director of Public Libraries NZ.
Beaton believes makerspaces have become popular because it’s another way to engage people with libraries and develop their skills.
“Makerspaces … allow people to develop analytical skills, problem-solving skills, a whole range of skills that are also extremely valuable in life,” says Beaton.
A third of the population is a member of their local library, but not all services require membership.
“Libraries are used by tourists, visitors and people who just want to sit and read a newspaper,” says Beaton.
It’s not just about publishing books anymore.
“That changed at least a decade ago and more.
“They are a safe place for communities to come and explore, but also to meet and get information.”
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the role of libraries has become more important, “the online component and outreach have exploded”.
Beaton believes libraries that offer largely free services are the great leveller. “They are all about justice and access.”
Makerspaces are mostly housed in New Zealand’s larger libraries, says Beaton, with Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch offering some of the libraries that do offer them.
But bibliophiles rest assured, books are here to stay.
“It’s not that books are gone and won’t go away…Being able to read is your opening into many worlds – to be able to do many things you need to be able to read.”
According to the City Council’s 2020-21 annual report, Palmerston North Library continues to be “one of the City Council’s most heavily used” facilities.
Blueprint’s operating costs are about $90,000, not including staff, a city council spokesman says.
Blueprint reimburses approximately $25,000 in costs and budgets are reviewed as part of the Council’s Long Term Plan process.
They determine success by how many people are using the space, which is at “peak capacity for resources.” Other factors are satisfaction levels and the development of knowledge and skills.
Palmerston North Library has “a long history” of lending non-book items, including cassettes, videos, records and jigsaw puzzles.
The library also offers a variety of activities “beyond book-related events,” including cultural festivals and celebrations, robotics workshops, local history programs, and recently, dogs in the library.