Local library makerspaces expanding their focus on learning, building community

Mar. 17—Four clear, plastic orbs with blue LEDs launched onto the floor of the Neosho Newton County Library Makerspace/STEAM Lab.

The Sphero robots rocketed under chairs, between legs and over feet. With shrieks of joy, the Moser siblings controlled the chaos of the robots' trajectory in the newly opened space for learning and play.

"Our library is to provide resources that are needed by our public, whether it's educational or recreational," said Carrie Cline, library director for the Newton County Public Library system. "This space fits perfectly into that."

She said the public library is one of the only places families can freely hang out and enjoy the resources. She believes that's why makerspaces have taken off in public libraries. STEAM (which stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) is at the core of what they promote and works together with their established selection of books.

"Plus, we've always done crafts here, we've done this for years," Cline said. "They've finally put a name on it and called it a makerspace."

The makerspace room was the former administrative services wing. After the library bought a former bank building across the street to serve as an annex, Cline started to dream about what to do with the space.

Little by little, the library started buying STEAM equipment and storage space with grants. The makerspace is a culmination of about three years worth of collecting, including a major purchase of iPads to control many of the robotic kits. A majority of the lab was funded through the library's budget, but also with grants.

For the past two years, the space had been open for tweens, school and homeschool groups. Starting in late February, the makerspace opened to the general public on a regular schedule, after hiring a trained staff member. The Seneca branch of the Newton County Library has also recently opened a makerspace.

The makerspace is open Monday and Tuesday from 2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., Friday from noon to 1:30 p.m., and Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The lab is open to everybody. If a visitor is 15 years old or younger, then they need a parent present.

"We're not carding at the door," Cline said. "Anybody can use the lab. Genius kids and their genius parents will come here and build robotics. It's really fun to see what's happening."

The library's makerspace has lots of "no tech" items, such as building sets, games, puzzles, sewing, crocheting and calligraphy. Cline said Perler beads are a hot item for many teens. Art equipment includes big canvases, Legos and wooden Lincoln Logs.

In addition, there are many high tech items. Sphero coding robots are extremely popular, as well as circuit boards, lots of coding equipment for all ages and 3D printers and pens. The library just received $8,000 of STEAM kits from a grant for check out. These are shared with their Seneca branch, and feature a wide variety of science, art, and tech based projects, from animal science to yoga.

Cline's office has big windows facing the makerspace, so she gets a prime view of the many creative projects constructed in the space. She remembers a visit from the Jefferson Street Campus, the Neosho alternative high school, when students came over and coded the Spheros to make them do things.

"We didn't know they did that; those kids are geniuses," Cline said. "They have a lot of fun with them. We've been experimenting with a lot of fun things back here."

In reaching out to families, the makerspace fits with Cline's larger goal for the library in Neosho. Their focus now is on building community and getting more people through the door.

Toward this goal, they've set up a new printing station that offers copying and print services not offered elsewhere. Then there are the theme nights celebrating superheroes and wizards from the literary world.

Every fifth Friday features Nerf Wars inside the library after hours. Wearing safety gear and toting Nerf guns, tweens split into teams. They have the run of the entire building, with only the circulation desk off limits. Unlike during library hours, running and screaming are allowed. Cline said this helps provide a space for the community and builds awareness of the library.

"It's hilarious to watch them go at it," Cline said. "If we ever move a shelf, Nerf ammo falls out. There's so much ammo left over in this building from the event. I love when this space is being used in that way, because it's perfection for this building."

The Joplin Public Library is expanding their makerspace as well. Jennifer Lewis was hired late last year to assist patrons. As the new full-time makerspace assistant, she will teach people to use equipment, troubleshoot and answer questions.

"I'm also a resource," Lewis said. "If someone is trying something new, and they're not sure if it would work, I can help them research options."

Like at the library in Neosho, the Joplin makerspace is open to everyone, no library card or proof of address needed. Hours for the makerspace are available on the library's website.

With the new hire, the makerspace also has a new programming budget. Included with this is the summer reading program, a jewelry making workshop in conjunction with Teen Department and a Star Wars event on May 4. Lewis is planning 3D printing tutorials for small things like keychains and earrings. A journal making workshop with hand sewn binding and personalized laser engraving was a huge hit for patrons at the makerspace, Lewis said.

It's all a way of getting more people involved in a new way in the library, and gearing more programs toward teens and adults. Much of the makerspace equipment is large and complex to use, and Lewis said she is there to help.

"Sadly right now, people don't realize the makerspace is here in the Joplin library and that you don't need a library card to use it," Lewis said. "You can just walk right in and have access to all these great resources for people."

Cline said that at every library, circulation of books has gone way up, and programs for all ages are well attended. She sees the expansion of library makerspaces as a way of creating community.

"They're looking for a sense of community," Lewis said. "I think COVID helped out with that alot because when you were forced to stay home and isolate, nobody took that well. Libraries are that sense of community where you can be with other people. It's this great place to gather."