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The Chicago Public Library Maker Lab Inspries Curiosity – in 3D

CPL harnesses the energy of the maker movement and emerges as an innovation leader in the city with the Maker Lab.


Libraries have long been on the leading edge of learning. In 2012, Chicago Public Library staff began to explore how emerging makerspaces might support the Library’s vision for providing lifelong learning through multiple pathways and modalities. Through research, consultation with thought leaders and leading practitioners across the US, the Library team designed its own makerspace to introduce people from a variety of backgrounds to new knowledge and technologies in a fun, welcoming environment.
What began as a six-month library “pop-up” style experiment in 2013 has grown into the Chicago Innovation Award-winning Maker Lab, the first, and still only, free space of its kind in Chicago. Funded initially by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and subsequently through a grant from the Motorola Mobility Foundation, this making and design lab has attracted more than 130,000 visitors through 2015.
In 2016, additional funding support for the Maker Lab is made possible thanks to grants from Microsoft and the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.
One of those visitors was Chris Balin, who moved to Chicago in 2013 with dreams of becoming a designer, but had no background or training. “I’ve always been a big tech kind of guy and I’ve been intrigued about maker technology becoming more accessible. I heard Chicago Public Library had just opened a space, so I decided to check it out,” explains Chris. “It was really cool to discover the resources there. I had never used those technologies like 3-D printer or the software.”
“The maker community in the library was so supportive. The people were so open to sharing knowledge. There was so much good creative energy,” recalls Chris. “The staff, especially Sasha, (Librarian Sasha Neri) was great. She was always there to help out if you needed it.”
The Maker Lab offers patrons of any skill level access to tools and classes that help them design and create many kinds of objects. Classes and open shop help participants develop digital design and fabrication skills, and serve as an entry point into careers in advanced manufacturing or design. The Maker Lab is also a place for entrepreneurs to create prototypes or build their business. And while other maker spaces charge for classes or membership, CPL’s Maker Lab is free. All you need is a library card and your curiosity. There is a small charge for materials used during open shop.
“We are unique because there are no barriers to entry in our maker community. We welcome everyone,” explains Sasha Neri, who has been assisting patrons in the Maker Lab since it first opened.
“People come because they are curious about what goes on in here. We get hobby enthusiasts, artists, designers, and entrepreneurs. We get recent college grads who no longer have access to design equipment in their college labs,” continues Sasha. “It’s not a factory floor feel. It’s a door opener to new opportunities.”
And that’s exactly what happened with Chris. Through his frequent visits to the Maker Lab, he learned that Inventables, the local company that designs and manufactures some of the equipment used in the Lab, was looking for a designer. He was hired and has been working there for more than two years.
“If you had asked me five years ago where I would be, Inventables is the last place I would have imagined,” reflects Chris. “I would never be where I am today without the Maker Lab. It will always have a strong place in my heart.”
This article originally appeared in the Chicago Public Library and Chicago Public Library Foundation’s joint Annual Report. Thank you to our good donors who make innovative programs possible at Chicago Public Library. Please consider contributing a donation that supports the Maker Lab and other life changing programs.