Beyond the Books: Libraries Adapt to Changing Community Needs, Wants

Beyond the rows and rows of books, research materials and the like, one can now find among a library’s mix of offerings tools that once were at the fingertips only of skilled tradespeople or specific industries. Nowadays, library staff members have to be just as adept at using a laser cutter as mastering the Dewey Decimal system.

An emerging trend in libraries nationwide has been the growth of makerspaces, equipped with tools like laser cutters and 3D printers, that give children and adults alike the opportunity to tinker and let their imaginations and creativity run wild. Currently, two of Loudoun’s libraries—Gum Spring and Sterling—are equipped with such spaces, and the Brambleton Library, set to open next year, will feature the same. In fact, as Loudoun grows and new libraries open or expand, expect to see more of these.

“As of now, the plan is to include makerspaces in all future libraries,” Mike Van Campen, deputy director of Loudoun County Public Library, said. “When planning what services to offer we look at both what has been successful at other locations and what best meets the needs of the community served by that location. One of the decisions to move forward with makerspaces is that we feel that we are offering unique and free services to customers—ones that most customers would not have access to otherwise.”

It’s a renaissance of sorts for libraries, but one that makes sense given the evolution of community needs and access. It’s something that’s caught the attention of Inventables CEO Zach Kaplan. His company sold the Sterling Library its 3D carving machine, called Carvey. He’s sold 100 already to libraries across the nation.

“It used to be that books were expensive and having a library was very expensive, but what’s happened over the last 100 years is the cost of books has gone down to, with a Kindle, essentially zero. So libraries as an organization have started going through a soul searching trying to think ‘if we’re not about books what are we about and what’s the next thing that makes us the center of community and knowledge’,” Kaplan said. “One of the things they’ve been experimenting with is the concept of a community maker lab. I consider any library that’s doing this currently to be on the forefront of the movement.”

Loudoun’s libraries’ mission remains the same, Van Campen notes, but the way it achieves its mission has evolved.

“We provide people free access to and expand the availability of materials, equipment, and services to all community members. In addition to offering books, public libraries have long provided access to things like meeting space, programs, training, and technology,” he said. “Makerspaces are a continuation of this fundamental mission. One of the primary reasons we embraced makerspaces was to provide folks access to equipment and experiences that otherwise might not be available.”

The new Gum Springs Library is a good example of the evolution of libraries. It features makerspace rooms, equipped with tools like laser cutters and 3D printers to help visitors imagine and create. [Douglas Graham/Loudoun Now]
       Sheila Ryan, coordinator of the MILL Studio at Gum Spring Library, said the makerspace is “truly a multi-generational, creative incubator.” 3D printing is the most popular across all age groups, she said.

“Children as young as 5 come in to pick out their favorite character to print, while tweens and teens use our 3D printers to create school projects or print parts for their robotics clubs. Adults, on the other hand, run the gamut from practical to just for fun—printing Raspberry Pi cases for their internet of things projects; rapidly prototyping an invention; or just printing out a fidget spinner,” Ryan said.

Somewhat related to the evolution of the library’s offerings has been an evolution of its perception. Once regarded as a quiet space to read or research, now libraries have areas, both in maker labs and children’s services, where vocal collaboration and play is encouraged.

“I’ve been working in children’s services in libraries now for more than 10 years, and I can tell you the spaces have evolved quite a bit,” Ellen Tweedy, head of children’s services at Sterling Library, said. “Once quiet areas where children and families came to read and study, these spaces now boast brightly colored furniture, hands-on manipulative toys, puppet stages, building supplies, craft tables, touch-screen gaming, and so much more. While it may mean the space is louder than it used to be, the sound that you are hearing is children learning through hands-on and free access.”

There is an inherent connection between physical play and learning and literacy, Jessica West, division manager of branch services, said, and that drives the evolution of these spaces.

“Librarians have long recognized the importance of play in the development of early literacy skills,” she said. “Creative play helps kids develop verbal and narrative skills which connects them with stories, books, and reading.”

Expect to see more innovations from Loudoun’s libraries in the coming years. The Brambleton Library, for example, will also feature a recording/mixing studio. And the Brambleton Group, which is constructing the $22 million library, is exploring grants that would allow the library to become one of the first in the country to feature Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality technology to further learning. This could allow children the opportunity to walk on the moon virtually with Apollo 11 astronauts, or climb Mount Everest. All without leaving the comforts of the library.

More information on the library system’s features can be found at

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