Finding Voice and Value: Making in Libraries

October 09, 2018

Janet Hollingsworth is a structural engineer, woodworker, and maker educator. She co-founded BLDG 61, the all-ages makerspace at the Boulder Public Library in 2016. As a creative technologist, she curates and facilitates maker programs at BLDG 61 including: woodworking, laser cutting, machining, 3D printing, electronics, digital fabrication, screen printing, book binding, and more. She has also developed special apprenticeship programs for underrepresented youth and individuals experiencing homelessness.

Libraries are an agile learning platform. We provide education and access to new technologies in exciting ways. We’re good at this. We’ve always done this. Books, computers, WiFi, and now laser cutters, table saws, welding equipment, electronics, and more. The potential to alter the landscape of traditional education and our workforce is taking shape in libraries.

Janet Hollingsworth teaching shop class as part of Workforce Development Training at the library to individuals transitioning out of homelessness

The library is not tethered by for-profit pressures or the need to uphold common core standards. This is liberating. We can provide access to information in an encouraging environment that is both user-driven and inspires each of us to do more. We are committed to inclusivity, accessibility, and solving wicked problems. Today’s tools and DIY mindset allow us to approach these challenges in new ways that strengthen our community. The library can do more than ever before.

As part of winning an Infy Maker award, the Boulder Library Makerspace, BLDG 61, received a grant from Infosys Foundation USA to expand underserved high school student engagement through internship and scholarship programs. This grant was an evolution of the Build a Better Book project created by researchers at the University of Colorado to develop multi-modal picture books for blind and visually impaired children using maker technologies. This summer we expanded the project to create an internship opportunity for economically disadvantaged students through the I Have a Dream Foundation.

Student interns assembling laser cut boxes for prototyping games

Twenty-two rising 9th graders were hired to work with educators from BLDG 61, researchers from CU, and mentors from the Colorado Center for the Blind to design Universal Board Games using low and high-tech tools. This project provided students a dual purpose: to help people in the community with different abilities and to share a personal story.

9th grade participant Michelle Velasco shared that she was motivated to "design a game I can play with my sister who has special needs."

Intern Michelle Velasco drilling her Candyland-style game for the soundboard

Siblings Jerónimo and Atzin Barrios Palacios Luna developed a game with instructions in English, Spanish, and Braille that included trivia about their Mexican heritage and Challenge Round activities to do blindfolded so that sighted players could participate alongside their blind peers.

Game instructions in English, Spanish, Braille

Most of the interns had no prior experience with digital design, laser cutting, 3D printing, programming sound boards, soldering, or game development. Inspired by Maker Ed workshops taken at the Pathfinders Summer Institute, the BLDG 61 team broke down this intimidating barrier by starting each day with an analog activity for students to take part in to serve as the analogy for digital fabrication. The interns sculpted in clay before modeling in Tinkercad; cut out cardboard prototypes before laser cutting plywood; sketched by hand before designing in Adobe Illustrator. They also learned how to collaborate with blind mentors and seek feedback to iterate their designs.

BLDG 61 facilitates conversations around inclusivity and accessibility to benefit the diverse voices within our community. In that spirit, we coached the interns with the following prompts:

  • Who is this for?
  • Who can or cannot participate?
  • How can you make this more accessible for people with different abilities?
  • What story do you want to share?

Latinx Festival in Boulder, CO

As maker educators, we ask questions that will transcend the scope of this internship and provide students a framework for future projects, in and outside of school. By the end of the internship, the sense of pride students had in their projects and themselves was palpable. We celebrated the students and their impressive, accessible, and interactive board games with the community at the Latinx Festival in Boulder.

Post-internship, many of these students have returned to BLDG 61 to work on new passion projects. Creating inclusive opportunities and access to maker education is an active pursuit. We can grow our community by embracing the experimental platform that we are.

We invite students of all ages to find their voice at the library, using real tools and solving real problems.