Robots, VR and 3D printers are served up at this high-tech library

Robots, VR and 3D printers are served up at this high-tech library

- in PRINTERS

A few years ago, on a sunny June day, Joas Thermidor waited for an acquaintance at Broward County Main Library. As he was killing time, a member of the library struck up a conversation.

The library had recently installed a video studio for teenagers, the staffer told Thermidor. It had cameras, a green screen and editing software.

Turns out Thermidor, 17 at the time, wanted to become an actor and had already started a YouTube channel under the name T-bone Without the Steak. His buddy never showed, but Thermidor spent the rest of the afternoon in the studio.

“The equipment and someone showing me how to film — I was given all this guidance for my dreams,” Thermidor, now majoring in filmmaking at Broward College, told me in February.

digital-libraries-8777-5
The Next Chapter is a multipart series that examines the changing role of libraries in a connected world.

James Martin/CNET

The library isn’t where most people go to launch their careers, unless of course they’re librarians. The institution’s popular image hasn’t changed much over the last century. Think of a library, and you’ll probably conjure up a stodgy beaux-arts building, stuffed with dusty books and magazines and staffed by strict, bespectacled overseers who’ll shush you at the slightest jump in decibel.

That’s changed as most people look to their phones for, well, just about everything, a cultural shift that threatens to reduce libraries to a quaint memory. But over the past decade, they’ve repositioned themselves as cultural and learning centers for the digital age. It’s not just about free Wi-Fi or computer access. Some lend out mobile hotspots. Others offer classes in the latest tech, such as music-editing software and 3D printing.

On Sunday, libraries across the country begin celebrating their evolving mission during National Library Week. Melinda Gates serves as honorary chairwoman of the annual event, which is sponsored by the American Library Association. Gates is an appropriate choice: She and husband Bill began funding computers, internet access and software for libraries in low-income communities through an organization they established in 1997.

The Broward County Libraries in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, show just what the evolution of libraries looks like. Since 2015, they’ve established spaces like the teen video studio — the library calls them Creation Stations — across their branches to give visitors access to tech as well as to teach digital skills. They offer classes and workshops in basic activities, like creating online resumes and coding. And Broward County is finding ways to bring library services to patrons who might never set foot in the building.

“When people think of a place or a space, or they need something, the library [should be] the first thing that comes to mind,” Kelvin Watson, Broward County Libraries director, says in his office in the Main Library.

Beyond books

Libraries offering more than reading material isn’t exactly a new idea. Historically, libraries have made tech like typewriters, fax machines, copy machines and early personal computers available to everyone. Just as libraries democratized information, they’ve democratized technology, giving people access to it before many of them can afford it for themselves.

Making technology available is important, says Monique le Conge, president of the Public Library Association, a division of the American Library Association, because it’s “a vital tool to help people be successful and improve their opportunities and their everyday lives.”

Libraries make more than just gadgets and software available to their patrons. In Florida, you can check out fishing gear. You can get cake pans in various forms from the Topeka and Shawnee County Library in Kansas. And the Berkeley Public Libraryhas been lending out tools — everything from hammers to hedge trimmers — since 1979.

Robots at the library

Describing everything Broward’s libraries have on offer is a challenge. But Bob Anstett, who coordinates digital initiatives at the library, is up for it. He’s been with the county for almost a quarter of a century. He’s also got a longstanding interest in tech and has played with everything from the old Tandy TRS-80 computers to the augmented reality Merge Cubes, one of his latest fascinations.

dsc-2518.jpg
Anstett’s been experimenting with the augmented reality potential of Merge Cubes.

Erin Carson/CNET

As we zip through the Main Library’s Creation Station, Anstett, who’s been known to miss his bus when he gets engrossed in a book, shows off the library’s wares. It’s got Wacom tablets, Sphero robots, claymation kits, Raspberry Pi computers, robotics kits, GoPros and Merge VR goggles. Sewing machines sit on work benches and Macs outfitted with all manner of creative software line one of the walls. 3D printers sit by the entrance and a robot that almost comes up to my hip stands guard by the front desk.

In one corner of the room, which is mostly windows, patrons can use the Creation Station’s virtual reality setup to visit Harlem in the ’20s. A green screen hangs in the other corner for video production. The Creation Station also houses an electric guitar, a favorite of a local homeless man, who periodically stops by to shred for a half hour or so.

A few floors up, you’ll find Creation Station Business, the first free co-working space in the state. You can park yourself at a bright green booth with downtown Fort Lauderdale as your backdrop and work on spreadsheets or presentations or whatever it is businesspeople do.

Around the county, Anstett and his team scatter pop-up libraries, which are basically Wi-Fi hotspots with library branding. You can find them in bus stations and art galleries, and if you’re on the hotspot, you can access e-books even if you don’t have a library card.

dsc00900.jpg
Bob Anstett shows off a 3D printer.

Ari Rothenberg/Broward County Libraries

So far, the library has built 14 Creation Stations in 11 locations. Many have a distinct focus, such as science or music and audio production. Anstett says more are in the works.

“It’s such a wide umbrella of making people aware of the technology and giving them access to the technology so they can figure it out for themselves,” Anstett tells me.

The dawn of Creation Station

You couldn’t always walk into the Broward County Main Library and walk out with a robot.

When Skye Patrick, Watson’s predecessor, took the job of director in 2013, the scene was very different. Staffing had been cut by more than a quarter and the library’s hours were slashed to 40 per week from 60. Half of the Main Library’s 250,000 square feet were closed thanks to “window mitigation.” (Translation: Half the windows were covered with black tarp.)

Morale was low.

Upon arriving in Florida from New York City, Patrick thought Broward County was in need of renovation beyond, you know, new windows.

So she put together a proposal asking for $265,000 to build the first version of Creation Station. Patrick got the money even if she didn’t get the greatest space. The first Creation Station debuted in 2015 in a glorified closet at the Main Library.

“It was enough to do something,” she said over the phone in December.

So using the money, they got items like 3D printers, laptops and new furniture. Eventually they counted between 200-300 people visiting the space every day.

By the time Patrick left in 2016, the library was back to 60 hours per week.

Branching out

It’s January in Fort Lauderdale, and everyone politely apologizes for the cold snap. It’s pretty rough: Clear blue skies and mercury somewhere around 70 degrees.

Anstett and I make a loop within the county in his all-electric Chevy Bolt — another tech toy in his collection — and visit a couple of branches, including the North Lauderdale Saraniero and Collier City branches.

At the North Lauderdale Saraniero branch, I see Creation Station Science, a lab-type space that offers activities on Monday afternoons for kids ages 8-12.

Manny Arrocho, a senior librarian, sits with me at a metal table and describes teaching kids about sound waves by having them build miniguitars. He tells me about an experiment with slime. Once, the kids made ice cream. Hey, it gets them into the library.

The idea behind it is to show kids “how science fits into fun activities,” he says.

Over at the Collier City branch, they’ve turned two small rooms adjoined by a door and a window into a small studio space, complete with a microphone, acoustic foam on the walls and speakers in the control room. It’s called Creation Station Music, and, true to the name, you can check out guitars and ukuleles.

dsc-2608.jpg
A young library patron visits Creation Station Music.

Erin Carson/CNET

Learning Specialist Gregory Hanley tells me about a project he’s been working on with the kids who come in. They’re learning about voice acting, giving lines to characters they created in their own animated videos.

“It allows them to be creative and just explore their imagination,” he says, all while giving the kids a project to walk out with.

Creation Stations Science and Music illustrate something bigger the library is reaching toward. The library wants patrons to understand there’s value in coming to the library to learn about and use tech, rather than simply taking a gadget home for a couple of weeks.

Coming to the library gives patrons an “experiential” knowledge and information, says Lisa Manners, who was involved with the original efforts to jump-start Creation Station in the Main Library.

There’s a library around here?

Ensuring the success of the whole Creation Station initiative has taken a mix of money and marketing.

The funding and resources for Creation Station come from different sources. The county’s tax base supplies the majority. But Friends of the Library, a nonprofit, supports the library’s efforts, particularly when there’s something Anstett can’t use taxpayer money for, such as an experimental virtual reality headset he bought as a Kickstarter project. The library also partners with local businesses, colleges and the chamber of commerce.

It takes a lot of advocacy, and Anstett never stops talking up the library.

While I’m getting my parking pass validated at a government building across the street from the library, a young guy in a T-shirt bearing an image of a bowl of noodles and the phrase “I Heart Noods” overhears our conversation. “There’s a library around here?” he asks.

Barely taking a breath, Anstett launches into his pitch, leaning on 3D printers, virtual reality and a piece of moon rock the library has on display.  We move on after the noods guy promises to pay a visit.

Talking to people and reaching out to the community is part of what Anstett does.

Anstett and I pay a visit to FATVillage, the local arts district, where we meet up with Lean Brown, an artist and gallery coordinator, in a warehouse. It’s about a week before the opening of an exhibit called Inhabited, and the space is filled with artists’ interpretations of “dwelling.” There’s a crocheted tent, a small trailer and a whimsical fabric fort bigger than plenty of New York City apartments.

Around the time Creation Station launched, Anstett reached out to Brown, and since then they’ve partnered on a variety of projects. Anstett will bring his augmented and virtual reality rigs to FATVillage’s monthly art walks, which are community events that can pull in as many as 4,000 people.

And at the end of 2017, the library helped with a six-week lecture and workshop series called the Art Tech Incubator, which taught 3D printing, interactive projection and how to make things with Arduinos, little circuit boards that folks can use for electronics projects.

Brown says forging a connection between the arts community and the library to promote tech is important. Artists can feel intimidated by tech or wary that it could get between them and their work. And yet, she feels tech is the future of art and design.

“For our artists to stay relevant, I think it’s very important to know how to use everything so they can make anything,” Brown says.

So these days, whenever Brown’s got something brewing with tech, the library is always involved.

Getting the green light

joas
Joas Thermidor was a regular at the Creation Station Teen Studio.

Joas Thermidor

Thermidor says getting stood up in the library’s lobby turned him into a regular. Shortly after being introduced to the video equipment, he started recording quirky skits. One of his favorites is his take on 2016’s Mannequin Challenge, a goofy internet fad that had people freezing in position while someone recorded the scene. In his version, Thermidor makes off with a kitchen gadget while everyone is frozen.

Thermidor learned how to use Photoshop and editing program Premiere Pro and took part in workshops. Maybe most importantly, he met folks from the library and the local arts community who’ve mentored him. They even helped him get connected with a summer program at the Broward Center for Performing Arts.

Thermidor has aged out of the teen studio. The 20-year-old, who hadn’t considered college before he got plugged in with the teen studio, will wrap up his associate’s degree this spring. He’s applied to film school in California.

Still, he thinks fondly of the library, saying it “was a green light that enabled me to pursue my dreams.”