Event review: Modern Leonardos at Libraries – Spring Event 2013

Gimena Campos Cervera, Senior Researcher at the U.S. Embassy to Italy, kindly gives us an insight to the Spring Event held in Rome, where one of the most innovative trends taking place in libraries in the U.S. was discussed.

The Spring Event – the U.S. Embassy to Italy and American University of Rome’s annual conference on the future of libraries – focused its 2013 edition on a revolutionary theme: ‘maker spaces’ and ‘fab labs’ in libraries and museums.

The Makers Movement is a pivotal phenomenon that is becoming global as it spreads in different regions of the world. It is at the core of a manufacturing transformation that the media depicts as the ‘third industrial revolution’. Neil Gershenfeld, professor at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and keynote speaker of the Spring Event 2013, is the guru of the movement.

Spring EventAccording to Gershenfeld, the ‘Personal Digital Fabrication Revolution’ will allow anybody to have, in a few square meters, small factories that generate 3D models and objects made with subtractive tools (milling machines, laser cutters) and additive tools (3D printers). In the U.S., this transformation of the manufacturing industry is being supported by President Obama, who recently established a 200 million-dollar fund to open three large technological institutes devoted to personal fabrication. These high-tech hubs will interact with industries, universities, schools and the government to invest in technologies that will promote local production, in an attempt to bring back manufacturing inside the country, after decades of relocation abroad. Innovative design, light metals, electronics and digital fabrication are some of the areas in which these hubs will focus.

What do libraries and museums have to do with all this? According to the U.S. Institute for Museum and Library Services, there is an explosion of interest in maker spaces among American libraries and museums. In the process of experimenting with this new phenomenon, libraries and museums are re-conceptualizing their potential for the development of 21st century skills among users, and are opening new spaces for digital content creation and sharing.

American libraries are known for choosing a bottom-up approach to create collections and services that respond to the needs of their communities. Today, they are capturing the enormous potential offered by the Makers Movement, to open public spaces for the acquisition of digital skills. By doing so, they are once again showing that libraries remain faithful to the mission of promoting knowledge, but not stuck to the book as a physical object. Instead, they look at the infinite variations that digital communication offers both to authors and readers, to enrich public library services. The mantra of 21st century American librarians, ‘libraries are more than just books’, appears today more real than ever.

Spring Event 2013Some of the most prestigious U.S. museums and libraries are embracing the Maker Movement: Exploratorium (CA), Carnegie Library (PA), Westport Public Library (CT), Newark Museum (NJ), Detroit Public Library (MI), Chicago Public Library (YOUMedia), and the Fayetteville Public Library (FFL) in New York, which in 2011 inaugurated the first library maker-space of the United States.

Since the 19th century, American libraries have given space to learning and creation. Book clubs, training courses on knitting, crafts, sewing, and English as a second language, are just some of the activities that we discover when we read the history of American librarianship. The new spaces that are being opened today to promote the learning and practicing of personal digital fabrication skills can be seen as an almost natural evolution of the public service vocation that American libraries have shown since their beginnings.

In April 2013, the U.S. Embassy to Italy inaugurated a digital innovation center that offers high-tech tools – including a 3D printer – at the San Giorgio Library in Pistoia (Tuscany). YouLab Pistoia is the first digital maker space in an Italian library, and the very first of a new generation of American Corners that are being promoted by the U.S. State Department in various countries of the world.

As ALA affirms, “U.S. public libraries ‘weather the storm’ of the Great Recession, supporting their role as a lifeline to the technology resources and training essential to building digitally inclusive communities that enable full participation in civic life and in the nation’s economy”. The Spring Event 2013 focused on the new Makers phenomenon – still little known among European libraries but nonetheless very important – with the hope that a new generation of ‘Leonardos’ will populate public libraries, confident that in those libraries they will find the inspiration and resources to craft the future.

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