The Fab Library comes to the UK

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“We want to create a generation of creators, not consumers” Fab Lab Devon‘s mission statement.

FabLabLogo

Yesterday I had the opportunity to visit the sparklingly refurbished Exeter Library‘s new Fab Lab. It is the first co-located public library/Fab Lab in the UK and it is awesome!

Funnily enough, for such a momentous combination of two learning and community movements, it felt pretty simple. Exeter  Library had a spare room on the ground floor that the library service were planning to use as a second meeting room and the Council were planning a Fab Lab that they thought they might locate on an out-of-town science park. The two came together and something beautiful, totally right and completely obvious-once-you-see-it was born.

The Fab Lab is a space you could mistake for a computer and printer room if you didn’t know what it was. The door is open to the rest of the library and people can flow in and out seamlessly, allowing for that serendipitous discovery of new things that libraries have always been so good at.

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(Image: Mike the Fab Lab manager in the Fab Lab)

It helps that the whole library feels fresh and airy and the kind of place you want to visit, now that it has been refurbished. In fact the whole place is buzzing with possibility.

This is what a library is and what a library can be. We are already getting there and that is so exciting.

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(Image: newly refurbished Exeter Library)

There are limitations of course – you couldn’t do messy work or very noisy woodwork in here, but there is an impressive array of machinery – several 3D printers, a laser engraver, sewing machine, CNC Router etc etc etc… all controlled by computer. The software used to create the 2D and 3D files is currently all opensource (GIMP, Inkscape, Sketchup) – although Mike, the FabLab manager, has found some of it can be a bit glitchy and they might have to invest in some proprietary software (perhaps an opportunity here to work in partnership with Open Software makers to identify and fix problems?).

Another thing I love about the Fab Lab is the way it is managed and staffed. Exeter University is on the board and Exeter College (local HE institution) may well take on a key role in running the lab – which I believe are crucial partnerships for the success of any library based FabLab in building its economic development potential and providing seamless integration between serendipitous learning into more formal settings where that is appropriate.

There is one paid member of staff who has specialist product design skills and who manages a volunteer workforce paid in currency redeemable against Fab Lab machine use – essentially a time banking scheme. And you know how I feel about time banking in libraries.

One of the volunteers has experience in writing instructions and has developed a set of simple projects that people can complete in free 1 hr taster sessions being run every Saturday to introduce people to what the Fab Lab can offer. When you become a member of the Fab Lab (subscription £120 per year) you agree to write up your projects with instructions for other users, which will be stored in a Fab Lab wiki online, building a bank of local knowledge and expertise in product design and development.

Timebanking – tick.

Promoting opensource tech – tick.

Community knowledge sharing – tick.

Partnerships with HE/FE – tick.

What’s not to love?

On the day I was there Corrinne Hill from Chattanooga Public Library was talking to library staff from all over Devon about library innovation in the morning, and was also featuring in an evening of networking and debate for local creatives and businesses, together with Clare Harris, the British LIbrary’s Business Engagement Manager in the evening. Both events were packed.

It was one of the most inspiring mornings I have spent in a public library recently. It made me feel that being involved in public libraries was one of the best decisions I ever made, and it was pretty damn sexy.

Q&A with Robogals London – and why making robots in libraries couldn’t be more obvious

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“By partnering with public libraries, Robogals can create a bigger impact in local communities and make more people aware of our programme.” Yuen Lan Chow, President of Robogals London Chapter

Manchester Libraries have been working with Robogals’ Manchester chapter for quite some time now and they put me onto the potential for Robogals to be great partners for public libraries across England.

So on Monday I met up with Yuen Lan Chow, current president of the London chapter of Robogals at Deptford Lounge to find out more about what Robogals is all about and why they’re so keen to work with libraries. Here’s what she told me:

What is Robogals? What’s it all about? Who is it aimed at?

Robogals, a unique student-run organisation was founded in July 2008 with the aim of increasing female participation in engineering, science and technology. This is achieved through fun and educational initiatives aimed at girls in primary and secondary schools.

Mainly, we run an outreach program in which university students volunteer to hold and mentor robotic LEGO workshops, as well as robotic competitions. We also run events and programmes that are around our central aims. For example, we actively involved in a world record-breaking mass robot dance, Robogals Experience Sharing Programme, Robogals Rural and Regional and science fairs.

To date, Robogals has chapters at 21 universities across the world, with 7 of them based in the UK.

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(Image: The Robogals)

Why would you want to spend your free time teaching girls how to make Lego robots?

Because of joining Robogals, I found out about Lego robots. Like most girls, I believed that robots and programming were for boys, so I though it would be hard to make Lego robots when I attended my first Robogals training session. However, I soon realised that I handled it quite well; especially considering I am just a chemistry student and not studying engineering or mathematics.

After I found out more about the aims of Robogals, I told myself that I wanted to teach more girls about Lego robots and share my own experience. I’m willing to give up my time to do this because I feel like I might be able to change a girl’s future through one of our Robogals workshops. 

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(Image: girls putting their creations to the test at a Robogals workshop)

Why is Lego Mindstorm your preferred tool?

Lego Mindstorm includes a central CPU brick that controls the system and a set of components such as sensors, motors and LEGO parts. It is our preferred tool because it comes with lots of variation and it is not hard to learn. Everyone plays with Lego some point in their childhood, so students can get on with the construction straightaway.

The programming consists of a simple, visual interface, which is easy for students to understand as well.  The variations of Lego Mindstorm enable us to design a series of teaching materials with different complexity, so matching the need of students from different age groups. 

Moreover, Lego continues to develop Lego Mindstorm and provides a good support on it, which means we can deliver best workshop to the students.

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(Image: Lego Mindstorm)

What do you think the girls who attend your workshops get out of it?

Our workshops have been designed to engage girls in a range of STEM topics in a way that is fun and creative. And during the workshop our volunteers share their passion and excitement in STEM with the girls. Apart from raising their interest in STEM through the workshop, we hope ‘STEM’ is introduced into girl’s vocabulary, and to create a positive influence against the traditional mindset of STEM as being male-dominated. In the same time, they are informed with the available options of their future career path in STEM area.

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(Image: girls building a Lego Mindstorm robot at a Robogals workshop)  

Why might you be interested in partnering with public libraries (in London)?

For Robogals London chapter, our primary activity is holding campus based robotic workshop for local schools. Although London chapters has taken part in off-campus events in the past, London chapter want to do this more often.  This becomes possible in the partnership with local libraries.

By partnering with public libraries, Robogals can create a bigger impact in local communities and make more people aware of our programme. We are able to deliver our workshops to general public and even reaching girls from minority ethnic background. Moreover, our volunteers also have a unique opportunity to meet different people and develop their transferable skills. 

Fail fast, fail cheap – a new approach to public library innovation

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The title to this post is a quote from Corinne Hill, Director of Chattanooga Public Library that I just love.

It’s the public library version of Google’s ‘fail fast, fail often’ mantra and it ironically reflects the reality of public library funding constraints, while also describing the creative, entrepreneurial energy her library embodies. Her inspirational approach to library innovation is something we can all learn from. We need to get away from fear of failure and move towards embracing new ideas, even if they don’t turn out to be quite the right ideas for us in the long run.

You can hear her talk about her approach here

 

Corinne attributes the successful innovation of her library service to a number of factors:

  • a strong strategic vision that enables her to prioritise activities – and axe things that aren’t working
  • distributed leadership which means that anyone has permission to try something new – as long as it fits with the organisation’s aims and isn’t too expensive!
  • a completely open mind as to how she might achieve her aims – including a total openness to partnership working and reciprocal arrangements
  • letting the community (who are partners in delivering the innovation Chattanooga creates) design the space and the interventions in a way that makes sense to them rather than dictating how it should be done

She describes the 4th Floor at Chattanooga Public library as a ‘Beta Space’ for the library. The place where things can be tested out and allowed to fail – if they really succeed they get integrated into the library offer throughout the rest of the building – as 3D printers now have in Chattanooga.

I love that idea, but I’d like to take it further.

I think the Public Library as a Beta Space for community innovation is a really exciting idea. A place where people go to try out and test things when they don’t know exactly what they’re for or how they might work. The new tech or community group or creative idea might not be a neat, finished product and lots and lots of them might not last more than a couple of weeks. But this approach would position the library as a hub for ideas, creativity and enterprise in the community – which is exactly where it should be.

But that means it will host a fair few failed projects…

What’s the worst that can happen? That’s what I always think when I hear people discussing the risks of innovation. Sure, if you’ve invested thousands of pounds in a new library management system or reference suite that no one uses, that’s a pretty scary failure. But the art of innovation is to understand which are the failures you can and can’t afford, even which are the ones that you should embrace and the ones you can really learn from.

The approach to digital innovation I advocate involves a lot of partnership working – and that’s not always going to work out. If not you can just shake hands and go your separate ways. There are lots of other tech partners out there in the universe.

Innovation takes a lot of work and energy, and failure can sometimes be a blessed release from constantly pushing that resistant boulder up a hill (although as Jacqui Thompson from Gateshead libraries says, when you’re starting something new you can’t be put off easily). So you need to recognise what is a genuine failure that you just need to let go of, and what could work out with a different approach, or just more persistence.

Lots of failure can be depressing. No one wants to keep falling over. So we need to learn from each failed project and make sure we don’t fall into a pattern of similar failures. Partly that’s about having a strong strategic view – what are we trying to achieve? Where do we want to get? And reviewing what went wrong when things didn’t quite work out like we wanted, in case there are some approaches or behaviours we need to address, skills we need to develop or factors to take into account next time.

But sometimes it’s no one’s fault. it just didn’t work, even though you wanted it to. So don’t sweat it, the chances are that no one even noticed that stumble over there – they’re noticing all the amazing things you are making happen through your hard work.

(All of Corinne Hill’s views are my own interpretation)

Image: Mike Linksvayer P1040010

A window into Augmented Reality: Q&A with Amplified Robot

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Amplified Robot partnered with Lewisham Libraries to deliver AR and VR experiences on People’s Day.

This is the start of a series of 1-to-1s I am holding with potential partners for the cultural sector, to help you get a handle on what they do and how they could help you deliver your services.

Why did you get into Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality?

We originally got into Virtual Reality and  Augmented Reality six years ago by way of the work we do in Visual Effects (VFX) for Film and Television. We saw AR and VR as a natural extension of this work and of course we could see the enormous potential in the fields of Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality.

How would you describe what you do to someone who knows nothing about it?

That’s always tricky because it is essentially a visual medium, but here goes – An augmented reality system generates a composite view for the user that is the combination of the real scene viewed by the user and the virtual scene overlays generated by the computer/smartphone/tablet that is augmenting the scene with additional visual information. The virtual scene that is generated is designed to enhance the user’s perception of the combination of the real world and virtual world that they are seeing and interacting with. The ultimate goal of Augmented Reality is to create a system in which the user cannot tell the difference between the real world and the virtual augmentation of it.

What’s special about your approach and what are you most proud of?

I think we are primarily a creative company that harnesses technical power and expertise to create compelling work in new media. I am most proud of the team we are building to realise our goal.

What do you see coming up in the future in your field/what are you most excited about? 

We believe that this new media and technology is currently at the beginning of it’s life cycle. If you think of it in terms of the cinema then I feel we are at the black and white film, hand cranked camera, silent  movie stage – so that means there is a long and exciting journey to come! For instance I would very much like to see wearable technologies become integrated into our daily lives as has happened with mobile phones. Ultimately I can see us interacting with Holodecks such as you can see in Star Trek!

How could someone learn to do what you do (e.g. what coding languages are needed, what kind of creative skills)?

For programming, you need basic arithmetic and problem solving skills as this will be your bread and butter. I recommend starting with Java as your first programming language because it has a very clean syntax base. Also training in gaming programing such as Unity.

There is also the more artistic side of visual creation for AR and VR and for that we need people who have skills in painting, drawing, designing and CGI animation. Especially Maya CGI artists.

But most of all you need passion and commitment.

Amplified Robot Team 2(Image: Amplified Robot team)

Why are you keen to work with public libraries (what do they have to offer you, what do you have to offer them)?

We believe that public libraries are ideal places to create hot-spots for people with the right mindset for what Augmented and Virtual Reality has to offer; people who want to learn, broaden their minds and will be encouraged to do so with the help of this new technology. Augmented Reality as a technology hasn’t reached any where near it’s full potential and we’d like people to perceive it as precursor to something even bigger.

photo 3 (Image courtesy of Lewisham Libraries – Amplified Robot in Lewisham Libraries’ Tent on People’s Day)

Where can people find out more about you? 

You can find more information about us from our website www.amplifiedrobot.co.uk. From there we have links to our social media; one of them is our YouTube channel where we showcase most of our projects so please check them out!

You are the library

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A combination of hi-tech enabling technologies and good old-fashioned human interaction can grow the library offer exponentially.

I’ve been talking a lot on this blog about the new exchange economy and the ways in which new tech companies are willing to work with libraries. But that’s only part of the picture.

Libraries have been the locus of oral history and listening projects for a number of years. For example, the Human Library has been hosted by public libraries and other organisations across the globe, including Denmark, Canada and South Korea – as well as The Idea Store in Canary Wharf and Swiss Cottage Library in Camden. The idea is that you book time to hear someone’s personal story – much like a human book – with the aim of increasing mutual respect, tolerance and understanding.

Another current/trend that complements these developments is the idea of Timebanking. A reciprocal scheme where you receive help/time in return for volunteering time given. A number of local authorities are sponsoring time banking, including Barnet Council, which has set up an enquiry centre in East Finchley library and is looking to roll the scheme out across the borough shortly. They have partnered with Timebank, a national volunteering charity to roll out their local scheme.

Team London, originally set up for the Olympics in 2012 is an online portal where people and charities can search for pro-bono support, including professional services such as graphic design and coding. Libraries could easily benefit from the huge good will and pool of skills available in London.

A few libraries have taken this idea further, creating experimental spaces that don’t have any books in at all – but are there for wireless and face-to-face networking and co-working. An example of this is The Edge, a bookless library space in Brisbane, Australia. There are some interesting analyses of how well these spaces actually work but a key finding is that if different people’s names/interests are displayed publicly they’re more likely to seek each other out and use the space as it was imagined.

However this is still a relatively untapped area with great potential for library service development. I think that the key to making local time banking or professional networking work within a library environment lies within that most under-utilised of assets – the library card. While public libraries are justifiably concerned about privacy and data protection, a voluntary scheme where people could list their skills and interests and register their presence in the library via their library card/online interface, then browse for other library users via the library database and book a slot to talk to them for 15 or 30 minutes would be relatively simple to implement. Timebanking could also be built into the interface. So you would go to your library to learn some basic Japanese before going on holiday, to find other entrepreneurs with similar interests or complementing skills, to find someone to walk your dog after you have an operation, or just to hear someone talk about their past. The library would still be a library, but it would lend people as well as books and other media.

(Image: Cloned Milkmen – How to scan your library card)