When the Boston Public Library—the first free municipal library—opened its doors in 1854, its mission was to create an “informed citizenry”—think the works of John Stuart Mill, or Cicero in translation. Today, that informed citizen might well be a 14-year-old who’s spent hours in Google SketchUp so he can produce—on the library’s 3D printer—a thimble-sized, plastic head of Yoda.

Even though books are what our public has traditionally wanted most—and what librarians do best—public libraries have never been content to just circulate books or other media. Generations of librarians have developed programs to lift up, educate, entertain, or engage. From offering everything from ESL classes and salsa dancing to workplace readiness workshops and henna tattooing demonstrations, librarians are always reaching into an ever-expanding bag of tricks to meet the needs of their community.

But in the past 18 months, a growing number of libraries have been taking a much more radical approach: creating “maker” spaces. Based on the idea that libraries are for creation, not just consumption, maker spaces don’t just upend the normal programming model—they have the potential to reinvent the public library.

The “Maker” Movement

When Westport threw Connecticut’s first Mini Maker Faire in the spring of 2012 over 2,000 people showed up, and library administrators took note. They later invited one of the builders from the Faire to continue his work in the library—he was constructing two 15-foot wooden airplanes—and a maker space was born. What’s impressive is how the library situated its maker space: right on the floor of the library, amidst the books and media, not far from the reference desk, and right in your face.

The library soon added a MakerBot 3D printer, which uses melted plastic to create objects designed through computer-assisted drawing (CAD). According to Bill Derry, the library’s assistant director, a fourth-grader from Brooklyn, who lived near MakerBot’s Brooklyn shop, was spending the summer in Westport and helped teach them—staff and public alike—how to use the machine.

You certainly don’t need a 3D printer to have a maker space, but they have become emblematic of the movement—and the printers have caught the public eye. Even the least techie folks are eager to see one in operation. Westport is now up to two 3D printers, and it utilizes a cadre of volunteer coaches to provide one-on-one sessions to help people get started.

Last month the Chattanooga Public Library hosted a Maker Day featuring a dozen 3D printers, one of which is owned by the library. “The community response was huge,” says Corinne Hill, Chattanooga’s director. “We had the whole community here. Many people heard about 3D printers but just didn’t understand them. They had to see them for themselves.”

What interests Hill is the support a maker space can provide to innovators and entrepreneurs. “Chattanooga has always been an industrial town,” says Hill. “And the community is looking to technology to replace manufacturing. I think of this as the new industrial revolution.”

Ultimate Disruption

What’s radical about maker spaces in libraries? Pretty much everything. Maker spaces are messy in a library world that values order, disruptive in a culture run by schedules, chaotic in a profession that did, after all, develop the Dewey Decimal System.

Hill, who has an empty floor she is using for her maker space, says it’s up to the community to determine how they use it. The library is there to provide support, but she has no idea what direction it will take.

Maker spaces also utilize STEM skills (science, technology, engineering, and math), skills that public libraries are notoriously poor at supporting. Traditionally staffed by a bunch of English majors, there’s not much on our shelves between DK 101 Great Science Experiments and the McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology. STEM makes us anxious.

And maker spaces are inherently intergenerational in institutions that make rigid distinctions—about place, access, and behavior—based on age. Just how comfortable will most libraries be with an environment in which a fifth-grader collaborates with a 40-year-old?

Finally, maker spacers require libraries to cede space and authority. Maker spaces rely on knowledge that exists within the community, and for these spaces to succeed the library needs to welcome enthusiasts and experts. Yes, some library workers will join in whole-heartedly—but let’s face it: most librarians would rather learn how to perform open heart surgery than work a 3D printer.

But whether maker spaces thrive or die isn’t the issue. The point is that, letting our communities in and allowing them to shape—or reshape—our institutions, is yet another great survival strategy.