10 Most Amazing Library Laboratories

These days, libraries are much more than places to check out books (though you can do that, too) or to study. In addition to amazing collections of movies, high-tech devices, and helpful tools, many libraries also offer patrons the chance to get creative in impressive range of library-based laboratories. These labs help teen and adult patrons make movies, tell stories, create art, and even build 3-D models. Here are just a few of the most amazing library labs that exist today, though many more are in the works (you can check out a list here of new library labs building built through grants from the MacArthur Foundation) and one may even be coming to a library near you.

  1. Fab Lab at the Fayetteville Free Library:

    This New York State library is home to one of the best-known library labs in the country, the FFL Fab Lab. Modeled after MIT’s info-tech labs, the Fab Lab offers patrons a chance to use high-tech software and machines to make a wide range of objects. One of the coolest resources offered by the lab is a 3-D printer, which can be used to make almost anything out of plastic, from a tiny chess set to a 5-foot-tall model of the Empire State Building. The Fab Lab was the first project of its kind that offered free and open access to these kinds of revolutionary tech tools, which the library believes will not only help patrons to get creative but will also serve as a place for many to get ahead in their careers.

  2. YOUmedia Lab at the Chicago Public Library:

    Chicago’s YOUmedia labs are spread out over several branches of the city’s libraries, with the main location within the sprawling Harold Washington Library Center in downtown Chicago. Catering exclusively to teens, the YOUmedia lab offers young patrons access to a wide range of tech tools and classes that help promote creative thinking. Teens can make podcasts, write blogs, compose original songs in an on-site recording studio, take and edit digital photographs, and much more. Soon, Chicago won’t be alone in housing a YOUmedia lab space. Through generous grants and support, the organization hopes to open 12 more labs this year and 30 labs in museums and libraries nationwide over the next few years.

  3. I Street Press at the Sacramento Public Library:

    I Street Press is a community writing and publishing center located within the Sacramento Public Library. Patrons can take writing classes, use library tools (including the impressive Espresso Book Machine) to publish books and written material, and read the works of other budding artists who are also engaged with the library’s lab resources. All classes at the library are offered free of charge but printing books does come with a fair fee to help cover the cost of materials and setup. Even better, through the Espresso Book Machine, patrons can get access to 3 million titles, many of them out print, and can request that the library print a copy and sent it to the closest library branch.

  4. NYPL Labs at the New York Public Library:

    This library lab differs from others on this list in that access isn’t open to patrons. That doesn’t mean that patrons don’t benefit from it, however. NYPL Labs is an experimental design and technology unit within the library that is constantly innovating new ways to help patrons interact with and get more from library collections and data. With the NYPL having collections that can’t be found anywhere else (more than 40,000 restaurant menus spanning 100 years and a massive collection of stereographs are a few interesting examples), the lab is making it possible not only for those in New York but also those all over the nation to enjoy and research these amazing resources. Recent projects include targeted Federal Census searches, a tool that matches historical maps of New York to modern day ones, and several extensive archives of theatrical materials.

  5. Digital Media Lab at the Skokie Public Library:

    Opened in late 2009, this lab for teen and adult patrons is an incredible asset for anyone interested in getting creative or exploring the latest in media and technology. Patrons can reserve space in the lab to work on digital projects using the lab’s Macs, software, music tools, and green screens, but they can also check out cameras, hard drives, and tripods so that they can continue to work on their own time. It’s a pretty impressive array and one that helps get patrons engaged with library activities even if they’re not avid readers.

  6. StoryLab at the Tacoma Public Library:

    Tacoma’s StoryLab is another great lab created for teens, offering tech tools that will help them learn valuable skills and explore their creative ideas. The lab itself consists of several workstations and a wide range of technological tools ranging from midi controllers to digital tablets. Currently the lab offers software for filmmaking, photography and digital imaging, illustration, multimedia and web design, music and sound editing, and programming, which spans a wide range of interests and talents. Of course, it’s not all about the tools themselves; the lab also offers a number of workshops to ensure teens know what they’re doing.

  7. Digital Arts Lab at the Salinas Public Library:

    Visitors to the Salinas Public Library’s Digital Arts Lab will find an impressive assortment of digital art tools, classes, and information. There are two labs within the district at present, both of which offer Apple computers, a wide range of tech tools, and high powered software for creating digital art, music, video, graphics, photos, websites, and other forms of art. Each month the lab offers a number of workshops that teach patrons how to use Photoshop, edit video, and much more. Not only are these resources amazing ways for patrons to embrace their creative side, they can also provide training and help build portfolios of creative materials that can aid in finding work.

  8. The Maker Station at the Allen County Public Library:

    Libraries are rapidly becoming places where patrons can come not only to check out material but to also engage with projects and each other through “hackerspaces.” The Maker Station at Allen County Public Library is one example of many of these kinds of maker spaces that are popping up all over the nation. The Fort Wayne library is home to a small lab located in a trailer outside of the main library space, sponsored by the nonprofit group TekVenture. There patrons will find a CNC router (a computer controlled tool that cuts wood, plastic, and metal), a 3-D printer, a lathe, saws, an electronics bench, and an injection molding machine. The lab includes just about everything patrons could need to build, create, and fabricate any object they’d like.

  9. The Idea Lab at the Cummings Library:

    At this Palm City library, patrons can not only check out books and movies. They can also take advantage of a wealth of resources through the library’s Idea Lab. The Idea Lab is outfitted with MacBooks, iPads, iPods, a recording studio, and even a green screen so that creative and tech-savvy patrons can use these resources to build on their amazing ideas. Patrons can use the labs just for fun or take classes that will give them a serious introduction to how to use the software and other tools required to create digital art and media.

  10. Library Farm at the Northern Onondaga Public Library:

    While all library lab space on this list so far has been indoors, there’s outdoor space available from libraries for experimentation, too. At one New York library, patrons can check out a plot of land for free and use that land to grow and harvest organic plants. Patrons are allowed to plant whatever they’d like, from cucumbers to marigolds, and can take classes from library staffers to learn new ways to promote plant growth, color, and production. Patrons who don’t want to do all the work on their own can work on a shared plot, the products of which are shared with all who work the land. While most patrons use existing cultivars and tried and true methods, experimentation (as long as it’s organic) is encouraged.