Libraries support the maker movement

How libraries can be a haven for makers

An open card catalog
Image by :

Subscribe now

Get the highlights in your inbox every week.

I work at a public library in the Washington DC-area and often think about what needs to be designed into the space of future public libraries. I was recently visiting the MAKE magazine website when I saw a fascinating how-to video about building your own portable Raspberry Pi game system.

Following similar steps for building a portable Raspberry Pi game system could get you to building a homemade, portable Raspberry Pi computer system, complete with an LCD monitor hacked from a rear view automobile LCD monitor. (See the video.) The only barrier to using such a computer in a public library setting is that you would have to carry in your own 12 volt battery to power the LCD monitor.

But, what if the library provided 12 volt connections at every desk?

That could come in handy not only for this kind of homemade computer hack, but for many other maker projects that might take place in a public library setting. If the public library provided 12 volts at the desk, then your portable Raspberry Pi computer would only need a smallish battery to power the Raspberry Pi, which itself does not use much electricity. This is not to say that the public library should do away with having 110 volt outlets conveniently available at every desk. Rather, public libraries ought to have both 110 volt and 12 volt connections at every desk. 

I did a little research on eBay and found out that you can buy rear view LCD monitors for as little as $25. Some of these have pixel dimensions of 480 x 280 pixels and some have pixel dimensions of 640 x 480. I’d opt for the latter. These monitors vary in size from 3.5 inch (measured diagonally) to 7 inch. They accept a composite video input, which the Raspberry Pi can output. Composite video is going to look fuzzy at small fonts, but could be workable if you did word processing with a larger font. 

The same portable Raspberry Pi system could be helpful for viewing educational media provided by schools and libraries. What kind of educational media? Videos for learning English, history, math, social studies, science—as well as screencast videos for learning computer use and computer programming. For example, here is a freely distributable video I created that might help some students improve their English.

 In my thought experiment for building this very affordable and very portable word processing and media viewing computer, it occurred to me that public libraries of the future might benefit from having 12 volt connections at every table. Having that flexibility opens up new opportunities to lower the cost of computer use during regular library hours and opens up possibilities for using those same desks for maker related activities in after hour use.

The power of Linux shines brightest in these hardware hacking projects because there are no constraints on how the operating system can be customized to meet people’s needs. For instance, you could configure a Raspberry Pi to auto start AbiWord after booting, placing you directly into a word processor. And then AbiWorld itself could be customized to further meet any particular need. With open source, you don’t ask permission to create the tools and environment that works best for you. You just do it.


Is there a library or library staff person you know who would benefit from seeing this blog post? If so, kindly alert them to it. Also, if you're connected with a makerspace, kindly pass along the link to this blog post to others at that makerspace. Did you know that the Santa Barbara Public Library has formed a partnership with the new Santa Barbara Makerspace? Have you visited the website of the visionary and award-winning Anythink Libraries, near Denver, Colorado? Are you in touch with your local Friends of the Library group? Do you know anyone studying to become a librarian at an iSchool (the given name for the graduate school for librarianship)? Does your city have any public libraries scheduled to be (re)built? If so, what process does the library have for submitting ideas to the architects of the new building?

Phil Shapiro's previous blog posts about libraries and related topics can be found here.


About the author

Phil Shapiro - Phil Shapiro has been an educator, teaching students from pre-school to graduate school for the past 30 years. He currently works at a public library in the Washington, DC area, helping youth and adults use 27 Linux stations. Between 2007 and 2012, he blogged for PC World magazine on various technology topics and currently writes for Ars Technica, MAKE magazine, FOSS Force, TechSoup for Libraries, and Visit him at his...