Library Heroes: Alachua County Library Creates Mobile Makerspaces to Serve Diverse Communities


Our Library Heroes are those who are going above and beyond to serve their communities and extend the role of the library to meet the needs of a changing culture. They’re leaders and staffers who have passion and vision and who see their jobs as facilitators of knowledge and innovation for all their patrons.

Alachua County Library in Florida has a whole team of heroes who are finding ways to bring modern makerspaces to their highly diverse communities, despite a lack of dedicated space and limited funds. Covering a wide-ranging constituency spread across urban, suburban and rural areas, patrons come from all socioeconomic backgrounds ranging from the rural poor to the University of Florida campus that dominates Gainesville. How can they serve everyone effectively under these circumstances? They call their clever mobile solution “Makerspaces in a Box.”

They currently have 22 boxes with varying themes that circulate among the Alachua County Library District’s 12 branches so that patrons throughout the region can explore new technologies and learn new skills with fun, interactive, hands-on activities. Staff members take the boxes and accompanying support materials and lesson plans out to schools, apartment complexes, rural communities, community centers, Makerfaires, and even outdoors—whatever venue is available and makes it easiest for each branch’s patrons to access.

Popular Makerspace in a Box themes include:

  • FOODIEspace
  • LEGOspace
  • CRAFTspace
  • SEWINGspace
  • CREATEspace
  • MUSICspace
  • VIDEOspace

Experiences range from 3D printing to button-making, circuitry, coding and VR. The most popular one so far, though, is a FOODIEspace called “Pancakebot.” It’s exactly what it sounds like—a pancake-making robot—and it’s been a huge hit wherever it goes. The idea came from Librarian Alix Freck, who was trying to build interest in the new makerspace program. She came across a Danish inventor who had built a prototype of a robot that could be programmed to dispense batter and cook pancakes with custom designs. She set it up so young library patrons could connect with the inventor over Skype to talk about robotics and using computers to solve problems. Public Services Division Director Chris Culp happily approved the purchase of a Pancakebot for the Alachua County Library makerspace program; librarians developed lesson plans to accompany the gadget; and the box went on the road, where it delighted the hundreds of attendees of all ages who got the chance to program the bot and cook up some tasty treats at the same time.

“It’s really nice to have something like food as the focus of a makerspace. It’s familiar and comfortable, but it’s computerized. We’ve found that a lot of people, particularly the older generations or young people from communities that don’t have access to a lot of high tech, can get overwhelmed or intimidated by computers. But it if it’s a computer that makes pancakes or ice cream, all of a sudden it’s not so intimidating anymore,” says Culp, who’s been thrilled with the success of the Makerspace in a Box program so far.

“From a staff perspective, it’s just amazing and wonderful that we can go to Chris and ask if we can have something like a Pancakebot, and she just says yes,” laughs Erin Phemester, Youth Services District Manager. It’s that kind of support and willingness to take risks and try new things that has made it possible for the Alachua County Library District to cost-effectively bring entirely novel and inspiring new experiences to all their patrons—not just the ones with easy access to the central branch.

Though the mobile makerspaces are primarily geared to children and youth, librarians have been pleased to see that parents, siblings, grandparents and more are sticking around and enjoying the activities. And the makerspaces have been growing steadily more popular as word of mouth spreads among patrons and communities. Stories like a high school band student using a 3D printer to make a functional bass clarinet reed inspire others to find out what they might create as well. Since the makerspaces are free to all patrons, it’s a big initiative for a district that’s not part of regular programming budget. But it’s been worth it to be a part of the wildly popular makerspace trend that’s been sweeping public libraries across the nation.

Enjoy this story? Check out another from our Library Heroes Series.