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The staircases at the D.C. Public Library’s main branch, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, are winding and dark. You’re likely to hear an unfamiliar patron say, “Am I supposed to be in here?” as she wanders between floors, double checking that she’s not pushing open an alarmed fire exit door.

But on a second-floor landing, behind an unmarked door and a badge reader, lies a bright, open room filled with long, high worktables. This is DCPL’s Fabrication Lab.

What started as a lone 3-D printer in 2013 has expanded to a row of eight, and a host of other software-equipped tools fill the room’s perimeter. A laser cutter, computer numerical control machine, and 3-D scanner have been added; librarygoers can use them to make objects that range from tiny household gadgets to large works of art. The space and time are free, and materials like 3-D printer filament are available through the library at cost. Sample projects on display in the Fab Lab include a 3-D printed cup holder that could snap onto a bicycle handle and a wooden trinket box embellished with a laser-cut image of kittens.

As the DIY-meets–tech maker movement grows, DCPL is positioning its labs as an experiment for the library’s future. DCPL Digital Commons Manager Nick Kerelchuk spoke at SXSW this spring on a panel about the role of libraries as coworking spaces. In early June, two DCPL Digital Commons librarians hosted a Reddit Ask Me Anything session, in which they discussed applications of 3-D printing alongside concerns about meeting the needs of all of MLK Library’s visitors, including the homeless.

The Fab Lab and the Studio Lab, a space for audio recording, offer high-tech equipment in a collaborative environment. In the Fab Lab, anyone with a library card can get free software training to design projects that can be completed with the help of 3-D scanners and other equipment—stuff that’s typically too expensive or space-hogging to invest in for a home or small art studio.

DCPL staffers visited the Cleveland Public Library’s TechCentral MakerSpace, which has a similar focus on A/V and creative tools, to inspire the MLK Library workshops. “Librarianship is changing,” Kerelchuk says. Libraries are shifting their goals in response to patrons’ needs. Providing reading material is still at the core of DCPL’s mission, sure, but library administrators also feel compelled to offer advanced technical training that visitors have requested.

“Libraries lose people in their late teens,” DCPL Executive Director Richard Reyes-Gavilan says. “Kids use libraries a ton while they’re in school, but there’s a big drop-off around the time they go to college or get their first job. Then they come back once they have kids. We want to bridge that gap by developing programming that attracts patrons and keeps them coming back.”

Tucked into the teen space at the other end of the second floor, the Studio Lab offers three reservable spaces that have replaced old staff offices; the largest is spacious enough to fit a five-piece band. When timeslots open up in the near future, it’ll be a place to capture music, podcasts, or stories for the library’s ongoing D.C. oral history project.

The Studio Lab spaces aren’t completely soundproof, but DCPL will take further measures to that end when the Studio and Fab Labs move during the building’s projected $200 million renovation. This first iterations of the Studio and Fab Lab spaces are largely portable, with equipment that can be dropped into the renovated labs space. “We didn’t do much—we stripped the carpet, added equipment, painted the wall,” Kerelchuk says. “A lot of the time you don’t need a fancy shop. You just need a workbench.” Post-renovation, the labs will occupy about 17,000 square feet of the MLK Library, five times their current size.

“It’s a great time to be messing around,” Reyes-Gavilan said as he surveyed the green screen and electronic drum kit in the Studio Lab last month, which was helped along with a $20,000 contribution from Google. (The labs cost a total of $490,000 to build out.) “The space is raw, but has great energy, and that really speaks to the concept of experimentation.” By testing equipment and programming options now, DCPL staff will have a better idea of how to best use a larger, more visible setting in the future.

Drop Electric percussionist Alan Kayanan, who’s performed with several local recording artists, knows how valuable studio time can be. But if a musician wants to capture his sound at the library, he might have to recruit some collaborators. “When you look at the equipment, who’s going to operate that? Who’s going to make sure the dials are in the right spot?” Kayanan says. “Without an engineer, it’s just useless equipment.”

Commercial studio time can cost from $50 to $300 per hour, but a limited amount of free space, as the library offers, can come with the pressure to create quickly. Kayanan thinks the Studio Lab is best for quick one-off recordings, or for student practice and experimentation.

“I doubt I’ll see one of my contemporaries saying, ‘Want to check out my new album? I recorded it at the library!’” Kayanan says. “If someone wanted to pioneer that, I could see it being a thing. But I can’t imagine it. It takes as long as it takes to make the good stuff.”

There are other places in D.C. to get high-tech creative, of course. HacDC, located at St. Stephen’s on Newton Street NW, has offered free workshops and open-house sessions since 2008. Back then, half the time a user spent on a 3-D printer was machine maintenance work, HacDC Vice President Matthew Hines recalls. Today’s users who want round-the-clock access to HacDC equipment can buy $60-per-month memberships.

At Arlington’s TechShop, a 22,000 square-foot workshop spread out along the ground floor of the Crystal City Shops, 24/7 memberships start at $150 per month, and classes start at $35 for software or machinery training. “It’s a collaborative environment,” General Manager Gadsden Merrill says. “It’s not a place for introverts. People will walk up to you and ask what you’re working on.”

Access to sexy new technology can spur creative projects, but the thrill of a shiny new machine could be distracting. Jeremy Flick, Washington Project for the Arts’ membership director, says WPA’s member tour of TechShop in April was fully booked. Getting to test out new tools and the spaces that provide them “allows [artists] the ability to experiment and see what they’re capable of doing without investing a lot of money,” Flick says.

Finding time to learn and experiment may be a greater barrier for creatives than access. “A lot of working artists have full-time jobs or are balancing multiple part-time jobs,” Flick says. Getting in when the library’s open, with enough time to work on ongoing or large-scale projects, can be a challenge.

And what if the labs are occupied? Because of their limited availability and machines that may whir away for several hours to complete project components, playing around with DCPL’s tools could mean waiting in line. Kerelchuck hopes to expand the Fab Lab’s hours to meet demand and says he’ll use patron feedback to guide the schedule in coming months.

Reyes-Gavilan’s long-term goal is to connect equipment and software training in a series of courses that could lead to certification through DCPL. A focus on training tech skills could be an economic driver for the city. For now, the library is just embracing experimentation—its goals are fuzzy in part because its own staff members are still learning. They need to be well-versed enough in the labs’ machinery and software to teach orientation classes that patrons take before using a 3-D printer or laser cutter. There’s always troubleshooting to do, too.

“The [library] administration understands that we’re going to fail. We’re going to make mistakes. Our motto in Labs is, ‘we break it better,’” Kerelchuk says. “This technology is emerging for a reason, and being able to learn from it is the most exciting thing about this department.”

Tech dabblers can get excited about DCPL’s new labs—3-D printing and green screens are fun. At the library, though, they’re still a long way from boosting the city’s creative economy.

But the library could turn out to be the perfect home for tools of the Fab Lab variety. “These machines are finicky, and unless you’re using [them] all the time, they’re going to be antiquated pretty quickly,” says artist and teacher Mike Iacovone. “Having a centralized location where they’re used all the time, with the right upkeep—that’s the way it should be.”

Iacovone and artist Billy Friebele will kick off the library’s Maker-in-Residence Program this fall, presenting a series of classes at MLK Library and the Tenleytown branch. The pair’s FreeSpace Collective has previously curated visual art projects at the MLK Library. Their training will focus on programming Arduino microcontrollers, which can control lights and sounds, or even operate household items. As part of the residency, Iacovone and Friebele will complete a major project—like making a robot or video game—during the year-long program.

For Iacovone, the democratic ethos of the maker movement matches up with the library’s mission. “The playing field is so level that you can truly make whatever you can think of,” he says. “It’s not about art; it’s not about engineering. It’s about everything.”

Bekah Kitterman, an artist who primarily creates prints on textiles, is happy to explore ways to move her 2-D creations into 3-D format. The price is right, too. “To be able to come to a public library to use these machines is really exciting,” she says, noting the prohibitive investment required to sign up for a space like TechShop. “At the library, you can build up your skill level and then scale to use one of those [other] maker spaces.”

But a month after Kitterman toured the Labs, she’s still waiting to get her hands dirty. She attended a brief orientation that included a check of her library card, but hasn’t been able to sign up for equipment training because schedules haven’t been released. “I’ve been stalking [the library’s] Facebook page in hopes of getting a further glimpse, and started collecting ideas on Pinterest,” she says, “But that’s all the closer I’ve gotten.”

Photos by Darrow Montgomery