Libraries shake things up with 3D imaging, innovative programs for all ages, abilities

Keith Law tinkers with a hollow-out, black box about the size of a toaster oven. A button is pushed and the contraption whirs to life, casting an electric blue glow in the empty interior.
"Just warming it up," he says of the 3D printer, which subsequently converts a flexible line of yellow cable into a three-dimensional dog tag in a matter of minutes. "That's all there is to it."

Law, who gives regular demos to the public, is a Library Program Specialist at the main library of the Clearwater Public Library System (CPLS). Part of his job is helping patrons design and print their own creations, free of charge. It's currently one of the facility's most popular offerings.

Libraries have long been synonymous with books, but an evolution is in motion; one that reflects the modern-day interests of the local community. If it's been a while since you've visited your local library, you may be pleasantly surprised by what's happening these days.

3D printing is only one piece of the puzzle. The Pinellas Public Library Cooperative (PPLC), which has the CPLS under its umbrella, provides everything from adult crafting classes to robotics training; aromatherapy workshops to graphic design software and much, much more -- all free to the public.

"Each library is unique and has its own attributes," says Erica McCaleb, countywide service coordinator for the PPLC. "There's just so much to get people engaged and working creatively. Most Maker Spaces are art- and tech-driven, providing separate areas to work freely or learn via a guided class."

McCaleb recognizes the CPLS's main library as an innovator here. The enormous space on Osceola Avenue boasts four floors and multiple design studios.

Places for active, hands-on learning

David Stoner, the branch's library division manager, says it's a time of transition for 21st-century libraries.

"The library was once known as a stationary place just to get books and DVDs," he says. "Today, it's become a much more meaningful thing. Patrons can come in, get their hands in it, create new things, learn a new skill, and be a much more active participant in the experience and in the community."

The branch's first-floor design studio is perhaps its most buzzworthy space. Here, program specialists lead workshops in sewing, jewelry-making, scrapbooking, basket weaving and more, regularly packing the room on event nights. In December, more than 20 families participated in decorating gingerbread houses. Before that, the library filled a class with local patrons who knitted baby blankets, then donated them to Mease Hospital in Dunedin.

"I love the opportunity to be able to do all these cool things," says Lori Spencer, a 44-year-old DIY'er and Clearwater resident who's a bit of a regular. 

"As a stay-at-home mom, it can get expensive to pay for all these kinds of classes,'' Spencer says. "I'm so lucky because all the latest craft trends you see on Pinterest are being done here at the library."

As McCaleb mentioned earlier, art makes up one piece of the pie. The CPLS is also heavily devoted to technology exposure. The third-floor studio is where you'll find 3D printing options, along with classes on everything from soldering to programming to flying quadcopters. Down the hall is a full-fledged multimedia room where patrons and local businesses can snag free digital marketing tools. The space is tricked out with a green screen and video camera, along with a desktop computer complete with editing software like Lightroom and Photoshop.

"There's no other real place where local businesspeople can come for free to create things like commercials and YouTube videos," says Barbara J. Pickell, CPLS's library director. "Since the library is a partner of Clearwater Business SPARK, we're thrilled to provide these kinds of valuable resources to our community's growing businesses."

Still centers for reading, checking out books

As forward-thinking as our local libraries are becoming, they haven't forgotten about their loyal bookworms. The PPLC has a strong online presence and has essentially digitized their card catalog. Readers looking for their next book can search titles and instantly see which library has what. From there, they can request books to be delivered directly to their home branch. The website also allows members to download e-books.

Literacy is still front and center at our local libraries, especially where young readers are concerned. Interactive story times, sensory activities, and children's literacy events make up a big chunk of its offerings.
"We want families to be able to come in and play through discovery-type learning activities," adds Pickell. "Being a community center is really important to us."

With more and more experts driving home the importance of STEM learning (Science Technology Engineering Math), many libraries are reacting in kind. Clearwater's main library leads a weekly rooftop astronomy event where adults and children take to telescopes after sunset to experience the magic of stargazing. People with hearing loss also take part in "Signing Under the Stars," which pairs poetry and storytelling with sign language.

As we head into the new year, the library has plans to open its fourth-floor Heritage Studio. The space will be dedicated to memory preservation, helping patrons to digitize old family photos, movies and documents. Meanwhile, the PPLC recently announced a partnership with the Museum of Fine Arts that gives Pinellas County residents free admission to the MFA in St. Petersburg. Passes can be checked out with a valid library card.
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Read more articles by Marianne Hayes.

Marianne Hayes is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.