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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > December 2020

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Vol. 40 No. 9 — December 2020

Pivot Point: Realigning Education, Libraries, and Makerspaces
by Brian Pichman

With all of the overarching ‘doom and gloom’ that some might fixate on, libraries can shine a light through it all.
The year 2020 caused the model of every business and organization to pivot—and libraries were no exception. They needed to turn on a dime. Not only did they have to determine how to continue delivering services while their facilities were closed, but they had to start thinking more seriously about how to deliver educational content to remote learners. And what about the new reality of the digital divide? While simultaneously ensuring public safety, they needed to determine how to reach out to underserved populations whose only internet access was at the library. Across the country, everyone had to change their everyday lives—whether it was a sudden shift to telecommuting, studying differently through distance learning tools, or participating in socially distanced activities such as Zoom calls. In the days ahead, the way in which people interact with libraries will only continue to change. Libraries must evolve their service offerings and play an even more crucial role in their community.

It was exciting to see libraries step up to the plate earlier this year by shifting services in innovative and responsive ways to meet their communities’ needs. Take this story of South Huntington Public Library, which did what might have seemed unimaginable in 2019. As the entire nation experienced a shortage of medical supplies, Nick Tanzi, the assistant director, and his team stepped in to help provide PPE (personal protective equipment) to a local hospital. In a partnership with iCreate Lab, part of Stony Brook’s University Makerspace, they were able to produce 250 face shields a day for Stony Brook University Hospital.

In this time of social isolation, people flocked to tools such as social media, which played a role in keeping us connected. Social media, unfortunately, also easily became the platform for misinformation, making matters even worse. Libraries should position themselves at the forefront in providing accurate and reliable information, answering questions, and educating their patrons about how to identify fake news and misinformation. There is a lot of uncertainty in the world right now, and I implore libraries to start exploring how to expand services in critical, meaningful ways. The point of this article isn’t to tell you what should be done; it’s meant to help you think creatively about the options for expanding services and patron reach in these challenging times.

With all of the overarching “doom and gloom” that some might fixate on, libraries can shine a light through it all. One thing I’ve preached to libraries during the last 10 years is that they have to go beyond the brick-and-mortar space and build fantastic and amazing partnerships with the community (and not just people—businesses too). Much of that requires consistent networking, outreach in ways yet to be explored, and the passion to do the best you can for your community. To illustrate the importance of networking and the impact it can have, let me share with you my venture into publishing when I was in junior high (see the sidebar, “Sometimes, It Takes a Bike: My Lesson From the Past”).

This brings me back to the topic at hand: What should libraries do differently, given that the entire world is changing? Money, while important, isn’t a true barrier to creative problem-solving, as I hope I illustrated in the story on the previous page. Whether or not your school has moved to a remote learning model, it’s good practice to start baking some distance education concepts into your library services. In this article, I will talk through the issues of extending physical services, leveraging online learning tools, providing virtual services, collaborating in new ways, and dealing with the circulation of items in a pandemic-sensitive world. Most importantly, I will continue to emphasize how libraries can align and ally with other entities to get the support they need. And, fun fact—many of these allies I will mention are already helping libraries be successful through discounted or donated support.

Extending Physical Services

Behind the idea of extending your physical services is a desire (and now, a pressing need) to provide the same level of service and opportunity to those who are unable to use your physical space. Libraries have done quite well in extending their physical spaces in the past—such as offering a plethora of online databases, letting users search their online card catalog, and developing an online presence. As you look to extend physical services, consider leveraging the Ask a Librarian service by providing it remotely, possibly with the assistance of AI to help with common questions (using tools such as Ocelot, Intercom, or Engati). Intercom is one of my favorites and one of the most widely recognized (you’ll see its chat symbol on a variety of popular websites). Although on the expensive end, it offers a lot of expandability and tools, such as the ability to give people a tour of a webpage (your list of online databases, for instance). It’s also smart enough to recognize that a person is lingering on a page and offer support. If you’re looking to just get in the door with AI chatbots, check out Engati. It offers a free, simplified solution to answer questions from a knowledgebase.

But what about nontechnical solutions? If you have a physical makerspace, at first blush, it may seem quite challenging to bring it to someone’s living room. For arts and crafts, you can prepackage the supplies and instructions into plastic baggies and then invite the patrons to pick these up. Later, host a virtual “activity” time when participants can join together on Zoom and complete it together—or provide a recording of someone completing that activity so they can follow along at their own leisure. There are also businesses you can leverage, such as Brown Dog Gadgets ( or Squishy Circuits (, to help you get more tech-driven activities that students can complete while at home. There is also an assortment of fun, educational-based activities for students provided through Griddly Games ( Check out its Just Add series, in which you only need to add sugar, glue, milk, sunlight, or an egg to complete a variety of STEAM challenges. The great thing about Griddly Games is the total amount of different activities that can be accomplished with each kit.

Leveraging Online Learning Tools

There is no reason for a library not to get involved with online learning tool sets. This can be as easy as doing a YouTube series covering topics of interest to your patrons. You can go through activities with items that probably exist in most households (or are easy to obtain). Some libraries are doing series on things such as learning to practice yoga or plant your own garden, which is an awesome thing to promote in the context of helping realize global sustainability goals (

Libraries have also been building courses and hosting them with free tools, such as Canvas. They have created courses about such important and timely topics as diversity and equality. They have also developed remote workshops and training sessions that would normally have been offered inside the library, such as a tutorial on how to use Microsoft Office.

The simplicity of using social media and online learning tools makes it easy to get started with teaching your patrons anything and everything. It also leads to opportunities for engagement. Try reading a book out loud and live streaming it across YouTube and Facebook. Create a discussion board in which a book club can meet and discuss the books they are reading. The possibilities are endless on how we can deliver more exciting and meaningful content without the need for having people walk into our doors. The only limit to any of this is your imagination.

Providing Virtual Services

The rise of AR and VR has opened up some new opportunities for libraries. How can people “meet” in more meaningful ways? Most people are familiar with Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Webex, and Adobe Collaborate. While those are great platforms to extend conversations, what about the manipulation of objects, as we would do in a physical makerspace? Using a service such as Spatial (, imagine meeting in a virtual room and seeing everyone’s digital life like avatars. But the magic doesn’t stop there. In this space, you can walk around, review PowerPoints, or pick up a virtual 3D printer to teach about its components. A good friend of mine, Chad Mairn, introduced me to this company, and we have been able to walk around a virtual cellphone store, explore blueprints for the Mars Rover, and collaborate together as if we were in the same room. Mairn, who is the innovation lab manager at St. Petersburg College, has been experimenting with VR/AR and tools such as Spatial and Rumii ( for the last several years. He’s the thought leader in this field, so definitely follow him and keep an eye on what he discovers and shares.

Overall, AR/VR can provide dynamic and interactive learning opportunities without having to be in the same physical space. In the spirit of showing the importance of building partnerships, I’ve had the pleasure of being able to collaborate with LightUp during the last 5 years, doing beta tests with libraries that are leveraging the power of AR to do immersive learning. Josh Chan, CEO of Light­Up, has an unlimited amount of passion for education. Through the spirit of partnerships with educators, he has teamed up with libraries and schools across the country, providing virtual labs and learning experiences—such as building virtual bridges, exploring an Animal Safari, and taking a tour around the solar system. You can check them out at

Collaborating in New Ways

Similar to the use of the aforementioned AR/VR tool sets, people are changing the way they collaborate and communicate. It’s not as easy as it used to be, when you could just walk over to someone’s desk to ask a question—let alone help someone run a program or provide reference answers without a reference desk. People are using more resources, including social media, chat options, email, or online meeting tools (such as Zoom) to accomplish such things.

But another shift to note is that the 9-to-5 work day has been extended. Since many families are juggling working from home with getting and keeping their kids connected to their online classes, they may not be able to ask for your help until after the workday and school day are done. Libraries should consider the current need to leverage previously discussed AIs to help answer questions after hours or, alternatively, extend hours later in the evening or earlier in the day.

A lot of the maker tech companies (Ozobot, Sphero, and Birdbrain Technologies) have focused on building materials that allow people to use their products remotely. If you have any of their tools, be sure to check the website for updated activity and lesson plans that enable distance learning. Again, leverage your partnerships and vendors to help you be successful and expand your service offerings.

As for job interviews, more of these are being done virtually, so why not set up a job interview booth within your library space? There are a variety of opportunities in which there is a critical need that the library can help solve.

Safely Circulating Items

The way we circulate items will forever be different. Viruses such as the flu are known to stick to surfaces for 24–48 hours. Therefore, popular library items have always had the potential to infect people at rapid rates. While some libraries have put new standards in place for COVID-19 (such as setting isolation periods or procedures for wiping down materials with alcohol wipes), I wouldn’t anticipate these to go away—and they shouldn’t—even when COVID does. The world is focused on better sanitization and cleaning processes, anyway, so these new protocols should apply to standard library materials and makerspace items as well. If you circulate items or keep them in the library space, understand that common viruses travel, stick to surfaces, and can spread disease.

If you want to circulate your items, don’t let COVID-19 or the flu prevent you from sharing materials or tool sets. We want to expand our services as much as possible, but think through the safety issues. If you’re unsure about how to clean and disinfect any of your maker tech, reach out to the manufacturers. I’m confident they have a process to recommend—especially now.

Staying on Top

For those who are struggling with pivoting their library services to meet today’s changing demands, consider this: Problems drive innovation and create opportunity. Think of historic problems and the opportunities they have provided us. When people began to spread across the U.S. and needed a way to communicate, the telegraph came along and ultimately led to the first phone call in 1876 by Alexander Graham Bell. Today, we can take a call in the middle of the woods and connect to someone who is on the other side of the world within seconds. People frequently used tools such as Zoom and Teams well before COVID-19. However, as the virus spread, this caused people to leverage these tools, and within the many months after statewide lockdowns, the developers have added more features and capabilities to better serve our rapidly evolving needs.

No matter what life throws at libraries, they have always taken the opportunity to embrace and build. When at-home movie viewing became possible in the ’70s and ’80s, libraries added VHS tapes to their collection to satisfy the demand and attract new patrons. As personal computing burgeoned in the 1990s, libraries introduced computer labs as spaces where people could learn, explore, and connect to others around the world. Later, they incorporated free Wi-Fi once people had access to inexpensive computer equipment and portable devices. Libraries have always pivoted to meet the needs of the community, so let’s build toward a brighter tomorrow and be so far ahead of the curve that we set the standard for excellent services.

Sometimes, It Takes a Bike: My Lesson From the Past

My dream was to create a newspaper for my junior high school that was not just about the school. I wanted to incorporate local news that mattered to junior high school students. It would cover topics such as fun activities and where to use your school ID to get free stuff, offer puzzles with prizes, and provide simple, unbiased reporting.

I named it the Mokena Zinger. Unfortunately, I learned pretty fast that printing wasn’t a free commodity, and the school wasn’t willing to print more than 1,000 copies of a four-page newsletter. Undaunted, I rode my bike to the three printing shops in town and asked if they would be willing to print it for free. In exchange, I would advertise for them, plus—and here’s the real zinger—build them a website. (At the time, websites were still a relatively new thing, with flaming text and flashy fonts, and most people needed help to create them.) Although, my nerdish reputation didn’t serve me so well at school dances, in this case, it got the job done. By forming a win-win partnership, I was able to get my first edition of the Mokena Zinger published and delivered.

SpatialSometimes, It Takes a Virtual World: Chad Marin’s Rave Review for Spatial

I asked Chad Mairn (St. Petersburg College) what he thought of Spatial. Here’s what he said:

“Using Spatial’s pioneering 3D avatar technology allows me to interact with other people in more engaging ways because it better resembles real life. It obviously doesn’t replace real life, but it is by far the next best thing. Imagine what life will be like once XR chipsets are in most every cellphone on the planet connecting users with an almost instantaneous connection powered by 5G wireless technologies. It is just around the corner!

“Our collaborative work will truly become location and time zone agnostic and in high definition with 3D surround sound. Since September 2019, I have been beta-testing Spatial while working with people from all over the world, and every time we meet in this space, it feels like we all know one another on a personal level, and that is refreshing. It is definitely easier to make meaningful connections and be productive on an entirely new level.”

Brian PichmanBrian Pichman ( is the director of strategic innovation at the Evolve Project. He has spent the last 5 years building a network of educational technology companies, startups, and libraries—bringing them together to collaborate and share ideas, while leveraging their unique skills and characteristics to foster innovation in order to propel libraries into the future. His passion with changing the way people see libraries began when he took his first job, working in a library as a page. It evolved as he became the director of IT and, eventually, pivoted to consulting with libraries to help them be trendsetters and community anchors.