1. Enter the Library
  2. But How Did It Get There?
  3. The Engine in the Machine
  4. Give The People What They Want
  5. Reenter "The Makerspace"
Brianna Loper and Peregrine Frissell

Missoula Library is hip, man.

How Missoula Public Library is staying current with technology in a changing world.

Missoula Library is hip, man.
How Missoula Public Library is staying current with technology in a changing world.
Enter the Library

Photo courtesy of Missoula Public Library.

The library is not quiet. There is no grey-haired librarian, angrily shushing those who speak too loudly. No dust floats from the massive volumes of untouched books. The library is not dead.

No, the Missoula Public Library is very alive, with flurries of action going on everywhere.

Children hurry in and out of a colorful Reading Room. A grandmother “oohs!” in wonder as her seven-year-old granddaughter teachers her how to use the self-checkout station for the first time. Against every wall and electrical outlet, people are on laptops, using the free wifi. The library is a hub of activity.

And in the basement, two men are printing an elephant off a 3D printer, called MakerBot.

Kyle Doyle, a library volunteer, watches the printer as it whizzes back and forth, quickly laying white melted plastic down in what seems to be a patterns.

After half an hour, the mass of plastic begins to take the shape of four thick legs.

Doyle and Jim Semmelroth are the heart-and-soul of the new Makerspace, an area in the basement of the Missoula Public Library dedicated to furthering the technology in the library.

But How Did It Get There?

Libraries have been around for at least 5,000 years, according to Barbara Krasner-Khait in an article from History Magazine. The oldest known library comes in the form of 30,000 clay tablets stockpiled in ancient Mesopotamia. The practice of keeping records was common in Ancient Egypt on papyrus scrolls, and ever since then the library has been a common inclusion in the institutions of most developed societies.

Though the materials have changed dramatically, the idea has not. Libraries are pillars of democracy. They hold the keys to history, and do everything from allow citizens to examine the actions of their government compared to past regimes to provide the knowledge to develop technologies that advance societies.

Over the last few decades, with the invention of the internet and the E-book, libraries around the world realized they needed to continue to evolve with the times. If people could get every bit of information they could ever want at home, online, or even on their cell phones, how long would it be until those dusty volumes went extinct?

So, the idea of the “Makerspace” was born.

The idea of a “makerspace” has always been around in libraries. However, what used to be a quilting circle is now replaced by leaps and bounds in technology. Patrons and experts alike have begun coming together to learn new techniques and train others in a skill. The new technologies are much flashier, and much more expensive than a needle and thread.

“The cost factor is what makes a Makerspace so appealing to library visitors,” said one post by the editors of American Library Magazine. “What one person cannot afford to purchase for occasional use, the library can buy and share with the community.”

The Engine in the Machine

“If someone has an idea of something they want to make or create, libraries give them the tools to try,” said Doyle.

In order for libraries to be successful in that quest, they need money to operate. Many libraries around the nation are struggling with how to meet the increasing demands of modernization while operating on a tighter budget as governments from the local to federal level are cutting spending in many areas.

Fortunately for Missoulians, the Missoula Public Library has proved rather adept at working in the new constraints they have been provided with.

They had a budget of just above $2,750,000 in 2013. That comes from a variety of places, but the vast proportion (over $2 million) comes from Missoula County. There are over 110,000 people in Missoula County according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and that number grows substantially each year. In 2013 alone it was estimated that the population went up by almost a thousand people compared to the year before, and that rate is expected to increase to above 3% in the coming years according to information provided by the Montana Census Bureau.

It is the expectation of Missoula Public Library to serve that population of people, and as the population grows the library will get more money. It will also be responsible for serving all of those additional people and whatever demands they have or voters could take away the county mill levy of $11.79, according to statistics on the Montana State Library website. The Missoula Public Library and its branches executed just shy of 12,000 transactions a week in 2013 according to records kept by Missoula Public Library.

So where else does the library get money?

Interestingly, they are one of the entities that still benefit on an annual basis from the Coal Severance Tax Fund that has been around for quite a while here in Montana. This was a tax on all coal mined inside Montana that was then transported across the state border. Montana keeps a huge reserve of all that money and spends much of the interest each year. A little over $10,000 of it goes to the Missoula Public Library. The federal government chips in as well, about $16,000. They also collect income from fines and public contributions, among other things. These additional contributions added up to about $10,000 in 2013, which was fairly typical over the last five years.

Two-and-a-half million dollars may seem like a lot of money. Where does it all go?

The biggest expense the library has is employee salaries, wages, and benefits. Lumped together, this figure comes out to about $2 million, or 80% of the libraries operating budget. This leaves about 20% of the budget to accommodate the growing demand for technology, purchasing new materials, and routine maintenance on their various buildings throughout the county.

While some might argue this is excessive in the era of technology we are emerging into, PEW Research Center released a poll in January of 2013 that claimed “80% of Americans say reference librarians are a ‘very important’ service libraries provide.” At Missoula Public Library, 9 of the 10 full-time librarians, including the director, have Masters degrees in library science. They are very qualified, and those qualifications cost money.

Missoula Public Library subscribes to 43 electronic databases at the local and state level. They also had 381 print subscriptions in 2013, according to the Montana State Library website. This, combined with e-books and physical books, came out to about $250,000 in 2013.

This might not seem miraculous off hand, but think about this. Each year the cost of inflation hits these publications, and it hits them hard. The cost of these print and digital subscriptions goes up by anywhere from 4-11% per year, said Megan Stark, a librarian at the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library at the University of Montana. These are significant increases, and as costs for employee wages and maintenance are set, it directly affects how many other materials (books, 3-D printers, etc.) the library can purchase.

These are the main constraints the Missoula Public Library works within when planning how to serve the community. They place the utmost care in what their patrons want; in fact most of the changes they have made within the last year have been driven by patron suggestions, according to their website. Much of that has revolved around keeping up with technology. For many Missoulians it is their primary access to new technology they can’t afford or don’t know how to use themselves.

Give The People What They Want

The library houses many different gadgets and teaching devices to help patrons understand the evolving technological world.

Library patrons can use different devices, such as a Raspberry Pi, to teach themselves how to use computers. The Pi is a credit-card sized computer that can be plugged into a TV, monitor, and keyboard. It works just like a computer, but it is designed to educate users how to program computers and understand software.

The Makerspace also includes a sewing machine, 3D printer and scanner, telescope, laptops, and several electrical kits for patrons to learn about wiring. The library is also currently laying the foundation for a bike repair station.

“We’re breaking ground in Montana,” said Semmelroth. Even though the idea of a Makerspace has been around for several years, the Missoula Public Library is the first to have one in the state of Montana.

“This library has made it known that if there’s something new coming down the pipe, they want to have it,” he said.

The Missoula Library continues to provide everything they can for the community in Missoula and the surrounding area. Checkout is not just limited to books anymore. Patrons can checkout Ebooks, newspapers, magazines, children’s life jackets, and even seeds to start their own garden, among many other things. The library even offers 99 public access computers.

The goal is simply to provide as much information to the public as possible.

“Libraries have always offered a lot more than books,” said Doyle. “They’re always trying to expand their services to the public.”

This thought is displayed well by the Missoula Public Library’s mission statement, the second sentence of which is this: “Every effort will be made to provide the best service within the constraints of the budget and facilities by utilizing information resources, materials, and personnel from within and outside Missoula County.”

How does the MPL address this exactly? They place utmost emphasis on community and patron feedback. Recognizing that these are the citizens who not only form the majority of their consumer base but also pay the taxes that form the largest portion of their income, MPL has made tangible changes very recently to reflect customer feedback.

Just recently the library changed its hours of operation, reducing the time the main branch operates by three hours each week in order to allocate more resources to increasing the hours at their branch libraries. The MPL has branch libraries in Frenchtown, Lolo, Seeley Lake, Potomac, and the Swan Valley.

They also extended their hours later into the evening until 9:00 p.m. from Monday through Wednesday and reduced the hours of operation into the evening later in the week when they typically saw less traffic.

Reenter "The Makerspace"

The Missoula Public Library offers weekly classes on how to use the Makerspace and the things they have available for checkout.

To see how the printer works, see the Maker Bot's time lapse.

Doyle watches as the shape of his miniature elephant begins to form in the hot plastic.

He has downloaded the design online for free. It is possible to design the layout yourself, but according to Doyle, it could go wrong, and waste time and plastic.

Spools of colored filament are stored near the printer. The designer picks the color they want for their creation, and feed the end of the spool into the top of the printer. A gear pulls the piece of filament through the head of the printer, and applies heat right before it would exit the head. This liquefies the plastic.

The nozzle deposits the plastic in an ultra-fine line, usually about 0.1 millimeters thick according to the MakerBot website.

Slowly, layer-by-layer, the elephant is built from the bottom up.

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Not all 3D printers are the same. Some print higher quality than the one used at the Missoula Public Library. Some print with different materials, such as brass, ceramic, or even concrete, which are used to lay the foundation for houses. Some are even beginning to look at the idea of printers making organs or living tissues, although that is still just an idea.

The printer begins to slow, and the final curves are put on the back of the elephant.

The machine stops moving, and becomes silent for the first time in an hour and a half.

A small, white elephant sits on the printer, freshly brought to life.

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