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Feature: Innovation Expo: Create and Collaborate in Maryland

by Liz Sundermann on February 2, 2015

The second annual Innovation Expo was held in May 2014 on a spring Saturday in Baltimore. The public day-long event featured a keynote speaker from
the inspiring Chattanooga (Tenn.) Public Library (CPL), a library-staff-only training opportunity, and a 5,000-square-foot exhibit hall full of hands-on learning opportunities from museums, academic institutions, makerspaces, public libraries, and more. The event, subtitled “Create and Collaborate,” was a creative collaboration in and of itself.

Developing an Idea

The state library agency in Maryland is housed in the State Department of Education as the Division of Library Development and Services (DLDS). In 2012 DLDS staff began laying the groundwork to help bring the spirit of the maker movement to public libraries statewide.

Nini Beegan, DLDS’s project coordinator, first came across this concept during a 2005 Library of Congress episode on C-SPAN. During the episode, Neil Gershenfeld, director of the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT, challenged librarians to consider fabrication in public libraries as a means to bring people together to solve community problems. In 2010, Beegan attended BetaScape, a tech offshoot of the popular Baltimore art festival ArtScape. She talked with people who had built 3D printers using materials they had ordered from MAKE magazine while her children eagerly launched handmade rockets into the sky. This experience reminded her of Gershenfeld’s challenge; inspired, she began to explore ways that DLDS could help Maryland libraries use the maker movement to further their community-building work. Beegan met with local makers to explore potential library partnerships. This conversation marked the beginning of DLDS’s partnership with makers in support of Maryland’s public libraries. Later, when PLA’s 2012 Virtual Conference included a session about making and public libraries, DLDS knew that it was time to act.

DLDS decided to host a Maker Meet-up in fall 2012 to be followed by a hybrid event for library staff and the public in the spring of 2013. Beegan conducted an Internet search for makerspaces and hacker spaces to find more local contacts. She quickly discovered Michael Smith-Welch, an Artist-in-Residence at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore; Smith-Welch was using his background in education and art to set up a makerspace in Takoma Park (Md.). He introduced DLDS to Matt Barinholtz, director of then-fledgling FutureMakers, a mobile maker and education lab that uses children’s innate love of tinkering to teach youth of all ages the core values of traditional crafting, contemporary design, and futuristic digital fabrication. As the newly hired youth services coordinator at DLDS, I helped keep our team’s efforts aligned with STEM education initiatives. DLDS reached out to other makers and do-it-yourselfers, and we established a group that included academics, tool librarians, video game designers, and others. In the fall of 2012, we hosted a Maker Meet-up. One hundred library administrators, public service staff, systems staff, and others met with our group of makers at the West County Area Library of the Anne Arundel County public library system. The day included a keynote, lightning presentations, hands-on maker fun, and plenty of time for questions and answers. The packed meeting room buzzed with energy, and great ideas were developed as library colleagues and makers conversed. DLDS set up a Maker Meet-up electronic mailing list for interested library staff to continue their conversations.

We returned to the idea of sharing these great learning opportunities with the public; we wanted to provide a venue for library staff and the public to interact within the context of the maker movement. We knew that in order for maker events, makerspaces, or even isolated programs and classes to be truly successful, we would need buy-in from library administrators, public service staff, and technical services staff. But what kind of event could generate this buy-in? In the fall of 2012 there had been a few libraries nationwide that had held Mini-Maker Faires, which are maker events officially endorsed and branded by MAKE magazine. The brand is very successful, and we thought that the caché it carried for individuals in the maker community might help us find quality exhibitors, as well as giving the event some instant legitimacy in the eyes of the public. We postulated that it would be more efficient to work with an existing template that was known to produce successful results. We filled out the application, entered into negotiations with MAKE, and began to consider options for a suitable venue.

Planning and Logistics

We were determined to hold the event in a library. We wanted public libraries to progress in their role as physical, collaborative, hands-on learning spaces, and holding the event in a library would allow both the public and the librarians to witness this in action. Our first choice was the Maryland State Library Resource Center (SLRC). SLRC provides cooperative, cost-effective resources and services for Maryland libraries and their customers—they are the resource arm of the state library. SLRC is physically located at the Central Library of the Enoch Pratt Free Library (EPFL) system of Baltimore, and has a collection and customer base typical of any large urban public library. SLRC’s presence means that EPFL’s Central Library also has deeper research resources and statewide and national customers who utilize them. The library is housed in a beautiful block-long building with neoclassical influences. Built in the 1930s, the library features large display windows and a street-level entrance to entice passersby. It also has a large central hall that houses a computer commons, a grand piano, several book displays, an information station, a laptop lounge, and the circulation desk. It is a wonderful place to hold events and it is regularly used for concerts, weddings, graduation ceremonies, speaker events, and fundraising galas. In addition to the library having advantageous architecture, it is located in central Maryland, making it an ideal spot for a statewide event.

Barinholtz from FutureMakers worked closely with me to craft a preliminary explanation of the event to share with the library’s administrative team. We had no interest in just “using the space,” but instead wanted to work in full partnership with the library. We hoped to ensure that the event was something that would be a success for their regular customers and staff as well as for the people who would be travelling across the state. As we worked with the administrative team of EPFL/SLRC, it became clear that the partnership with MAKE was not in our best interest. The primary reasons were financial—MAKE charges a fee to use their brand, a cost that is often defrayed through ticket sales and vendor license fees. Events sponsored by DLDS, SLRC, and EPFL are always free to library staff and members of the public, and we didn’t want to charge the exhibitors since we wouldn’t be allowing them to sell anything at the event. Additionally, the more we dug into the details of the planning process, the more our event deviated from a Mini-Maker Faire both in scope and intent. We let our contact at MAKE know that we were backing out, and parted on good terms. There have been very successful Mini-Maker Faires held at public libraries before and since, but we have never regretted this decision. Our event was being carefully crafted to fit a variety of needs and expectations, and it needed to be custom-built. I continue to be astounded by the generosity and the organic collaborative process that went into developing this event that is largely about collaboration and the free exchange of ideas.

After we ended our partnership with MAKE, we began to explore the possibilities for our event in terms of physical space. MAKE had been very concerned that we didn’t have a large outside space to work with; we contacted the city and discovered that it wasn’t terribly difficult or expensive to shut down the block of street behind the library. Although this would have undoubtedly added to the festival atmosphere and to the types of exhibits we could offer, we decided to forego the outdoor space. It would have cost quite a bit to rent the tables and tents, and the city charges extra if the event requires electricity. In the spirit of equality of access we would still not have been able to sell anything, including food or beverages. We probably would have needed to hire additional security. We also thought about holding exhibits throughout the library rather than only in the central hall. This idea, too, was eventually dismissed. Wesley Wilson, chief of SLRC and EPFL’s Central Library, and DLDS agreed that we wanted to keep the event manageable—we thought it would be far better to plan a smaller, more predictably successful day. If the event was a hit and we decided to hold it annually, there would be time to expand later.

Ensuring that event attendance was appropriate for the venue size was a major concern. We didn’t want 6,000 people waiting in line outside the building causing security issues and general mayhem, but we also wanted to be sure that people showed up. We didn’t want to spend months planning only to have an enlightened individual with a 3D printer sitting in a corner of the exhibit hall making whistles for a handful of random passers-by. We needed to send out a call to makers and figure out what kind of publicity we wanted. Barinholtz and I looked at the security waiver from MAKE and consulted with the library administrators about what kind of exhibits they were comfortable having in this historic library space. We worked with the library to find out how much electricity and Wi-Fi bandwidth would be available. We came up with a list of requirements that we sent out along with the call for makers, so that potential exhibitors would be able to make an informed decision about whether or not this event would be a good fit for them. We also let them know up front that they would not be able to sell anything at the event. In order to participate, exhibitors had to agree not to utilize items that emitted noxious or dangerous fumes, open flames (circuit soldering was permitted), fuel-powered projectiles, large power tools or machines, items that emitted smoke or particulates, weapons that could cause injury, and anything that could be considered dangerous in a large room full of people. We welcomed questions. We set up a Google form for registration. In addition to the usual contact information we asked for the age-range of the intended audience, the number of power outlets they’d need access to, and the type of interactive elements that would be included in their exhibit.

After we came up with the perfect name, Innovation Expo, we had a personal contact who is a design graduate student create a logo. We used this logo on all promotional items for the expo, including the one-inch buttons worn by all the exhibitors. We created a Facebook event page, and EPFL hosted a dedicated information page for the event which included links to the exhibitor application and the Facebook page. The library’s design department used the logo to create a large window banner that was displayed prominently on the front of the building. DLDS spread the word through statewide library communications, and the panelists shared event details with the maker and education communities. I spent some time doing Internet searches and setting up face-to-face meetings with local makers.

As these preparations were underway, it became clear that holding the expo in a large public library had some hidden benefits. The library already owned all of the display tables and chairs for exhibitors that we needed, so we didn’t have to rent furniture. They have a full-time professional security staff which, along with the exhibitor waivers, allowed us to keep our focus on the event itself rather than security logistics. The library has a large auditorium, as well as more intimate meeting rooms. These physical amenities made it possible to hold library staff trainings and host a keynote speaker presentation as parts of the event. Barinholtz suggested that we ask Corey Fleischer if he would be interested in giving the keynote address. Fleisher was a thirty-year-old senior mechanical engineer at Lockheed Martin and a contestant on (and later winner of) the Discovery Channel’s Big Brain Theory. Fleisher was also an avid supporter of makerspaces. He was excited about the event and agreed to both present the keynote and run an exhibit showcasing an adult-sized working go-kart that is controlled by a Wii remote.

Beegan facilitated the library staff training portion of the day, which featured a panel discussion with Michael Smith-Walsh; Barinholtz of FutureMakers; Jan Baum, the director of Towson University’s Object Lab; Ben Walsh, director of Pure Bang Games and the founder of BetaScape; John Shea, director of the Station North Tool Library; Gary Mauler, founder of Maryland’s RobotFest, which is held annually at the National Electronics Museum in Linthincum, Maryland; and Mary Murphy from the Center For the New American Dream. Library staff who had been motivated by the Maker Meet-up and kept their excitement stoked by participating in the resulting electronic mailing list were excited to have their well-formulated questions answered by the diverse panel. Together they planned their own maker events, programs, and classes.

Fleischer’s keynote was well attended, and the expo was deemed to be a success by the library staff and customers who attended, the exhibitors, and the staff at SLRC who had worked during the extra-busy Saturday. Everyone agreed that it would be held again the following year.

The Second Annual Innovation Expo

Because we had already worked out the logistical challenges we focused our time on fine-tuning the event in 2013–2014. The public and library staff had largely been introduced to the concepts of the maker movement. Bre Pettis, founder of MakerBot, one of the most popular brands of consumer 3D printers, was interviewed by Martha Stewart. Dale Dougherty, the founder of MAKE magazine and the inventor of the Maker Faire, spoke at the American Library Association’s 2013 Midwinter Conference. Maryland public libraries had embraced the movement and hosted creative maker programs, hired FutureMakers to provide hundreds of classes across the state, held their own public maker events, and, in some cases, had even drawn up plans to build their own makerspaces. People were definitely still interested in experiencing the movement, but they no longer necessarily had to come to the Innovation Expo to do that. We felt that the tagline from the first Expo, “DIY in Maryland,” wasn’t exactly the message we wanted to convey. The DIY movement is definitely something that libraries should be involved in, but we wanted the name of the Expo to encompass more than that. We felt that “Create and Collaborate” was a better fit.

While the county library systems plunged forward with the maker movement, DLDS began deeply investigating public libraries’ relationship with education. The 2013-14 school year saw the rollout of Maryland’s new Career and College Readiness standards in all public K-12 schools. Citizens, librarians, and educators were all new to the standards, and struggled to figure out how best to implement them and discern what that implementation meant to communities. As I met with colleagues at the State Department of Education and traveled to various library systems throughout Maryland, I began to think about the education that children receive in public school. Maryland has been rated as having the best public schools in the country for several years in a row, but that doesn’t mean that each individual school provides the same level of opportunity or that there isn’t valuable learning that takes place elsewhere. In fall 2013, I read an article in WIRED magazine about a teacher in Mexico who got astounding results from his students by letting them study what they wanted to learn.1 I do not think that public schools in the United States will ever fully embrace this method, nor do I think that it would necessarily be appropriate for them to do so. However, the kind of learning that was discussed in that article, and that I subsequently read about in a variety of studies, is precisely what public libraries can offer. As I spoke with state leaders in other out-of-school time educational enterprises and continued to follow the latest education trends, I discovered that this kind of learning is particularly valuable and hard to find in the STEM sector. Students are, for example, rarely given the opportunity to take computer programming courses until high school. This is a gap that public libraries can fill. FutureMakers had already been offering digital classes and workshops along with their traditional crafting experiences. Why not add another degree of complexity without taking away the joy of tinkering? Why not offer our youth the opportunities to create their own video games in our libraries instead of just playing them? Barinholtz arrived at this same conclusion independently and FutureMakers began adding more computer science programs to their roster of curricula. New technical education organizations in Maryland were forming at this time, too. I met Gretchen LeGrand, the director of Code in the Schools at the Maryland Out of School Time (MOST) network’s STEM Symposium. Her nonprofit is helping Maryland schools offer fun and interactive computer coding classes to elementary and middle school students. I asked if they’d work with public libraries, and the response was a definitive, “yes.” I discovered that CPL had held a citywide coding camp in 2013. I started to think about the possibility of doing something similar at the state level in Maryland.

Education Is a Key Focus

This new idea helped us to develop a fresh strategy for the 2014 Innovation Expo. Instead of focusing purely on maker culture, we focused this year’s event on serendipitous STEM learning for all ages. Instead of adding exhibitors, we narrowed the field. Some of the organizations we invited included: The Maryland Science Center, The Baltimore Underground Science Space (BUGSS), The Prototyping and Design Lab from the University of Maryland, FutureMakers, Code in the Schools, The Baltimore Robotics Center, and The Digital Harbor Foundation. In 2013, each exhibitor had one table; this year, each exhibitor had several tables where they offered unique but thematically similar projects. Some of the activities included: learning how to solder circuits, playing a fruit keyboard, designing and 3D printing an iPhone case, electro-etching your own drawings into dog tag necklaces, designing levels of a video game, extracting DNA from strawberries, bio-painting, operating robots, and more. Because we have been rolling out statewide Minecraft programs in public libraries, we also set up a Minecraft Zone where people could play the game in a world designed specifically for the Expo. Carroll County Public Library provided a Minecraft Craft table that allowed participants to make a variety of Minecraft-themed jewelry, artwork, and other analog objects.

Teen and youth services librarians from all corners of the state came to participate in a library-staff-only workshop presented by Justin Hoenke from CPL. He told them that youth services is often the driving force behind library innovation, and offered them some practical ideas for engaging young people. The reviews of the workshop were overwhelmingly positive, and he stayed in the auditorium for a long time chatting and answering questions.
Hoenke also provided the keynote, “Create and Collaborate and Be an Awesome Person for Your Community,” in which he discussed the importance of forming equitable community alliances and how to leverage library programming as a positive change-agent for communities. This year we added an after event called After the Expo, which was held at the Baltimore Robotics Center. At the event, state library staff, the exhibitors, and other out-of-school time and STEM education organizations were invited to discuss future library and community involvement in tech education.

The second annual Innovation Expo was also a success. The exhibitors, library staff, and members of the public all commented that it was inspiring to see so many diverse people enjoy learning together. Throughout the day exhibit stations were perpetually populated by people of different ages, cultural, and economic backgrounds working together. We were all delighted by the exceptionally high ratio of entire families who engaged in the projects as teams. The visiting library staff members were pleased with the number of concrete programming ideas they walked away with, and were excited to see how much energy the customers exhibited while working on the various learning projects. Library customers had fun engaging with new ideas and technologies, and parents were enthusiastic about the level of family engagement engendered by the event.

The exhibitors had fun engaging with customers in new ways, and were glad to have the opportunity to learn more about partnering with public libraries. In his exhibitor evaluation, Tom Burkett of BUGSS wrote, “I really liked the way the public engaged in all of the activities, not just ours. I think the Innovation Expo is a great forum for makerspaces and educational programs in general.”


1. Joshua Davis, “How a Radical New Teaching Method Could Unleash a Generation of Geniuses,” WIRED (Oct. 13, 2013), accessed Dec. 4, 2014, www.wired.com/2013/10/free-thinkers.

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