A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Going Inside the Box The Wired Library

by Mikaeal Jacobsen on November 28, 2016

Guest contributor MIKAEL JACOBSEN is Learning Experiences Manager and guest contributor AMY HOLCOMB is Experiential Learning Supervisor, Skokie (IL) Public Library. Contact Mikael at mjacobsen@skokielibrary.info. Contact Amy at aholcomb@skokielibrary.info. Mikael is currently reading Grit by Angela Duckworth. Amy is currently reading I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong.

When discussing new approaches to considering libraries I like to use a cardboard box as a metaphor. Imagine the walls of the box as service points, collections, events, computers, staff, and spaces. However, the fundamental reason for a box is not the walls but what it holds (unless you are a cat). In the case of public libraries the box contains the why of libraries. As R. David Lankes stated, “This mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities.”1 Understanding the point of librarianship as such, the walls of the box are important in and of themselves, but not the reason for us existing. BOOM! Minds blown.

As learning is the point of libraries, it is time to consider the best ways to serve our communities. That means we need to do more to learn how people learn. There is an incredible amount of well-researched, well-documented learning theories. Two theories that we are currently drawn to are experiential learning and connected learning.

Experiential learning is basically experiencing something in a concrete manner, observing and reflecting, forming an idea, and testing the idea as a cycle. Mikael’s children love to go to the playground and use slides to generate static electricity. They use different slides, wear different types of clothing and try out other concrete actions to figure out how best to deliver the largest shock. This happens again and again.

Connected learning is defined as a way to “fuse young people’s interests, friendships, and academic achievement through experiences laced with hands-on production, shared purpose, and open networks.”2 While connected learning focuses on young people, most of the theory is applicable to all ages. The bringing together of peers and mentors to form learning networks with librarians as coordinators/cheerleaders and libraries as safe spaces to explore is the most interesting aspect of connected learning.

Experiential and connected learning are very different from learning from media or from a “sage on the stage.” Both lecture and book-centric learning are valid but they subscribe to less hands-on learning strategies and leave some out in the cold.

The BOOMbox at Skokie Public Library

Skokie (IL) Public Library (SPL) has had a digital media lab (DML) for more than six years. Mostly we tend to get power users while administering this creative space. We see this as an unanticipated weakness of relatively static spaces like DMLs. We didn’t want to recreate the power-user/nonuser dichotomy again with a traditional makerspace. Oak Park (IL) Public Library had been successfully running the art-focused Idea Box for a few years at that point. Additionally, we noticed museums often energize patrons to return for special exhibits. Instead of art, we wanted to help answer President Obama’s Educate to Innovate message by providing exciting STEAM opportunities.3 Using these inspirations, the BOOMbox was created. The BOOMbox is one of the ways SPL is attempting to create nontraditional learning experiences in the library environment.

The BOOMbox is a connected learning space designed to spark the imagination through rotating STEAM experiences. Every four months, the BOOMbox focuses on a different theme and facilitates opportunities for patrons to engage in self-led and class-guided experimentation and learning. We look at BOOMbox as a springboard, where we provide tools and inspiration for exploration and discovery driven by curiosity. This style of learning potentially lays the groundwork for further inquiry.

Big Things In a Small Room

The physical BOOMbox space is a 188-square-foot room with two large glass walls so patrons have a visual introduction to what happens in the space. Adjustable tables and stools allow the room to be reconfigured for different activities. The BOOMbox is staffed and primarily open for drop-in hours in the afternoon and evenings six days a week, welcoming learners kindergarten age or older.

In addition to drop-in sessions, where we facilitate rotating hands-on learning experiences, we offer related instructional classes for defined user groups: grades K-2, grades 3-5, grades 6-8, and high school to adult.

We intentionally rotate themes to reach different audiences. Like special museum exhibits and the Idea Box, each iteration of BOOMbox attracts new learners while retaining current ones who become curious about how the space has changed. Deciding what to focus on is one of our challenges. To begin, we looked to the Maker Movement and featured popular makerspace equipment such as 3D printers, a vinyl cutter, and other rapid prototyping tools. These emerging technologies were not equitably available in our community, and we wanted to bridge the gap of access.

From here, we decided to alternate between equipment-based rotations with those that are more concept-based. In total, we have featured seven rotations, outlined below. Rotations are designed by BOOMbox staff along with a team of staff from all departments who have an interest in the theme and contribute ideas at quarterly “Brain Trust” meetings. To further staff support and ownership, we provide staff drop-in before the rotation opens to our community as a way to share updates and key concepts, and
provide an overview of the new theme.

  1. Fabrication provided cutting-edge tools and inspiration for rapid prototyping and making with popular makerspace equipment.
  2. Big and Small invited learners to explore the unknowns of the many macro- and microcosms in our diverse universe with microscopes, telescopes, civic science projects, mini computers, and many more hands on activities.
  3. BLOOMbox explored gardening and botany-related concepts, focusing on smaller weekly themes with hands-on activities and outdoor learning opportunities, which encouraged learners to revisit the space regularly.
  4. Textiles provided access to sewing machines, looms, an embroidery machine, and several other supplies and materials for creative expression through making.
  5. Earth explored our home planet, including its makeup, weather, processes, ecosystems, and changes. Each week we erupted a volcano made by participants during the first week of the rotation.
  6. Architecture highlighted planning, designing, and building different types of structures with various materials, including LEGO kits, KEVA planks, recyclables, and more.
  7. Human focused on a different theme related to humanity, starting with the milestones of human evolution and then moved
    on to explore the inner workings of the mind and body along with creative expression.

We actively collect data to better understand the impact of each rotation. Measurement tools include an attendance sign-in sheet that lists first names and grades as well as times in and out. This helps us determine popular times for the BOOMbox and who we are reaching in terms of age/grade. Having a measurement of time spent in the space helps gauge the level of engagement. We
administer paper participation surveys for drop-in sessions and programs to help understand why learners attended a session
or event, if they connected with another participant, and if they tried or learned something new. Finally, we collect end-of-shift observational reports written by BOOMbox mentors who are able to share more anecdotal and qualitative data about each drop-in session. All data is included in a rotation report that is shared with staff and the library board.


We like to preach that the BOOMbox is a state of mind more so than a physical space. By that we mean that the connected, experiential, self-directed learning pathways forged are not constrained by one small room but expand across the entire library and community. The BOOMbox supports and is supported by collections, events, exhibits, displays, and other learning spaces in the library including the computer labs (for youth and adults), DML, and Youth Services Craft Room. The BOOMbox has become one of the walls of the cardboard box but is hyper aware of what it is intended to hold.


  1. R. David Lankes, The Atlas of New Librarianship (Cambridge, MA: MIT Pr., 2011): 15.
  2. Connected Learning Infographic,” 2012, accessed Oct. 28, 2016.
  3. President Barack Obama, “Educate to Innovate,” WhiteHouse.gov, n.d., accessed Oct. 25, 2016.

Suggested Links

BOOMbox webpage

3D printing webpage

Flickr (several albums from BOOMbox related events)

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