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Monday, January 26, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Light Snow Fog/Mist
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The Bubbler, a new Madison Public Library program, finds innovative ways to connect creative types
Maker haven
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Credit:Madison Public Library

In the past, Madison Public Library wasn't the place to craft a blueprint or build a miniature rocket. If there were any handmade books on the premises, they were probably in a display case, behind a layer of glass. Well, times have changed, and now you can learn to create all of these items through hands-on classes the library has organized. They're part of the Bubbler, a new, free program for local "makers."

Makers seek to design and create things on their own instead of relying on manufactured goods. The term implies using high-tech equipment like 3D printers and laser cutters, though conventional materials are sometimes used as well.

The Bubbler's name isn't just a nod to Wisconsin's favorite synonym for "drinking fountain." It refers to how creativity bubbles up from the population. With this in mind, Bubbler classes are pop-up events held at locations throughout the city. Taught by local artists and other experts who furnish supplies or equipment, they help the library keep costs manageable.

Trent Miller, an assistant librarian who's also a visual artist, has been following the maker movement for some time. He's watched it grow from a kernel of an idea into a trend. The spread of affordable technology and do-it-yourself culture has nourished the movement, which is a reaction against mass-produced, mass-consumed goods and the sense of disconnectedness that often comes with them. In addition to engendering new methods of art production, recently developed technologies have helped makers share their work with others while circumventing traditional vetting systems such as editors and curators.

Miller thought it seemed natural for the library, a bastion of information and resources, to develop programming that harnesses the technology of the new and improved Central Library. That meant creating opportunities for hands-on learning and experimentation. The Bubbler sprang to life.

Former library director Barb Dimick asked Miller and five others to consider how a teen media lab could be integrated into the future Central Library, and what sorts of programming could be developed for the space. The group sought out the advice of community members, especially Chris Meyer from Sector67, an established makerspace on Madison's east side. They also looked at potential models such as YOUMedia, a digital media space for teens at the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago.

During these brainstorming sessions, teen services librarian Jesse Vieau drew upon his experience working at Studio I, a multimedia production studio for kids at ImaginOn Library and Children's Theater in Charlotte, N.C.

"We kind of landed upon the questions, 'Why just media production, and why just teenagers?'" he says.

Before long, the idea of creating a teen media lab ballooned into maker-focused programming for all ages.

A surge of creative energy

Miller is spearheading the Bubbler from Hawthorne Library while Central Library undergoes renovations. It's clear he is genuinely excited. He gesticulates when discussing the details, almost sketching words in air as he speaks them.

Though he earned a master of fine arts degree at Boston University, Miller has been working in public libraries for the past decade. Somehow he still makes time to paint, in spite of the craziness of work, family and leading a new program. Combining the worlds of books and art has amplified his enthusiasm.

Miller says that Bookless, a community art event and fundraiser that rocked Central Library last year, was a turning point. It showed how much artistic energy is waiting for an outlet in Madison. Plus, the intensity of the community's support wowed him. In a single night, 5,112 people stopped by, 100 artists presented their work, and $28,700 was raised.

"It was wild beyond my wildest dreams," he says.

Bookless also reinforced one of the Bubbler's key tenets: The people and their energy matter more than the physical space.

Scouting with a tech twist

One of the Bubbler's innovations is its cross-generational approach. As a teen services librarian, Vieau looks for ways for youth to learn from adults and vice versa. He says the city has made a concerted effort to create constructive activities for teens to participate in during out-of-school time, or OST. The library, especially the Bubbler, hopes to help by hosting pop-up workshops, offering drop-in hours at an animation lab, and bringing programs and technology to places where teens spend their time.

"It's not classroom-style alone," Vieau says of the Bubbler's instructional style. "It's not a lecture. It's a more informal learning environment with experts who can teach hands-on activities instead of just theory."

Some school systems grade students for their OST activities. It's a lofty goal that Vieau would love the Madison Metropolitan School District to adopt. But for now, he hopes to implement a digital badge system for the skills teens acquire through Bubbler programming. Think Girl Scouts with a tech twist. Instead of decorating a scouting sash with badges, students would build a digital résumé for showcasing learned skills.

Teens will have continual access to expensive technology and mentors who teach them how to use it. The goal is to give them a sturdy foundation in media literacy and then allow their creativity to flourish naturally. One teen who's already published a book hopes to use Bubbler programs to share her writing expertise with other teens.

In addition to helping shape these sorts of programs, Vieau collaborates with UW researchers to identify learning moments, measure them, and make it possible for similar organizations in other communities to replicate them.

Miller sees similar opportunities for adults in their 20s and 30s who may feel that libraries have outlived their usefulness. Event-centered programming like Bookless, or the late-night concert series he hopes to start next year, may be just what's needed to lure this group back through libraries' doors.

Decentralizing Central Library

There will be some multipurpose space for Bubbler activities at the new Central Library when it opens later this year, as well as a media lab, a projector screen, an art gallery and art installations throughout the building. But Madison Public Library hasn't made plans to create an actual hackerspace or makerspace. This sets it apart from library-associated places like TekVenture in Fort Wayne, Ind., or Idea Box in Oak Park, Ill., which have buildings of their very own.

"I keep telling people that [the Bubbler] is a programming model, not a space," Miller says.

For the most part, that's a good thing, according Bubbler organizers. Miller tends to emphasize the program's lack of limitations, saying that it's not just a media space for teens, a studio space or a list of workshops and classes. The Bubbler is both a symbol of upward momentum, and, as Miller puts it, "a mindset."

But a lack of dedicated space can make it hard for others, such as donors and grantors, to understand what the program is about.

Vieau hopes people can see how operating outside a single space provides valuable flexibility. With nine branches and hopes of partnering with schools and community centers, the library could hold pop-up workshops in numerous places.

"Why ask people to come downtown when we can come to them?" he says.

Bubbler workshops may also bring business to makerspaces in the community. The classes could become a source of new members for studios with equipment that is difficult to transport, such as Polka! Press or Sector67. Plus, visiting spaces like these, some of which are nestled deep in local neighborhoods, can be an adventure in and of itself.

The ability to take classes free of charge also allows novice makers to experiment without any financial risk. The Bubbler's organizers hope the classes will help creative people with similar interests find each other and develop the spirit of collaboration that characterizes many hackerspaces, makerspaces and open-source design networks. And when the Central Library opens, they'll discover if a permanent space is needed to foster these kinds of relationships.

Despite all the talk about innovation and technology, the library's mission seems unchanged by time or trends: being a place in the community where you can expand your world for free.

A sip from the Bubbler

Here are a few of the all-ages Bubbler workshops coming up this month. For more information or to register, visit

Animation Lab
Saturday, April 13, Sequoya Library, 10 am
Drop in to test-drive the library's new stop-motion and hand-drawn animation stations. Animator Nate Clark will be on hand to provide demonstrations and answer questions.

Paper Crafting
Thursday, April 25, Pinney Library, 7 pm
Learn to make Froebel stars, cherry-blossom flowers and recycled books with paper artists Jaime Vache, Amy Sabo and Sarah Bukrey.

Raw Desserts
Saturday, April 27, Pinney Library, 10 am
Join Cara Moseley, Green Owl Restaurant's pastry chef, for a two-hour introduction to raw desserts that includes lots of samples.

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