On a Saturday afternoon, a group of teenagers plays with batteries, wire and soldering irons that can reach temperatures of 600 degrees in a room on the second floor of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library known as the Fab Lab. It’s a “maker space” lined with equipment such as a laser cutter and something called a DIWire that bends thin strips of metal. The kids seem honored that they’ve been trusted to use these tools (with supervision, of course) to re-create a sculpture, made up of tangled metal bits and lights run on watch batteries, that looks like a deconstructed Christmas tree.
Folks come in to start or check on 3-D printer projects: a man making costume accessories he sells on eBay, and another guy creating a figurine. In the hallway, a man who appears to be homeless eyes the crafters curiously as they leave the lab.
“What is that?” he asks me, smiling as he inspects a sculpture. When he catches sight of the watch batteries, he says, “I have a few of those!” and pulls a handful from his pockets. He doesn’t stick around, though, and heads for the lobby.
Maker spaces have been popping up in public libraries for the past five years. As spending on collections has gone down, they’ve become a way to make libraries relevant, even indispensable, to patrons who can get books and information with a click.
But the experience of the Fab Lab at MLK has raised questions about the extent to which such spaces support a core mission of public libraries to help equalize access to knowledge and technology.
MLK draws more homeless people than any other branch in the system. City-funded buses drop scores of them at the library each morning and pick them up at day’s end to take them to shelters. Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, which provides services to the homeless, says as a result MLK is a “de facto drop-in homeless center.” D.C. Public Library is one of a handful of systems nationwide to employ a full-time homeless coordinator, a licensed social worker who helps homeless people get services and trains library staff to deal sensitively with them.
Ray Hicks is a regular user of the Digital Commons — a giant computer lab on the ground floor — especially in the winter. “I’d be out here all night and have a chill on my bones,” says Hicks, a vendor for Street Sense, a newspaper produced and sold by the homeless. “The library saved my life.”
Soon after the Lab left Digital Commons for its own space in 2015 , two librarians hosted a Reddit chat about it and fielded questions such as this: “With the changing demographics of Gallery Place/Chinatown, how will MLK Memorial Library continue to serve its low-income and homeless patrons? What services in the Fab Lab will be available specifically for these users?”
There are not specific services for those users, but librarians say they are determined to teach the nuances of 3-D scanning and printing, laser cutting and the like to anyone who asks.
“We want to remove all barriers to access,” says Adam Schaeffer, a founding Fab Lab librarian . Two obstacles they have trouble overcoming, he says, are extreme computer illiteracy and untreated mental illness. Another librarian said a colleague recently had to refer a woman who kept falling asleep during the required 10-minute orientation (she blamed her psychiatric medication) to the homeless coordinator.
But Schaeffer hopes for more success stories such as the homeless man who took an Intro to 3-D Printing and Modeling class and comes regularly to make 3-D models and jewelry, which he sells.
“Every time I see him,” Schaeffer says, “he’s wearing something around his neck that he has made.”
Sarah Godfrey is a writer in Alexandria, Va. To comment on this story, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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