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Redwood City Public Library Makerspace shines brightly on preview night

A project years in the making, the Redwood City Public Library’s new Makerspace was unveiled to much fanfare on Thursday night.

A project years in the making, the Redwood City Public Library’s new Makerspace was unveiled to much fanfare on Thursday night.

Over 160 people attended a preview of the new community workspace, which will open officially in early 2022, offering the community free access to sewing equipment, 3D printers, and other tools, as well as a podcast studio and open space for coworking and educational programs. The Makerspace occupies the former Computer Lab on the bottom floor of the library.

“We are excited that we are at a sneak preview,” said Lisa Hicks-Dumanske, executive director of the Redwood City Library Foundation. “We're not quite done yet. But we're very close.”

City officials, donors and community members came out to tour the nearly completed space that Sarah LaTorra, the Library’s Division Manager of Customer Experience, described as a sort of “murphy bed” of a room. With everything—chairs, tables, whiteboards—modular and built on wheels, she said, it can be easily transformed from a classroom to a gathering space to whatever else the public can dream up.

“I'm very excited about the creativity of our community,” said LaTorra.

“I love that concept of sharing and giving of yourself,” she added. “I think this fits well into that community building sphere.”

Library staffers led guided tours of the Makerspace, starting in the soon-to-be podcast recording studio and ending in the main room where table displays featured some of the many ways in which the space will be used: sewing machines, a robotics station, a garden and seed library, 3D printers and a laser cutter. 

One of the benefits of being located inside the library, she added, is that users of the Makerspace have access to a wealth of books and online resources.

“The other beauty of having a Makerspace in the Library is we have the books, we have the collections that can teach you how to do anything,” she said. “As a librarian, I've always felt I can learn anything; I I just have to read about it. And so this has the tools to get you started.” 

TechShop, a membership-based coworking chain, shut down permanently in 2017, leaving the residents of Redwood City without a communal space to gather and make things. 

Library Director Derek Wolfgram said the new Makerspace is doing the community one better.

“Just one other part of that makerspace movement is there are commercial makerspaces that people pay a membership fee to be a part of,” Wolfgram said. “As the public library, we thought it was really important to have equitable access for everybody in the community that might not have hundreds of dollars to spend on a membership.”

According to LaTorra, materials—such as textiles for sewing and seeds for gardening—will also be accessible for all due to donations from the community and the nonprofit Friends of the Library. 

During the Makerspace preview, attendees were invited to catch a live demonstration of a large-scale Tesla coil on the front plaza of the Library. 

According to the engineers who designed and installed it, the 32-foot electrical transformer, composed of twin coils each weighing 1,000 pounds, is the “largest in the world.” Originally built around five years ago, and a regular feature at Burning Man, the tower made a special appearance at the library to celebrate the new Makerspace, thanks to owner Torrey Smith, who also served on the Makerspace Community Advisory.

“Redwood City Library is awesome, right?” said Alex Luebke, one of the engineers who introduced himself as Maverick. “We like to teach people the beauty of science, what it's capable of, and to inspire people.”

Gesturing at the Tesla coil, which had blown a capacitor minutes earlier, he emphasized the importance of teaching kids that breaking things is part of learning.

“You heard us blow it up,” he said. “That happens. That’s science. That's real. And then you just fix it, and you try again tomorrow. And we like to show the world that that's what it takes. And that's how you learn.”

After years of planning, families and city officials alike expressed excitement about the Makerspace finally coming to fruition. 

Debbi Jones-Thomas, Board President of the Redwood City Library Foundation, said investing in the Makerspace is an investment in the futures of Redwood City’s children. 

“Our primary focus is on promoting literacy for the library and its programs,” Jones-Thomas said, describing the Makerspace as a place “where kids can learn hands on” and express themselves through science as well as art. “To be able to do it after the pandemic when things are starting to open up a little bit, and people want to get out and release those creative juices—it's a really good time for something like this to come alive.”

She said she’s looking forward to making use of the space herself. 

“I like learning new things,” she said. “I would like to spend a day exploring everything.”

Julie Alvarez, a Redwood City resident who was in attendance with her husband and three children, said she’s thrilled to soon be able to check out what the Makerspace has to offer. 

“I'm very happy about this,” she said. “I think the kids, they're really interested in these types of things, which we couldn't buy at home. So we're going to plan to use it a lot.”

Her son, Goyo, who’s in fifth grade, said he was most looking forward to checking out the arts and crafts and gardening offerings. And Gregorio, her husband, added that he was interested in the 3D printer, which he thought he could use to make a mold for pouring homemade soaps.

Also in attendance were city council members Alicia Aguirre and Diana Reddy. Reddy, who’s been a cheerleader for the project for the last couple of years, said she views its completion as reflective of the Library’s ethos as a community-centered institution.

“The Redwood City Library is really like a lighthouse among libraries in San Mateo—and really California,” she said. She noted that the Library was named among 30 finalists for the 2021 National Medal for Museum and Library Service, which Wolfgram laughingly described as “the Oscars of the library world.” 

“And so why wouldn’t they have a Makerspace?” Reddy continued. “It’s just the next thing that we have to do in order for us to be the amazing library that we are.”

LaTorra first had the idea for the Makerspace in 2014 while working as a librarian in the Teen Center. With more people bringing their own personal devices, she noticed that the computer lab wasn’t being used in the way it used to. 

“We decided that was an opportunity to make a big pivot and take this space and transform it into a new function,” she said.

Official discussions began in 2017, and over the next few years, LaTorra worked with a team of librarians, members of the Library Foundation Board, architects and staffers from several city departments to fund, design and eventually break ground on the new Makerspace. The Foundation also convened a special team of around 20 people active in the local maker community to join a Community Advisory Group that contributed ideas for programming (which many of them will help lead once the space officially opens). 

“This has truly been a, you know, ‘it takes a village,’” said Hicks-Dumanske.“The community has really rallied around this project, starting with the community interest sessions that happened in 2019.”

The Makerspace was partially funded by a grant of $270,000 from the Redwood City Library Foundation, approved by the city council in July, with another $165,000 coming from the city itself. After raising 90% of the roughly $465,000 needed, they broke ground on the project—with Gino Guidi of Zone 4 Construction—in September of this year and finished in early November. Now they’re just putting on the finishing touches; with less than $100,000 left to raise to fully equip and furnish the space, the Library is asking for donations to purchase things like a low-cost coding robot and 3D printing accessories.

Once open, the Makerspace will be run primarily by library staffers and with a host of volunteers who will lead workshops and other activities. LaTorra hopes to open the space to unstructured coworking time from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. with two shifts of instructor-led programming from 3 p.m.-9 pm. She said they’ve already started hearing from groups that want to collaborate, including the Geological Society who offered to bring rock tumblers to teach kids how to smooth and polish stones.

LaTorra said she was inspired by a movement of makerspaces around the country and by a model of “intergenerational programming.” Rather than being a place where the adults teach the kids, she said, the Makerspace will invite learners of all ages to collaborate and share knowledge. Adults will provide mentorship and instruction, and younger generations will be invited to teach their skills, like video gaming or coding. 

“I liked that concept of having whoever is the expert is the leader, not the person who's oldest,” LaTorra said. “How can we build a community of creative people?”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated who organized the Community Advisory Group. It was convened by the Redwood City Library Foundation. To request a correction, contact editor@rwcpulse.com.

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Leah Worthington is the lead reporter at the Redwood City Pulse, a local news site dedicated to providing accurate and timely news to the Redwood City community. Leah can be reached at lworthington@rwcpulse.com, on Twitter, and by phone at 650-888-3794. To read more stories about Redwood City, subscribe to our daily Express newsletter on rwcpulse.com.




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Leah Worthington

About the Author: Leah Worthington

Leah is the lead reporter for the Redwood City Pulse. A Bay Area native, she has written about everything from biotechnology to true crime. When she's not writing, you can find her running or baking. Habla español!
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