Evolving community guidance for the mission of makerspaces

By Kathy Robins of T.E.C.H. Lab @ Billings Public Library

At Billings Public Library, community excitement for the brand new state-of-the-art library and teen digital learning lab was high at the start. Community partners came forward to help make the library and T.E.C.H. Lab a welcoming space. But how could we shift the vital community guidance towards supporting the evolving needs of the changing space after successfully navigating  our lab’s start-up challenges?


At the start of 2014, the Billings Public Library set out to open a digital learning lab for teenagers. A core team consisting of the Library’s IT manager, Library Foundation Director and the Technology Integration Specialist from our local school district set out to involve interested community organizations in starting up the space. The organizations came from a variety of industries that might aid in the development of a digital media lab such as education, technology, communications, engineering, economic development and teen services. We arranged for 2 full-time VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) members who would set up the physical space, research aspects of the projects and provide outreach support to local organizations and teens.

Interest from local agencies was generally strong. They provided varied contributions to our efforts including professional technical support, funding, advice, partnership opportunities and teaching workshops for teenagers. Some individuals agreed to participate in a steering committee that would guide the start-up. Our goal was to open the lab and hold regular workshops in time for summer vacation from school.

Our IMLS grant for this project provided access to the YOUmedia national network of other learning labs. We could derive some of our direction from the network and “personalize” that direction for our particular community through advice from our steering committee. The committee met monthly and assisted with equipment selection, local networking opportunities and provided access to volunteer workshop instructors for our space.

One key project that the steering committee developed was the creation of basic organizational documents such as mission statement, strategic plan and important definitions specific to the TECH Lab.  The VISTA members and a volunteer from our local economic development association arranged for a focus group to start the process. The focus group consisted of the steering committee, library management, librarians and teens. The documents were required to live under the umbrella of the library’s strategic plan. That criteria helped inform the work. We spent two meetings developing a mission statement and components (goals, objectives and tactics) of a strategic plan.

The VISTA members went to work crafting a simple strategic plan document based on the work of the focus group, incorporating revisions provided by the steering committee and library management. The plan included a provision to review the document yearly.

In the months to come, the mission statement and strategic plan were vital to guiding the work of the library staff and steering committee. We were able to partner with local colleges to engage their students as mentors in the lab, connect with complementary organizations, focus on programming with purpose, complete equipment purchases and engage teens as active participants in our makerspace.

As the space developed, the library added a permanent, full-time teen services librarian and fully oriented a new Assistant Director with supervisory responsibilities for the makerspace. The TECH Lab became “established” with knowledgeable staff and management. It was a successful, exciting start-up.

As time passed, fewer “start-up” issues presented themselves and members of the steering committee began to drop out of the monthly meetings.  A few new members came on board, but eventually, the committee consisted of only librarians and educators. Meeting agendas focused on reporting about programming, statistics and plans for outreach. While we still had valuable input from the committee members, it seemed that meetings were not as productive as they once were.  Participation was waning, even though committee members still had a positive view of the space. In reviewing the strategic plan, we saw that there was foresight from the framers that a shift would happen: the strategic plan states that the “Steering Committee” would become the “TECH Lab Committee” in July 2015 “to ensure community involvement leading to sustainability of the TECH Lab.”

We started thinking about how we could  provide as much benefit to our steering committee partners as they had provided for us. To respect their time, the library offered a schedule to meet bi-monthly or quarterly, but the committee chose to continue monthly meetings after a hiatus for the summer.  Our plans are currently gelling around stronger reciprocity to our vital school district partners. This may be a similar process to the initial effort of forming the steering committee, but with a more equal give-and-take approach instead of centering around the needs of the library. Possibilities include the creation of a community STEAM/STEM interest group, inviting educators to the library for STEAM continuing education programs, and instituting library outreach through in-classroom STEAM workshops during the school day.  This would require major up-front planning responsibility for the library, but could pay off substantially for all participants.

Related Resources:

Mission and Strategic Plan – Billings Public Library T.E.C.H. Lab