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Innovate, Create & Discover program at the San Jose Public Library

New Innovate, Create & Discover program shows that libraries aren't just for book learning
Innovate, Create and Discover programLIBRARY SCIENCE: Activities at a San Jose Public Library event celebrating maker culture included a project in which circuits were built out of playdough and batteries. These 'squishy circuits' were used to power LEDs.

Noise and creativity surround me. To be more precise, zen doodling, electric playdough, handmade books and a robot that shoots frisbees. A mini-circus of kids, all of whom seem happy and curious, mill about Room 255 of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Main Library. Various booths are set up along the inside perimeter of the room. Librarians, tinkerers, TechShop employees, high-school-aged roboticists and teachers are among those giving lessons.

Thanks to the San Jose Public Library, the name of the event I'm attending comes wrapped in three words—Innovate, Create, Discover—exactly what a library in Silicon Valley should be teaching children. The event gets my vote for best new library idea.

As a pilot program, the library issued a call for collaborators to participate in a brand new idea, a two-hour open gathering designed to reflect maker culture and the garage-tinkerer mentality that's driven much of Silicon Valley since day one. Then put them all in the same room, all at once, and let everyone engage, create, learn and reap some inspiration. It's a great idea because each new generation that comes along is more and more interested in participatory experiences, rather than static consumption of information or passive learning.

So as I stand in the middle of the active room, practically looking around in circles, I see an array of participatory activities as well as a variety of children taking part. At a table organized by Nexmap: New Experimental Music Art Production, kids make paper circuits with copper tape and LEDs, as a way to learn how real circuits function. Another table, labeled "Hack the Notebook," teaches children how to make books without using paste or glue. They sew the binding, then use staples and scissors for the rest. Over in the corner, others are making "squishy circuits" with playdough and batteries to drive LEDs. My favorite, zen doodling, seems to teach patience and mindfulness via intricate drawing of elaborately detailed designs. Japanese Amigurumi, odd-shaped knitted dolls, even have their own table. Variety is the spice of lives. Libraries never did this when I was a kid.

But there's more. Two high school robotics teams also occupy one corner of the room, I notice. Bellarmine and Notre Dame are each demonstrating the very machines that helped them win the Silicon Valley Invitational FIRST competition last year. The Bellarmine shockwave cannon is not here, but it's pictured on a placard in the corner.

By far the most crowded side of the room, however, belongs to TechShop, who've lugged in a 3D printer and a vinyl cutter just to showcase a tiny portion of what they provide at their facility on Second Street in downtown San Jose. Kids are mobbing the tables to receive their own custom carved dogtags and stickers.

As more kids pound away in the opposite corner, hammering out their own leather bookmarks at full volume, librarian Erin Berman tells me that a new era has emerged. Libraries are not just for passive, static consumption of info. People want hands-on learning.

"Forever and ever, people have been coming to the library to consume information," Berman says. "We're taking the next step, to be a place where people can continue learning things and develop new skills. ... People still come to the library to gain information, but for the last decade or so, libraries have been really moving forward into being about much more than just consumption, but about being a participatory library, where people can walk away with a new skill that they learned."

Library director Jill Bourne agrees. Libraries are platforms for the sharing of information and ideas, allowing the citizenry to access that information. So maker culture is the logical next step, which Bourne says falls right into what a library in Silicon Valley should be experimenting with.

"The act of making is actually an act of learning," Bourne says. "So for us, it's just really that transition of testing out what types of activities around learning are really appropriate and could work well in a library environment."

Bourne said the next step will be to bring these gatherings to the branch libraries and to collaborate with other potential partners. All the branches have study rooms, so more gatherings like Innovate, Create, Discover will happen.

"You might see a study room turned into a recording studio," Bourne said.