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Synergy on the Plains: Omaha Turns an Abandoned Bookstore Into a Thriving Makerspace
by
Posted On February 11, 2020
It is well-known that there is a digital divide between rich households and poor ones, between well-funded school districts and lesser-funded ones, and between the young and the old. It is also well-known that librarians are people who want to give and share resources. In one community in Nebraska, they decided to create a library that would level the playing field for anyone wanting to use or learn to use the latest in digital technology. The initial idea was to provide access to computers, but they soon added an educational component.

Do Space’s Origins

In 2014, some citizens of Omaha, Neb., had the dream of creating a community space dedicated to enhancing access to technology. They established a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization named Do Space, corralled local funding sources, and identified an abandoned Borders bookstore to serve as home base. The cost of the building and the refurbishment came to more than $10 million. Incredibly, by the end of 2015, they had hired staff members, secured partnerships with the Omaha Public Library and the local Metropolitan Community College, and hired former Omaha Public Library employee Rebecca Stavick as executive director. The Do Space workshop opened its doors in fall 2015.

The name Do Space deserves a second look. On first glance, it is a place for “doers” to excel. On second glance, it could also stand for “Digital Omaha.”

Today, the organization continues to be a thriving addition to the Omaha community. A recent Yelp review describes the facility as follows: “Do Space is a cool place where you can come and up your technology game. Privately funded, the facility hosts events and seminars that educate you in different facets of technology. They also have rows of Macs, materials, [a] print lab and equipment free to patrons to use in their technological pursuits. All you have to do is create a free account.” Some fees do apply when using tools such as the 3D printers. There is a professional membership available that provides users with the ability to reserve meeting rooms as well as get other extra privileges. The free accounts are not exclusive to Omaha residents—if you can get there, you can sign up.

Do Space looks like a modern library, with places to sit at a desktop computer (PC or Mac) and places to sit alone with a checked-out laptop and work. The computers are loaded with the latest utility programs, along with some advanced resources such as CAD/CAM programs. Proprietary databases found at Omaha Public Library are available at Do Space too.

Learn about the positive effect Do Space has had on the community here.

A Talk With the Executive Director

I recently spoke by phone with Stavick. In addition to her library past, she was the co-founder of Open Nebraska, a blog that targets average citizens who are interested in developing computer technology. I asked if the Do Space team intends to expand this successful enterprise into a regional or statewide operation. She told me that it is focused entirely on technology for Omaha, and future efforts would go to expanding services to the local community.

I asked if they checked out any equipment or software for home use, but Stavick said that everything in Do Space is used inside the building. There is free Wi-Fi within the headquarters, and she told me that the team advocates for citywide Wi-Fi but is not currently involved in making that happen.

As Do Space enters its fifth year of operation, around 75,000 Nebraskans have signed up for free memberships. There is a thriving volunteer program whose members have logged more than 25,000 hours.

The Fellowships

The Do Space Women Innovators Fellowship was designed to address gender inequality in the technology sector. In Omaha, less than a quarter of technology jobs are held by women, and the numbers are worse for women of color. This fellowship is a competitive half-year experience that encourages entrepreneurship and technology development in the Omaha area. Each 2019 Do Space fellow received a $10,000 stipend, mentorship, and other resources. The Urban Libraries Council named Do Space a top innovator in an annual contest, in which it competed with 260 other applicants.

Similarly, in 2017, the Do Space Innovative Educators Fellowship enhanced opportunities for local educators to catalyze rapid innovation in Omaha. That summer, three educators received $10,000 stipends to develop educational applications for 3D printing or software development.

Programs

Since its opening, Do Space has held nearly 3,000 programs. While they cover all ages, extra attention is paid to the very young and the senior population. A look at the Do Space calendar shows, for example, basic coding programs for ages 3–5. At a recent ALA conference, I saw that Google was developing materials for preschool coding classes, but Stavick told me that Do Space’s classes are independent of Google. But she did mention that Google is building a data center nearby, so the tech giant has a stake in the technological development of the local population.

Do Space’s Hello Code programs are for beginners who are interested in learning computer code. These run for 5 or 8 weeks and require advance signup. More experienced coders ages 12–18 can sign up for a program called Make.Hack.Build. These sessions increase the skills of aspiring game designers. The Mystery Code Society programs target female-identifying students in 6th through 12th grades.

Do Space also has a team of mentors. Users who have a big project in mind and need a boost can sign up for a personal session. These meetings usually need to be set up a week in advance. Another community outreach feature is a weekly hosting of the 1 Million Cups group for aspiring entrepreneurs. The group’s name is based on the notion that entrepreneurs discover solutions and engage with their communities over a million cups of coffee.

Conclusion

Do Space describes itself as a technology equalizer, a technology enabler, a technology educator, and a technology innovator. It seems to be hitting all four areas and is proving to be a model marriage of library and community enhancement.


Terry Ballard is the author of three books and more than 80 articles about library automation. In addition to several writing awards, Ballard was given the Albert Nelson Marquis Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019, and will appear in the 2020 edition of Who’s Who in America. Further information can be found at terryballard.org, and he can be reached at terryballard@gmail.com.

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