Newest Thing at Your Library: Prosthetics?

3D Printed Hand

The feel-good story cruising around the Internet right now is “Kansas teen uses 3-D printer to make hand for boy” from the Kansas City Star. Sixteen-year-old Mason Wilde used a 3D printer to create a Robohand for a 9-year-old family friend who was born with a limb difference (no fingers on one hand), allowing him to control the new hand with wrist movements. When Gizmodo picked it up, I was intrigued. Not just because of the possibilities of 3D Printing (there are many, which will be covered more later), but because of where he made it: the Johnson County Library Makerspace.

The description posted on their site speaks well to the function of Makerspaces, Digital labs, and similar facilities within public libraries:
“Located next to the Information Services desk, the MakerSpace is a place you can go to learn new skills and software, make cool stuff and customize your world. Use the space to play, tinker and experiment with media, design and electronics in an open and collaborative environment. There are no age limits here! A 10 year old can teach classes and a 70 year old can play with toys” (emphasis added).

The story itself is a common maker tale – someone with the need and someone with the know-how got together and started planning. When they got a request to build a hand (this time for a child in South Africa), they came through and made it. Then they did one better, posting the Robohand to Instructables, a website for posting the nuts and bolts of maker projects.

Robohand (and Roboarm) are a project that is sweeping the globe. Recently, Robohand makers went to Sudan to fit hands to those who have lost them in the violence there.

As libraries continue to navigate their role in society and wonder whether or not making has a place in the public library, know that we have only begun to explore the possibilities of improving lives with making.

Squishy Circuits

A few weeks ago, I was asked to sub for Homeschool Art and Science – a program run at the library where I intern designed for homeschool children ranging from age 4-14. It’s a drop in program, so there’s a range of ages and attendance that have to be accounted for. I’d never worked on Thursdays, so I’d never seen it in action. I planned to stop in the week before to see how it went. Then I was asked to sub that week too. It was going to be a trial by fire, apparently.

Having survived the first week (Jackson Pollock – the mothers were very forgiving of the amount of paint being flung around), I went into the second week with a better idea of what I was facing. And I was (hopefully) ready.

I’ve been reading up on makerspaces, which are a bit of a buzzword in libraries and museums (even colleges and corporations, sometimes). Wikipedia defines a makerspace as “a community-operated workspace where people with common interests, often in computers, technology, science, digital art or electronic art, can meet, socialize and/or collaborate.” The general idea in a public library makerspace, however, is to provide opportunities and resources for design thinking and skill learning.  I’d recently read a really top-notch book called Design, Make, Play that included articles from makerspace innovators across the country. Some were big – the Exploratorium in San Francisco or NYSCI in New York, where other ideas were more adaptable to my purposes – like squishy circuits.

Squishy circuits were developed at the University of St. Thomas by an engineering professor, Annmarie Thompson, and a few of her students. The challenge was to make something that little hands could play with to explore circuitry. Existing products were frustrating for many children, and were rarely intuitive. Playdough, they figured, was as intuitive as it got. Physics professors had been using its conductive properties for years to demonstrate in classrooms, and Thompson and her team figured they could make something better. Something that could be made at home. Something that could be shaped and molded by little hands. Something that could form not only circuits, but circuit SCULPTURES. And they were going to make it using only things available in the grocery store.

Here’s what they came up with:

Conductive dough recipe

  • 1/2 cup tap water
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 2 tablespoons salt
  • 1 ½ tablespoons Cream of tartar (or 4 ½ tablespoons lemon juice to substitute)
  • ½ teaspoons of vegetable oil
  • food coloring (optional)

I made this is MUCH bigger quantities, since I was prepping for a dozen kids, but it still only took me about 15 minutes to make. I strongly suggest a non-stick pot, however. I didn’t have one handy, and there was a lot of scrubbing between batches.

Put all of that in a pot and mix it up a little. Put the pot on medium heat and keep stirring. It will start to clump up as you go. This will likely feel counter-intuitive if you’re used to baking, where you want most things nice and smooth – deep breaths, you’re doing it right. Eventually, it will get to a consistency where you can form a lump in the middle of the pot. Put the lump of dough on a floured surface (a floured sheet cake pan is great if you want kids to be involved in the next part). You might want to squish it down a bit (I used the bottom of the pot) and let it cool before you knead it. Once it’s cool enough to really get hands on with, knead it to incorporate about another 1/4 cup flour. You’ll feel when it’s at a playdough-y consistency. Don’t add too much flour or it will be crumbly – I made that mistake with my second batch. It worked, but it made things a lot messier.

Insulating dough recipe

  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • Distilled water (tap water is ok if you don’t have this, but resistance will be lower in the dough)
  • food coloring (optional)

This one is more kid-friendly to make. Put the flour, sugar, and oil in a bowl and mix it up. Then add the water 1 Tbsp at a time, making sure to mix it all in before adding more. Eventually, it will get clumpy and doughy. Put it on a floured surface and knead to incorporate flour until it feels right. This is where you can make up ground if you added a wee bit too much water, too.

The doughs are ready to experiment with right away, and can be stored in plastic bags in the fridge to max out shelf life (about 2-3 weeks). If you do store them in the fridge, take them out a little bit before playing with them, as they need to warm up a bit to be pliable.

Once the doughs are made, basic experiments can be done with things bought at Radio Shack (some may be cheaper online – I wasn’t willing to risk delivery problems).

Squishy circuit dough in lots of colors


the doughs






LED diode



LEDs (10mm diodes are better for small fingers)




Closed battery casing with switch



and a battery pack with terminals



There are lots of experiment packets online, and I’ll include a few of my favorites at the bottom. Mostly, the kids played around and came up with their own problems and solutions. They started with basic circuits, then moved up to serial vs. parallel circuits, short circuiting, circuit load, and lots more great discoveries – all in less than an hour.

Helpful tips

I made the conductive dough green to help show the kids that it was a like a green light for electricity – power could move through it easily. The insulating dough was red, to show that it was a stop light for electrons. It seemed to help them understand what was happening. It also helped me see when the dough was too “contaminated” to be effective. At the end, we had a lump of brown playdough, rather than red and green, because it had been so mixed up.

We also broke a few of the LEDs legs from bending them a lot. It’s going to happen, so don’t stress too much over it.

The kids also came up with the idea of testing what other materials in their houses were conductive or resistant by using the battery pack and LED rather that a multimeter. This is great, just make sure to take a gander at the safety tips before letting them run free.

Don’t connect the battery pack directly to the LED, it may burn the LED out (or even make it explode).

LEDs only work in one direction, unlike normal lights, due to polarity. To make them work, make sure the long leg of the LED is attached to the same piece of dough as the red (positive) wire from the battery pack. 

Sometimes, thin strands of insulating dough will still conduct some electricity, and the LED will become dimly lit.  If this happens, use it as an opportunity to discuss resistance! This will happen more often if you use tap water for the insulating dough, rather than distilled water. It will also happen more often with certain types of LEDs that require less power. This can also be tied back to the idea that smaller pieces of dough are more conductive (it will make the LEDs glow brighter). This applies to both types of dough.

Crossing the wires on the battery pack is the most dangerous potential – it can short out, heat up, and explode of left too long. Be careful of this if kids are experimenting with putting the leads in the same piece of dough.



Squishy Circuits – Sylvia’s Mini Maker Show – a great intro video. It’s about 7 minutes long and covers how to make the dough, along with basic concepts of electricity and circuits, all presented by a 9-year-old girl. This was my go-to.

Squishy Circuits Project Page  – this is where it started. This provides recipes for bigger batches of the dough, and has some project ideas and a toolbox that shows possible additions to your squishy circuit explorations (including a squishy battery!).

Squishy Circuits Lesson Plan from UCLA – a PDF that contains a lot of background info to help you brush up on circuits, plus a guided exploration that asks kids to test different configurations and see what happens.

Liza Stark’s Squishy Circuits – a PDF that goes over key terms, troubleshooting your circuits, and has great pictures of different configurations.

How to Make a Website (With a Whole Lot of Trying)

When I started at my internship, I sort of naturally fell into a tech support role for the library. This turned into requests to update the old website using Dreamweaver, which was fine until I went to upload the changes – after the wave of staff turnover just before I came, no one had the correct password to our host. Not the end of the world, since we got back in, but a sign that something needed to change. Before I’d started, a friend who knew the library well had showed me a new website that was supposedly “in the works.” More than a little frustrated, I asked about it.

And so it became my assignment. It had gotten a bit overlooked in the rush of the early fall staffing shortage, and since I was asking, I was now in charge.


Continue reading “How to Make a Website (With a Whole Lot of Trying)”

LIS 2600: HTML

Programming has always held mystique for me: how do they turn ideas into the concrete pages using nothing but text? I dabbled in it, with the help of cheesy children’s programs, but never really latched onto it. A few years ago, in a job interview, I took (and failed) a programming logic test. I realized I didn’t even know how all the programs I used on a daily basis worked. I started in on an easy language, not even really programming, but markup – HTML.

HTML was great, since so many forums accepted the basic formatting commands I was learning. Inserting pictures, links, and bolded text made me feel like I knew what I was doing.

I still didn’t. I’ll admit, there’s a lot I still don’t know. What with the advent of HTML5, I hardly know where to start.

HTML has a million great tutorials out there- Codecademy was my tutor of choice, and I still recommend it. Learning start tags, end tags, and what to put between them is invaluable.

Where I’ve finally managed to understand the logic of HTML, CSS is still rough for me. It’s hard for me to see where one overrides the other. The basic tags still apply (as well as innumerable tags I have yet to learn), which is helpful.


Muddiest Point: There was no muddiest point for this week. Maybe next week when we get to CSS. 🙂

OPACs in the Age of Google

Complexity has always been a topic in software. Simplicity is better, right? I think most of us would agree with that – to a point.

As far as simplicity goes, Google – with it’s blank page aside from the friendly search bar and engaging Google Doodles, may be the exemplar. Type something in, and Google’s highly developed algorithms will do their best to kick back something useful. Google differentiated itself from other search engines with its simplicity and usefulness, leaving competitors like Yahoo! and Bing in the dust.

But that’s the kicker, isnt’ it? That usefulness part.

I’ve seen a lot of OPACs lately that are very, very simple. They look Google-like. But they just don’t work. All that simplicity belies the truth: that a lot of hard work and complicated programming go into making it look simple. And ILS systems, especially OPACs, just don’t have the soul to match the pretty face.

But back in the day, Google didn’t look all that simple. It went through it’s growing-up phase. Take a look.

Google Then
Google Now

Google’s increasing sophistication behind the scenes has allowed it to achieve this design standard. It didn’t just say – I want to have one thing on my page. It made it so that one search bar was USEFUL. OPACs could learn from that. Most of the OPACs I have seen have tried to achieve that single search bar look, but the results are… less than useful. Only advanced search helps bridge the gap.

But the problem is that the money that makes it worthwhile for Google just isn’t there in libraries. Library systems, accustomed to the relatively low cost of their current ILS systems, are trapped between the “good enough” mentality and their budgets. ILS systems aren’t cutting it. Programming won’t improve unless there’s financial backing. Libraries simply don’t have the financial backing.

Is simplicity worth the extra money? I would say yes, as long as that simplicity is backed by an efficient system. Infrastructure upgrades cost money, and unfortunately people are often less willing to pass a millage for a new library software than a new building. Libraries may need to convince their community that the latter is made infinitely more valuable by having a user-friendly, intelligent, and integrated collections system.

Let’s talk about Tumblr

Last week, I wanted to show the programming director at the library I’m interning at some ideas that I’d posted to my tumblr. I like to archive cool ideas, snippets, and more informal thoughts on tumblr, and the quick like/reblog format makes it easy for the community of Tumblarians (yes, that’s a thing) is relatively active in sharing and interacting with each other.

And I couldn’t get to any of it on my work computer.

It was explained to me that due to some of the questionable content on tumblr, the network provider had decided to block the entire site. All tumblrs, no matter how useful, were inaccessible to the library. I was a bit taken aback. Especially since Yahoo! bought tumblr and essentially blacklisted all of the “Adult” sites, tumblr is increasingly dominated by TV gifs, fandoms, and teen rants. And of course tumblarians.

Over at “The Digital Shift,” they’ve figured out the tumblr is the place to be, too, especially for teens:

In the past year, though, it became clear that my teens were no longer on Facebook—or if they were, they weren’t using it to connect with the library. During that time, I searched for ways to invigorate the teen section of our library’s website—to post more content daily and engage more readers. I sought a streamlined, visually exciting site. But the traditional blogging options were hampered by clunky interfaces and an outdated look; I knew that the posts weren’t reaching many patrons, let alone teens.

Enter Tumblr.

Tumblr is known, too, for its fandom bases – Supernatural, Doctor Who, Sherlock, Harry Potter, anime, and (!) books. This makes tumblr even more appealing from a library marketing perspective. Aren’t we trying to get people to embrace their geek? Running an entire ad campaign on “Geek the Library” seems to indicate so. Tumblr is a group of geeks waiting to be shown how the library can fit into their passions.

Want to reach teens? Better yet, want to engage an already-active group of people with easy-to-use, attention-grabbing posts? Use tumblr. (Start with checking out the “tumblarians” tag and explore from there.)

Just make sure it’s not blocked at your library.


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