Blue Island’s ‘Tech Annex’ example of libraries’ fight to remain relevant
BY SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY email@example.com April 19, 2012 9:26PM
Tim Palumbo, a musician and producer, works at the newly renovated Tech Annex and History Museum in the basement of the Blue Island library. Multiple resources are used to create a web version of the history museum. | Larry Ruehl~Sun-Times Media
Updated: May 21, 2012 8:34AM
Those who think libraries are just quiet places filled with books have not been to the Blue Island Public Library lately.
Tucked away in a corner of the lower level is a vibrant place where arts and sciences work together, where the past meets the future.
Here, Tim Palumbo, a young adult, spends hours creating his own sound tracks. Here, Alsip businessman Dale Robertson learned video production and special effects. It’s also where high school students have learned to digitize and preserve all the historical documents on display at the site, bringing Blue Island history to the world.
Darren Thompson, the library’s manager of information technology, young adult and technology programming, has arranged a successful marriage of history, technology, arts and sciences that offers seemingly limitless opportunities for all ages.
Some patrons create their own music or even radio talk shows. They create 3D designs and record oral histories.
They discover opportunities that could help libraries remain relevant in the age of ebook readers.
“This is a new concept for libraries. We are way ahead of the curve,” Thompson said.
Library director Jim Deiters agreed.
“This is more than a media space,” he said. It has become a place where folks can “produce information” not just read it.
The space — known as the Tech Annex — has evolved over the past few years.
It was designed by Thompson, who has a master’s degree in computer science.
The historical museum has long been part of Blue Island’s library, at 2433 York St., but it was hidden behind a pair of solid wooden doors and visited a few times a year by school groups.
Six years ago, Thompson converted a storage area adjacent to the museum into the Tech Annex, a space where young adults could create Web pages, videos and CDs.
“I knew it could be much more,” Thompson said.
So last spring, he raised a few eyebrows when he suggested knocking down a wall that separated the village’s historical museum from the Tech Annex, to create more space for both.
Thompson personally knocked down the wall, painted the remaining drab walls a bright blue, and adorned the walls and ceilings with local artwork. Windows were installed in the museum doors to make it more inviting.
Local historians at one point feared some historical exhibits had been tossed out with the wall, but they were moved into the adjoining meeting room, where they now are viewed by many more people. Computer monitors were placed in front of the exhibits, which have come alive with oral histories.
And now library patrons can create their own stories and more through video, music, photography and art.
Palumbo, of Blue Island, visits a few times a week and spends several hours creating new dance tracks or musical scores for filmmakers.
“There is nothing like this,” he said of the equipment in the Tech Annex. “It’s a great place to experiment. I use whatever I can to learn more.”
He has a similar set-up at home, but the library offers better equipment, access to more instruments and a chance to network with other people, he said.
Robertson, a marketing professional, learned to enhance his work with audio and video productions at the Tech Annex.
“I learned a lot since I have been coming here. The people here are like family,” Robertson said of Thompson and his staff. “We have built a business relationship, but also a friendship.”
There’s not a single bookshelf in the room. But there are drums, guitars, a recording studio, projection screens, and artistic software applications galore. There is equipment to preserve historical documents. There are classes in recording, audio production, video production, creating 3D spaces and digital photography.
Much of it was financed with a $26,000 grant from the state.
“You’re not going to find this (equipment) in schools,” IT assistant Jim Nelson said.
Under Thompson’s direction, students are creating a Web version of the history museum, featuring a 3D version of the museum and Internet access to all the documents, books and brochures.
Thompson and his two assistants have created more than 200 YouTube videos of the library’s “success stories,” showing off the many talents of their creative patrons. (To get an idea of what goes on there, visit www.youtube.com/user/BlueIslandLibrary or blueislandlibrary.org).
If people come to Thompson with an idea, he and his staff can show them how to make it happen.
Deiters said he has seen “huge” increases in use of the Tech Annex and in the numbers of people who know about the historical museum.
“So many young people are spending quality time here,” Deiters said. Libraries usually struggle to attract the young adult population, but the music technology is a “big draw,” he said.
Many other libraries have visited Blue Island to see how they can create their own media lab. But Thompson is not done yet. He hopes to continue to challenge the creativity of his patrons and incorporate technology into the historical museum.
He wants to make the postmaster in the historical post office talk and tell stories about the people in his town. He hopes to get a model railroad to run around the museum, create a train station with videos of train rides from Blue Island to Chicago, and highlight the role of the railroad in the town’s history.
And that life-sized wolf at the entrance to the museum just might howl at visitors some day.
“We have lots of ideas,” Thompson said.