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First Library in Space

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First Library in Space

Durham County Library, N.C.

Advocacy & Awareness | 2014 | Top Innovator

Innovation Synopsis


With the expanding role of technology, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) literacy has become as necessary for children and teens as traditional literacy. Just as libraries have been a critical partner in fostering generations of readers, we are stepping up to offer STEM programming through hands-on makerspaces and helping to prepare young people for productive careers. DCL’s focus on STEM initiatives is new enough that though there is a need for the offerings, especially in an urban community where many schools lack funds for extracurricular programming, we are still building an awareness of the library as a resource in this area. Demand for our STEM and makerspace programming has grown exponentially, yet we want the library to be the first place teachers, students and parents think of for free, high quality STEM programming. It is also important to position the library as a STEM resource with funders. STEM programming can be expensive – often requiring the purchase of new technology and high cost consumables. Securing grants and donations will allow DCL to become an early adopter of new technology. First Library in Space presented an opportunity to build DCL’s reputation as a STEM resource by involving patrons and community partners in an innovative, high-profile event. Tying FLIS to Summer Reading offered the tantalizing possibility of capitalizing on an existing audience and re-energizing a mainstay.

Key Elements of Innovation

First Library in Space was a novel initiative to help position the library as a STEM resource. The plan was to build a small capsule and attach it to a weather balloon that would carry it into near space. The balloon would burst, and a parachute would bring the capsule safely back to Earth. Onboard cameras and video equipment would capture the entire flight.

To meet our goals of building the library’s STEM bona fides we took several steps:

  • We generated excitement for the project with a catchy name, a great logo, a designated website and an aggressive social media PR campaign to target a younger, tech savvy demographic.
  • We recruited community partners for marketing and technical support.
  • We added a STEM element by having teen patrons at each location design and build a capsule, then compete to have their design selected for the launch.
  • We incorporated a (virtual) makerspace element by asking the public to submit original music for the documentary video.
  • Then we launched the capsule from a high-profile location: centerfield of the Durham Bulls Athletic Park during our Summer Reading midpoint rally.
  • The community followed every moment of the launch through tweets and real-time GPS tracking on the website.

Things didn’t go exactly as planned: FLIS launched, then disappeared. The community mourned with us on Twitter. A few weeks later we launched FLIS2, this time without a hitch. Six months later, two retired aerospace engineers found FLIS1. The rescued photos and video generated more interest about the project and DCL’s STEM programming. The documentary video, with a soundtrack written by two teens patrons, is at

Achieved Outcomes

First Library in Space helped us advance in all of the major goals we identified. By engaging teens and ‘tweens in the science of building and launching a capsule, we enhanced our reputation as a STEM learning resource. We built on that reputation in applying for and receiving a $25,000 grant from Duke Energy for a teen STEM program (Teen Tech Learning Lab). Though libraries are not typically funded by Duke Energy Foundation, with FLIS we demonstrated a willingness to embark on innovative STEM projects. The capsule building and soundtrack competitions underscored the library as a makerspace.

We continue to build makerspace components into our programming, including the Teen Tech Learning Lab, photography and videography courses, writing and crafting classes, and an upcoming 3D printing petting zoo. FLIS fostered new partnerships and exposed a new demographic to our Summer Reading Program. By launching FLIS during a Summer Reading rally at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, we tapped into a new audience. The partnerships with NC Near Space Research and the Bulls created a model for future collaborations. Finally, FLIS helped us reach our goal of expanding our social media audience as a way of reaching the demographic most likely to be interested in STEM programming. Through FLIS, we gained 170 Facebook followers and 133 new Twitter fans. FLIS posts had a Facebook reach of 7,595; the website had 2,678 page views; we had 440 Twitter clicks; and there were 22 ‘+1s’ for Google+. The FLIS video has 500 views.