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The Bubbler: Participatory Community Learning

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The Bubbler: Participatory Community Learning

Madison Public Library, Wis.

Education - Adults | 2013

Innovation Summary

The Bubbler is a new maker-focused programming model for all ages. The Bubbler’s hands-on pop-up workshops introduce participants to a variety of community experts who share their talents and physical resources.

Problem Statement

Madison Public Library has a long tradition of offering popular educational programs for young children but the opening of a new Central Library in September of 2013 offered new opportunities to attract more teens and adults to library programming. Inspired by the makerspace movement and strong ties to the arts community in Madison, a group of library staff envisioned The Bubbler. The Bubbler extends the library’s tradition of offering learning-based programs by partnering with local artists, designers, craftspeople, technology experts, small businesses and nonprofits to provide hands-on, pop-up workshops and classes that provide participants who might not otherwise have access to the educational or material resources provided to leave the workshop with a new skill or hand-made product. Rather than spending limited library resources on a fully-functional makerspace, media production lab, or art studio, The Bubbler’s community partnership model offers Madison’s many community experts a chance to share their knowledge without library effort required to sustain costly equipment or supplies or become experts in areas of learning that are not directly tied to the library’s mission. In addition to sharing expertise and resources, The Bubbler has helped the library reach two audiences it wasn’t serving well – teens and adults in their 20’s and 30’s who weren’t using library materials or participating in family programming but have responded enthusiastically to Bubbler classes and workshops.


In 2012 the library initiated a strategic planning process that had staff discussing ways to better reach Millenial Generation residents, offer increased technology programming, and more creatively utilize community partnerships for innovative programming. Madison has the highest number of nonprofit organizations in the state and a strong history of partnership. The Bubbler programming model extends our programming reach by working with community groups and individuals including artist Aliza Rand, Sector67 (a local makerspace), The Library as Incubator Project, Fractal (STEM classes for teens), ArtWorking (differently abled artists), and other nonprofits and businesses. By working with over 40 partners to date, The Bubbler offers classes and workshops that cost the library little and expose participants to participatory learning experiences the library could not offer on its own. The library’s partners benefit by the increased exposure they receive through their partnership with the library. The ideas behind The Bubbler have been key to the library’s strategic planning as well. With Bubbler goals in mind, library staff have reworked amission, vision, and strategic plan to fully integrate community partnership and creativity throughout the organization and have successfully shared those concepts with a larger City of Madison audience, including an enthusiastic Mayor, who featured The Bubbler on his monthly television show, the Mayor’s Report, in January 2013. Marketing efforts for The Bubbler have leveraged the library’s new partnerships through social media, promoting The Bubbler and the library by connecting with library partners and their audiences, many of whom are in our targeted 20-39 age range. Since some of these audiences were not current library users, the library has also expanded awareness of the library in the Madison community.


Initial bubbler programs have been extremely successful. A series of cyanotype printing workshops offered in conjunction with the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Go Big Read campus-wide event filled within days and participants shared their experiences online ( Teens participating in a popular series of stop-motion and hand-drawn animation classes and workshops share their videos online with the library and their friends and families. A new Bubbler email newsletter gained over 200 subscribers in a month ( Media and social media attention has kept The Bubbler consistently in the community eye through feature or cover stories in the Wisconsin State Journal, Isthmus, Capital Times, and 77 Square, as well as local radio and television stories and professional blog mentions. While Bubbler workshops have already proven successful in branch libraries, library staff are also planning for an official launch of the programming model in September 2013 when the new Central Library opens and a semi-permanent space is dedicated to Bubbler programming. With glass walls at street level, Bubbler activity will enliven a formerly uninspiring stretch of sidewalk, inviting neighborhood residents and downtown visitors in to explore and engage. The library anticipates 1 million visits to the new library in its first year, Bubbler program attendance of more than 4,000, library staff and volunteers will actively survey Bubbler program participants and gather testimonials and feedback to improve the program or identify community interests.