It's no secret: we love the Cambridge Public Library staff! From circulation to admin, facilities to youth services - the enthusiasm, warmth, and dedication of the Library’s team makes Cambridge an amazing place to live, learn and explore.
Over the coming weeks, the Cambridge Public Library Foundation will take you on a virtual tour of the Library and introduce you to some of its STARS who make this place great. Our next stop is the Tech Bar!
This week we’re excited to introduce you to Reinhard Engels, the mind behind the Library’s Tech Bar. The Tech Bar, located in the Library’s Main Branch, allows patrons to take out Chromebooks, hotspots and more for free!
What is your position at the Library?
My title is Manager of Innovation and Technology. I like that title because it captures the broad range of work that I do. Under this umbrella I have two teams: a more traditional IT team, who ensure that any technology at the Library is working smoothly (“keeping the lights on”), and a more experimental team that focuses primarily on STEAM education (STEAM = Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) at the Library. STEAM at the Library encompasses the Tech Bar, the Hive, the STEAM Learning Lab, and the STEAM Academy.
Can you tell us about the Tech bar?
The Tech Bar is a GREAT resource for Library patrons. It’s a physical space that has the vibe of a coffee bar and four digital screens mounted above (like a menu at Starbucks!) where you can browse and then order tech for take-out. Except unlike the menu at Starbucks, these tech menus automatically update every 10 minutes to reflect the number and types of items available.
Two of the mounted screens are these tech menus that reflect what technology is available. The two other provide additional details about our services and technology including pictures of the different devices, so our patrons could get a better sense as to why to order one device vs. another. Our goal was to make ordering tech feel as normal and as accessible as possible.
The Tech Bar space consists of a beautiful wooden service bar in the historic part of the Library, and a ‘work bar’ seating section along the hallway by the Rindge Room. There are also numerous desktop computers by the Tech Bar that are available for public use in two hour increments.
We were about to open the Tech Bar in March of 2020, but then the pandemic hit. While we couldn’t allow public access to the space then, the need for at home technology was suddenly greater than ever. So in a very different way than we expected, it was the perfect time to launch a takeout tech program. We pivoted and offered phone ordering with contactless pickup at the main Library entrance. It’s much nicer now, of course, when we can allow patrons inside this beautiful physical space, but it met a pressing need, and was an important first step.
The two most important and popular items at the Tech Bar are Chromebooks and hotspots. The Library owns hundreds of Chromebooks, 95 hotspots, and we have an additional 200 hotspots via a government program that we make available to partner organizations via bulk loans. Now that we have the basics covered, we are increasingly branching out into “fun” technology like Go Pros, all in one DVD players, and e-readers. Suggestions from the public are more than welcome!
One of the most important pieces of the Tech Bar isn’t “tech” at all - it’s the humans, the knowledgeable, patient and friendly staff who are available to answer patron’s technology-related questions.
How do patrons take out tech from the Tech Bar? Do they need an appointment?
There is no appointment necessary. It’s just like Starbucks. Patrons can come to the Tech Bar and look at the menu to see what is available. They can say: “Hm, I think I need a 14-inch Chromebook today!” and they can use their Library Card to borrow it, just like they would with a library book. Technology is available to borrow for a two-week loan period with two automatic renewals if no one is waiting.
One of the great aspects of getting a tech loan from the Tech Bar is that you can make the Chromebook as personal as you want it during your rental. We adopted a hybrid model so that you can either log into the laptop as a guest or using your personal Google account.
Is takeout tech available at all Cambridge Public Library branches?
Yes - takeout tech is available at all the branches! While the Tech Bar itself is located at the Main Library, patrons can get free technology to-go at any local branch.
Could you talk more broadly about STEAM at the Library?
One of my favorite programs that really encompasses the purpose and goal of STEAM at the Library is our STEAM Academy. The Academy is a partnership with Innovators for Purpose (IFP), an amazing local nonprofit that has been a Library partner for more than four years. With IFP we provide a series of free, immersive project-based learning summer and afterschool courses for teens that goes beyond mere project-based learning -- it’s product based learning. The teens actually make a product for a customer. They learn not just the tech and science skills required to do that (which is huge) -- from computer programming, to materials science, to math, to robotics, to 3D design but just as important they learn valuable business and organizational “soft” skills for the workplace: how to brainstorm, how to get feedback, how to present, how to iterate on product ideas. The teens regularly present their projects to stakeholders (usually Library staff and community members) at review sessions for feedback and really drive what is going on. I am consistently blown away by what these kids come up with, and their poise, maturity and skill. Every semester the program gets bigger and bolder.
[Editor’s Note: You can visit a STEAM Academy project in Kendall Square called “The Looking Glass.” This piece is a five-foot aluminum statue that tells the origin story of Kendall Square. “This Should Not Be” is another STEAM Academy project - a groundbreaking augmented reality experience exploring racial and social justice that can be found on the lawn of Cambridge Public Library’s Main Branch.]
What is your favorite part about working at the Library?
I have worked at the Library for just about five years and there are a lot of things I love about it. Libraries are the culmination of an ancient tradition going all the way back to the Great Library of Alexandria and beyond. So it appeals to the history geek in me. But public libraries are also distinctly modern and American, free public institutions to truly benefit everyone in our community. It gives me a kind of patriotic rush to consider this. The Cambridge Public Library has a broad array of services from the Children's Room to Adult Services to the Hive that all mesh together to create amazing programs for everyone in Cambridge to enjoy. And my coworkers are so passionate and driven by this sense of mission. It’s inspiring.
I also like that my job is so tangible for my kids – they really understand and appreciate what I do because they love the Library too! I sometimes joke that my real job is shuttling materials back and forth from the Library for my book loving family.
What is your favorite book?
Well that’s a tough question…I can’t pick just one! I would say War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy; I like a lot of those older Russian authors. I am also a big fan of Jane Austen and Shakespeare. I’m big on the classics.
You can learn more about the Library’s takeout technology service here.
Contributions from the City of Cambridge and the Library Foundation’s generous donors have made the Tech Bar and STEAM at the Library possible. If you would like to support the Cambridge Public Library, please reach out to Library Foundation Director, Katie Welch, at email@example.com.
The Cambridge Public Library Foundation is dedicated to supporting the Cambridge Public Library and its programs that educate, inspire and respond to the needs of our diverse community.