The Bubbler: An Innovative New Programming Model

As libraries across the country look for new ways to engage their communities, many are exploring the maker movement and how this trend might be applied to their libraries. Many models have developed ranging from specific spaces to flexible areas that accommodate changing needs to programs that depend on partnering with others outside the library to provide services. What is important is that each library fully explores the needs of their community and how those needs can best be met.

Madison Public Library in Wisconsin has developed a flexible model that suits the needs of their community well and can also be deployed in their branch libraries. Tana Elias shares insights surrounding the development of their program and what they are learning from their program.

Origins of the Bubbler

In early 2012, Madison Public Library began construction on a new Central Library. At the same time, the library was also undergoing a rebranding effort and searching for a new director. It was a time of transformation for the library, with new opportunities for the library to re-imagine spaces and services.

One such change involved the library’s programming efforts. When planners for Madison Public Library’s new Central Library began envisioning the types of classes, events and activities that would happen in the new space, they wanted something that would highlight the library’s new vision, engage visitors and attract a younger demographic of library users. Inspired by the makerspace movement (encouraging communal creation through the sharing of equipment and resources) and with strong ties to the local arts and science community, Madison Public Library launched a new program model called the Bubbler in the spring of 2012.

The Bubbler builds on Madison Public Library’s tradition of providing resources and learning opportunities by partnering with local artists, designers, craftspeople, technology experts, small businesses and nonprofits to present hands-on learning workshops and meetups at its libraries or at alternate community sites. A nimble and cost-effective pop-up workshop model provides more opportunities to more groups and individuals in a variety of settings. The Bubbler’s community partnership plan offers Madison’s many local experts a chance to share their knowledge and equipment.

Design and Planning Considerations

Inspired by successful library-run makerspaces and media labs, such as Charlotte Mecklenburg Library’s ImaginOn Studio i, Chattanooga Public Library’s 4th Floor, Chicago Public Library’s YouMedia and Madison’s own makerspace, Sector67, Bubbler planners envisioned interactive spaces and experiences. Since the Central Library building project was already underway and there was not a large space dedicated for a media lab or a makerspace, Bubbler programmers needed to be inventive. The result was a small, dedicated Media Lab and a semi-permanent room dedicated to Bubbler programming.

The Bubbler
The grand opening of the new Central Library gave attendees a chance to make something at the Bubbler.

The Bubbler Room is located in a prominent position within the new library. With glass walls at street level, Bubbler activity enlivens a formerly uninspiring stretch of sidewalk, inviting neighborhood residents and downtown visitors in to explore and engage. The Bubbler’s glass walls look into the children’s area of the new library as well, inviting conversations in both rooms about hands-on learning — through play in the children’s area and through the Bubbler’s interactive programs for audiences of all ages.

The Media Lab, located on the library’s first floor, is situated next to the teen area, offering extensive visibility to one of the main audiences interested in digital learning. Teens go from consuming video games and graphic novels in the teen area of the library to creating animation, book trailer videos and digitally created or enhanced art in the Media Lab. Adults are no strangers to the Media Lab either. In the five weeks the library has been open, visitors of all ages have stopped in to learn more about the Media Lab or sample classes on animation, photo editing, sound recording and editing, video editing and podcasting, as well as simple classes on basic computer use. All Madison residents now have a chance to learn how technology can enhance their creative lives or increase their skill sets for school or employment.

Relatively small enhancements allowed library planners to repurpose both the Media Lab and the Bubbler Room from regular meeting spaces to spaces that allowed for interactivity. Furniture in both spaces is easily reconfigured or repurposed. The Media Lab features a moveable green screen for filming and photography, and most equipment can be easily packed up and taken off-site for programs outside the Central Library. In the Bubbler Room, a rubber floor and a sink with long adjacent counters allow for messy projects and quick cleanup. A magnetic wall, multiple whiteboards and a large-screen TV with Internet capability allow for idea sharing. A lower investment in technology and supplies for the Bubbler allow for a wider use of the room. Community partners can bring in anything from papermaking equipment to cooking tools to 3D printers. Ample electricity and data access, plus built-in audio and video capabilities, allow for high-tech programming, too.

A Sip from the Bubbler

Programming for the Bubbler was introduced to most of Madison Public Library’s eight branches in the year before the Central Library opened. Programs like Teen Tuesdays at Goodman South Madison Library served as a testing ground for many maker activities in the library, and will continue to offer neighborhood teens a creative after-school outlet through a rotation of projects in the arts (visual, music, drama), STEAM skills (science, technology, engineering, arts, math) or literacy (writing and story development). Summer programs at the Pinney and Sequoya Libraries offered STEAM-based workshops in rocket building, creating weather balloons and building and decorating Little Free Libraries. A series of cyanotype printmaking workshops provided a tie-in to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Go Big Read program featuring Radioactive by Lauren Redniss, a book created through a series of cyanotype images. WonderWorks, a preschool class taught at the Alicia Ashman Library, introduced the library’s youngest visitors to STEAM programming through a remix of the traditional library storytime.

The Bubbler Room officially opened along with the new Central Library on September 21, 2013. By that time, the Bubbler concept had won a National Endowment for the Arts Our Town grant to fund an entire year of creative placemaking projects. Our Town funding was matched by the Madison Public Library Foundation for programs such as Maker-in-Residence, Meet Your Makers and Night Lights.

The Bubbler’s Maker-in-Residence program allows visitors to drop in on the creative process by learning from a professional artist as he or she works in the space. The library’s first Artist-in-Residence was Barbara Landes, a papermaker and print maker. Through drop-in sessions and structured classes, visitors had the opportunity to learn how paper is made, create sculptures from the paper and see their paper sculptures displayed throughout the library.

The Meet Your Makers series offers visitors a chance to drop in to the Central Library each Saturday morning to meet some of the Madison area’s most interesting artists, musicians, cooks, hackers and tinkerers. To date, the Meet Your Makers series has hosted cheesemakers in collaboration with the Wisconsin Science Festival; a drawing jam with local artists; papermakers working to combat rape culture through the Peace Paper Project; librarians with the Library as Incubator Project creating hand-made books in conjunction with the Wisconsin Book Festival; a kanji-writing workshop led by area high school students; and a 3D printing demonstration.

Night Light is the Bubbler’s after-hours series at Central Library that rotates between music, theater, dance, storytelling, performance art and other live happenings. Night Light, usually on the first Friday of the month, has included the STACKED! fundraiser party, Gallery Night in conjunction with other downtown Madison venues, and a visit by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon, documentary filmmakers and authors.

High School Friday Journals.
High School Friday Journals.

Public Response to the Bubbler

Response to the Bubbler has been overwhelmingly positive. Local media outlets have embraced the Bubbler concept, publishing print stories, hosting live news broadcasts from the Bubbler and offering regular radio spots promoting Bubbler and Media Lab programs. Staff at all nine libraries got a taste of the Bubbler during an all-day staff day featuring breakout sessions where staff could explore the spaces and the programs offered by the Bubbler and the Media Lab. By experiencing the Bubbler themselves, staff were better able to explain the new programming model to library visitors and share their own ideas for Bubbler programming.

Since the new library opened, visitors have interacted with the Bubbler and the Media Lab by sharing their creations online, by sharing their excitement through social media, by leaving great comments in the Bubbler’s interactive arts space, and by offering their own experience and services for future programs or collaborations.

The library profession is taking note as well, as a result of presentations by Bubbler staffers or planners Trent Miller, Jesse Vieau, Carissa Christner and others at regional, state and national conferences.

In the first few weeks of opening, the Bubbler programming model has already delivered engaging, creative experiences for more than 2,000 attendees and made good the library’s new vision of being “your place to learn, share and create.”

Visit the Bubbler online at or connect with Madison Bubbler through Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.


Janet Nelson

Janet Nelson

Janet is the former Director of Library Engagement and Solutions at Demco. She managed and developed relationships with key industry leaders to understand changing library trends and services.