Woog's World / Westport Library's 'wizard' plies the magic of learning for young and old
Updated 8:14 am, Monday, April 28, 2014
It was school vacation week recently, so most of Westport was deserted. But as always, the library was rockin'.
And no place was more active than the MakerSpace.
Every nook and cranny of the centrally located, creation-collaboration-innovation spot was filled. A young Russian, who wandered into the space just a few days earlier, helped an older man use a 3-D printer. An 11-year-old worked steadily. Older folks watched their grandchildren tinker.
Gazing at it all from above -- like a proud father -- was Bill Derry. The library's assistant director for innovation and user experience (probably the only person in the world with that title) was deep into preparations for last Saturday's Mini Maker Faire. The event featured a teen "Geek Your Fashion" show, Arduino board and Raspberry Pi applications, ham radios, DIY biology, CAD demonstrations, hands-on nanotechnology activities, woodworking, vintage electronics, robotics, remote-controlled aircraft, student projects, composting, rocketry and lectures (including one from famed technology/science writer and Westporter David Pogue).
Derry was excited to talk about all his work involving innovation and user experience. He was less eager to discuss a very prestigious honor. On Tuesday, he will receive the Connecticut Library Association's Special Achievement Award.
He deflected personal recognition, calling it "a testament to the entire library." But anyone who knows the Westport Library -- or knows anything about Westport -- understands what Derry brings to the pulsing, ever-evolving building on Jesup Green.
It's hard to believe he's only been there three years. Derry spent the first 40 years of his working life as a teacher, school library media specialist, school district library supervisor and K-12 information technology coordinator.
Library director Maxine Bleiweis -- who hired him in 2011, then turned him loose -- calls him "a wizard in librarian's clothing."
In addition to developing the MakerSpace into a dynamic model for libraries around the world, co-producing Connecticut's largest Mini Maker Faire, and helping win a large federal MakerSpace grant, he helped organize the first TEDMED in a library; booked speakers, including Alec Foege who wrote "The Tinkerers;" presented to librarians from Anchorage to Moscow; conducted three App Slams -- and that's only a partial list.
Derry's accomplishments sound very technological. But underlying everything he does is a profound appreciation for people. Human beings, he knows, lie at the heart of everything a library does.
"He told me once to `meet people where they are,' " Bleiweis explains. "He spent years doing that as Greens Farms Elementary School's library media specialist. He's now taking it to everyone he encounters at the public library."
Bleiweis loves to eavesdrop on Derry's conversations. "He invites people to tell him more, so that he can best guide them," the director says. "He doesn't use the word `no.' Instead he asks `how?' and goes from there."
She cites Derry as a shining example of the evolution of library staff to "teachers and curators," from the old-model question-answerers and keepers of inventory. She calls the Westport Library "a thriving incubator of thinking for the entire community, led by people like Bill. He took his great work with kids and enlarged it to release the creative parts of adults as well."
Weston High School senior Jun Pritsker -- who was turned loose by Derry on the first 3-D printer, and now helps manage the MakerSpace -- credits Derry with solidifying his decision to study engineering in college. Pritsker says that Derry's constant exhortations to the public to tinker with and learn about technology of the future is an inspiration to all.
Those are the topics Derry wants to talk about -- not his Connecticut Library Association award.
"In the past, people learned a skill, and then they used it. They plateaued," he explained. "But the world today is very different. We're constantly learning new things, applying them in new ways, and using them to do something even more new. The world is always changing. People can't be afraid to experiment, to figure out how things work, and then apply that knowledge in some creative way. Everything around us is getting smarter. We have to keep learning."
Back in the day, a library was a place for quiet learning. That place has as much relevance to life in the 21st century as the Dewey Decimal System does to an Arduino board.
After Derry finished talking about his work last week -- skirting the subject of his award as often as possible -- we wandered over to the library cafe.
"Bill!" an 11-year-old boy greeted him, eyes wide with excitement.
"Sam!" Derry said. "What are you working on?"
And they were off on an extended conversation about robots, computer programs and a hundred other creative ideas.
I couldn't follow all of it. But the Westport Library's assistant director of innovation and user experience -- and the state's 2014 Special Achievement Award winner -- eagerly did.