‘Bubbler’ brings hands-on art-making experiences to Madison Public Library

Jay Rath, Contributing writer

Thanks to a $457,627 grant, Madison Public Library now houses a program that fosters creativity in visitors of all ages through hands-on art, design and technology workshops.

Inventively named “Bubbler,” the program offers opportunities to learn about and create fine art, computer animation, 3-D printing, films, audio recordings and video games. The program is so popular that it draws participants from Milwaukee.

“Bubbler” is part of an effort to reconceive libraries as more than places “where you consume content,” library program coordinator Trent Miller says, as a group of grade school students troop out of the main workroom. They’ve just learned about screen-printing from artist-in-residence Craig Grabhorn, who calls himself “head bubblerarian.”

The Institute of Museum and Library Services awarded the grant that enabled “Bubbler.” Based in Washington, D.C., the agency is a main source of funding for U.S. museums and libraries. The grant allows the library and the University of Wisconsin-Madison to measure and document “Bubbler” over two years, so the program can be replicated elsewhere. 

“We’ve proven ourselves locally and nationally. We know people are learning things, we know it’s interesting,” says Miller, “but there isn’t a lot of qualitative, quantitative research on ‘maker spaces’ — hands-on participatory learning in libraries.”

While many similar institutions are experimenting with maker-spaces, “I think we’re unique in having an artist-in-residence,” Miller says. “Some of the other things we’re doing are also unique.”

For example, there are themed evening events, with drinks and exhibitions. The most recent one featured a live band and celebrated the Twin Peaks TV series.

“Bubbler” also takes its programming into the community, notably to the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center.

“They loved it,” Miller says. 

“Bubbler” has two dedicated spaces in the central library — “Bubbler Headquarters” and a video lab. But the program is more of an experience than a place. 

There was no advance planning to make anything like “Bubbler” a part of the $30-million renovation of the central library building, which reopened in September 2013. 

After the volumes had been removed, but before construction started, the library held “Bookless,” a large art event. “There were over 100 artists, there were rock bands and DJs. We got something like 5,000 people and we had lines around the building,” Miller says.

That event served as an epiphany for planners, who saw it as proof they could “do these wild, creative things,” as Miller puts it. A team was formed and the program was born. But it still needed a name.

“We kept thinking, what is creative and interesting? At that point I just said, ‘How about Bubbler?’ And everyone smiled, and that was it.”

For more, visit madisonbubbler.org.