Beyond books

Virtual reality and 3-D printing at the Chico library; maker space coming soon

Joseph Rodgers comes face-to-face with a humpback whale using an Oculus Rift virtual reality device at the Chico branch of the Butte County Library.

Joseph Rodgers comes face-to-face with a humpback whale using an Oculus Rift virtual reality device at the Chico branch of the Butte County Library.

Photo by Ken Smith

Try the tech:
A full calendar of technology-oriented and other programming available at all of the Butte County Library’s branches can be found at

Bibliophiles and librarians have long likened the experience of cracking open a good book to departing on an adventure—in the figurative sense, of course. But at the Chico branch of the Butte County Library, visitors also have the opportunity to virtually embark on amazing journeys—to the deck of a ship buried under the sea, futuristic streets filled with killer robots, the Roman Colosseum at dawn, and hundreds of other fantastic locations.

Last summer, the library acquired an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, which library assistant Alex Chen sets up for users to experience every Tuesday from 12:30 to 2 p.m. It’s one of many technological opportunities offered at the Chico branch, which is also home to two 3-D printers available for public use and—coming soon—a full-blown “maker space” that will house a wide range of computers and high-tech equipment, as well as instruction and assistance in using those resources.

Melanie Lightbody, Butte County’s library director, appeared Tuesday (Nov. 28) in front of the Board of Supervisors to highlight some of the library’s technology programs and give props to Chen and another library assistant at the Chico branch, Joseph Rodgers. She credited the pair with helping to keep the library on the technological forefront, explaining that they found, wrote a proposal for, and recently won a competitive $15,000 state grant for the county library system aimed at acquiring new tech hardware and software. The grant, called Libraries Illuminated, is funded through the California Library Services Act.

“This is the future of our library,” Lightbody said while introducing Chen and Rodgers. “I was so proud of these young men that I just wanted to come in and let you know what they’ve done for Butte County.”

At the Chico branch later that day, Chen and Rodgers set up the library’s virtual reality system in a meeting room off the building’s main hallway, inviting anyone who showed interest (including this eager reporter) a chance to try out popular educational programs like “Google Earth VR,” aquatic adventure “theBlu,” and “3D Organon VR Anatomy,” which allows users to view, manipulate and learn to identify bones, organs and systems in the human body. The library also has games—like “Fruit Ninja” and “Robo Recall”—that appeal to younger users and promote physical activity.

The branch’s head librarian, Brenda Crotts, also sat in to provide more information. She said she’s used the VR equipment herself, noting her first virtual adventure was to wander the streets of her hometown in New York via Google Earth VR.

Crotts said the existing VR equipment was purchased with funding from another grant, and that part of the new grant will be used to buy a second system. The Oculus unit has an age requirement of 13 and older, she explained, so the library will purchase an HTC Vive system that can be used by younger people. Chen has plans to mobilize the system to do library outreach.

The maker space—which will eventually house the VR equipment and 3-D printers, as well as sewing machines, a button-maker and laptops geared toward different types of programming, including robotics—is currently under construction at a warehouse in Oroville, Crotts said. She expects it to be finished and installed sometime in December. It will have a metal frame covered in fabric, with scattered clear sections to allow the curious to watch the work going on inside. The space will be roughly the size of a four-car garage, Crotts said, and located in the center of the Chico branch’s main media area. All of the furnishings will be capable of being rearranged so it can function as an active workspace or classroom-like instructional area.

Speaking of the library’s focus on technology, Crotts countered the common notion that libraries are simply repositories for knowledge contained in books.

“I think libraries have traditionally been out there to provide the general public with new technologies they might not be able to afford or have at home,” she said. “Libraries were the first places where many people could use computers, for example. This is just the next step.”