Libraries & makerspaces: A revolution?


One of TASCHA’s recent research projects is focusing on innovation spaces (including makerspaces), and what the implications and opportunities are for libraries. We are working on crystallizing some aspects of this research and where we see it heading. We’re lucky to have maker movement maven Lauren Britton here with us in Seattle for a week to help us flesh out our ideas and contribute her expertise in the area.

Lauren was one of  (if not THE only) groundbreaking leaders of the makerspace movement within libraries. To maximize Lauren’s time with us, we invited our colleagues and students from the University of Washington to join us for an informal discussion on libraries and makerspaces. Lauren kicked off our discussion by providing a background on makerspaces, definining a makerspace for us, and shared her experience setting up a makerspace in the Fayetteville Free Library in central New York. We went on to discuss how libraries and makerspaces fit together compared to other places makerspaces exist, some of what she has learned over the past few years, and where things might be heading for makerspaces in libraries.

Here’s a recap of our lively and informative discussion.

What is the makerspace movement?

The makerspace movement started in about 2006. It didn’t just appear overnight, really developing out of the DIY culture, which goes far back into US history. How the makerspace movement is popularly understood today really started with the creation of MakerMedia and the first MakerFaire in 2006. There was a small group of people in the movement until about 2009, when it got a national push from President Obama, saying “every child, a maker” and went on to address how it could help formal STEM education.

Then MakerBot happened. MakerBot was one of the first 3D printers people could actually purchase. Before MakerBot, 3D printers were $30,000-$40,000, only available to large organizations with tons of money and resources. With MakerBot, it became possible to purchase a 3D printer for about $2,500, making 3D printing much more accessible for small organizations and communities. 3D printing and maker culture have been very interconnected, but recently there has been a push to separate the two.

The maker movement is largely driven by peer-to-peer learning. There isn’t an expert or a teacher, per se. The maker movement brings people of a variety of backgrounds and with diverse skills together to create new things, often hacking existing products to use them for other purposes or in other ways.

What is a makerspace?

Makerspaces are typically informal learning spaces outside of a formal education system or institution. Making, informal learning spaces, badging (open badges) can result in very different outcomes than formal educational systems and institutions. Makerspaces are driven by curiosity, need-to-know learning, learning for learning’s sake, and tinkering. Lots of tinkering.

There are lots of names for makerspaces – hackerspaces, innovation spaces, fablabs. These different terms used to mean very different spaces that grew out of different industries, fields, and backgrounds (such as hackerspaces growing out of computer science and programming, with the space reflecting that history). However, these terms are often used interchangeably now.

Implementing a makerspace in a public library – Lauren’s experience

Makerspaces in public libraries started in 2010. There were quite a few things that led to connecting makerspaces and libraries. Lauren took a class during her Masters of Library & Information Sciences program at Syracuse called Innovation and Public Libraries. Through the class, she was introduced to 3D printing and other tools. A piece was written by the editor of Make Magazine, wondering if libraries should be reimaged, redesigned as makerspaces. While many librarians were outraged at the notion, Lauren was excited. As part of her class, Lauren prepared a proposal to put a makerspace in a public library. She presented it to her boss at the local public library. Her boss looked at her like she was crazy, but was intrigued by the idea. However, as it had never been done before, she saw many potential barriers. So, Lauren pulled out proposal #2 that addressed some of those challenges. Still not totally convinced. Proposal #3 finally convinced her boss to hire her to do it at the Fayetteville Free Library.

There weren’t resources for it, outside of Lauren’s time, so she began putting together grants to fund the makerspace and make it happen. Working with the fabulous team at the Fayetteville Free Library, they were able to secure a construction grant, but it would be years before the idea came to fruition. Lauren didn’t want to wait that long, so she set about creating a mobile makerspace, which is more practical for other libraries to duplicate than a permanent building is.

Around this time, there was a conference happening in NYC, called the Contact Summit. It was an unconference event hosted by Douglas Rushkoff. As part of the event, participants put together proposals to win one of three $10,000 awards. Lauren presented the idea for implementing a makerspace in a library and won one of the three awards. She was also able to raise $6,000 more through Indiegogo.

With the $16k, they were able to buy some equipment – 3D printers, laser cutters, etc. – but used some of the resources to really help the community understand what the makerspace at the library is, to promote the makerspace. This was a really huge stretch for the community to understand that the library was a place where they could create and make things – use a 3D printer, a laser cutter, a sewing machine. She worked to shift the perception of libraries as places where people consume things to the perception that the library could be a place to create.

People who had never visited the library began streaming in. With the arrival of the makerspace, the perception shifts, and the new types of patrons, the library programming also changed and shifted – they brought in architects to teach classes, they put on workshops on how to use the various technologies, such as the MakerBot, etc.

Some of the idea’s initial critics came from internal stakeholders. There were many barriers that the team had to work through step-by-step. But, with time and support from the Director and team, the idea took hold and proved to be quite successful. Soon, the makerspace movement in libraries started to catch on with libraries in Westport, Connecticut and Detroit. Both Fayetteville and Westport were affluent communities so it was a bit less risky. Detroit, however, didn’t necessarily have the resources or the same population to serve. Inquiries started flying in to Lauren – “We bought a MakerBot. How does it work? What do we do now?” A lot of libraries were buying this equipment, but didn’t invest in learning how to use them so they sat in a corner and collected dust, helping opponents conclude that makerspaces in libraries were failures, which wasn’t true. Lauren began travelling quite a bit to help libraries learn how to use maker equipment and create a successful maker program in libraries.

How is it different to implement a makerspace in an academic library versus a public library?

There is a romanticized notion of “the stacks” in academic libraries (public libraries too). There is pushback at many universities (and public libraries) – by students, faculty, and staff – when university libraries try to move books or stacks to storage – books that haven’t been touched for decades – in order to make room for more collaborative spaces and other emerging needs of their campus.

There is also a question of funding – funding for academic libraries is different than funding for public libraries. The bottom line, though, is that each library (academic or public) should respond to the needs and wants of the community they serve. Makerspaces won’t work in every library, public, academic, or otherwise, nor should they.

Lauren recommends Dave Lankes’ book,  the Atlas of New Librarianship, for librarians and students learning to be librarians. Look at libraries as a place to find tools for learning and knowledge – that isn’t necessarily a book – it could be a MakerBot, a sewing machine, a laser cutter, or simply a hammer and nails.

Why put makerspaces in a library, rather than a school, a retail store, or an empty warehouse?

There are makerspaces being put into schools (elementary schools through high schools) around the country, funded by DARPA. Makerspaces in schools are replacing the old tech shops, kind of serving as the tech shop 2.0. There is a curriculum associated with it though, which differentiates them from makerspaces in libraries, where there is no set curriculum. The use of makerspaces in schools isn’t necessarily driven by curiosity or learning for learning’s sake – it’s more formalized education – than in libraries. Whereas putting a makerspace in a library supports lifelong learning, learning without curriculum, learning for learning’s sake.

In retail stores, like an Apple Store or Home Depot, they aren’t necessarily accessible to everyone. Plus, if you break it, you buy it! It isn’t a public good like it is in a library – it is owned by the company. By creating these opportunities in libraries, we’re adapting to 21st century literacies. It’s more than just reading and writing. People need to understand how to be a creator, not just a consumer.

Most of the other spaces where makerspaces exist also have membership fees. Users pay membership fees to access tools and use the space. Libraries create an opening for people to experience the maker movement for free. Libraries spend 69% of their budgets on print materials.Libraries should think of their collections in terms of the community members they serve – your collection is your community. In that sense, it doesn’t make sense to spend the majority of the budget on print materials for all communities. Allocating budget for makerspaces isn’t just for buying technology, but also making room in the budget to bring in people to give talks and teach various things about making, as well as ensuring resources for staffing, training, and maintenance of the technology, just as libraries learned when they first installed public access computers and internet.

What about having makerspaces in other departments of universities rather than in an academic library?

It really goes to the idea of “the commons” – everyone goes to the library and everyone feels like they can go to and use the library. If there is a makerspace in the engineering department, not all of the university’s students, staff, and faculty would think they could go and use it.

What are some other innovative “maker” trends in libraries, aside from the technology?

One library has a steampunk club. It is a book club where the participants are reading a steampunk novel, and after they read the book, they are all tasked with making something from the novel. They try to build functional things based off of the ideas offered in the novel, trying to take something from an abstract idea and make it real.

Other libraries are offering Minecraft hackathons. People build cities and other creations in Minecraft and then there is an open-source program where can print it in 3D to make it real.

In Madison, WI, there are makerspaces in libraries that are very art-based, the Bubbler.

Who is using the spaces?

Who uses makerspaces in libraries is the focus Lauren’s research right now. There isn’t a lot of  evidence yet, outside of anecdotes and observations. To date, it seems though, that the majority of the people using these spaces are white adult men.

The same is true for makerspaces in general. Make magazine, the bible for the maker community, has a readership of 300,000. Of the readers, 81% are male, the median age is 44, the average household income is $106k, 97% attended college, and 83% are employed.

Even if a makerspace in a public library is technically accessible, how do we teach our kids, ourselves how to feel comfortable enough to approach and try using a makerspace, whether it is in a library or not? Access is not enough – just because you put a makerspace in a library, doesn’t mean that that is enough. Outreach needs to be done. If you just offer access and nothing else, the people that use it is very self-selected.

Are there libraries working with public education systems to try to bridge this gap, to encourage kids to come in and use the makerspaces?

A number of libraries have tried, but there is a push-back against the informal nature of makerspaces. There is resistance from some of the schools that say they don’t want libraries to offer makerspaces, in case the kids use it and “learn wrong.”

There are some things happening in K-12 education, such as Expanded Learning Day and Expanded Learning Time led by Citizen Schools, that could be good resources for people to look into how to marry makerspaces in libraries with formal education.

Strategies for training the trainers – how do you train a librarian to teach a patron how to make?

This is part of a much larger discussion about curriculum for librarians-to-be, but we didn’t go into that in our discussion. The first part is helping librarians understand why this is part of their job. Another part is helping them to understand they don’t have to be experts with this, that they are coming at this at a more equal playing field. Think of the librarian as a  facilitator, rather than librarian as an expert. This doesn’t just apply to makerspaces, but also to helping librarians deliver a lot of new services. Let librarians know it’s ok to just learn by trying and doing – you don’t have to know what you’re doing.

What’s up next for makerspaces in libraries?

The University of Maryland will soon release a study on what is currently happening in makerspaces in libraries, which will help those in the field think about what’s next for makerspaces in libraries.

Lauren recently completed the first year of her PhD program at the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University. While she has yet to settle on what her dissertation will focus on, her research is and will be focused on makerspaces and libraries. So definitely follow her to stay up-to-date on what’s happening with makerspaces and libraries.

What is clear, though, is that makerspaces and the maker movement are not going away. The White House is even hosting their own MakerFaire on June 18th!

Interested in more? Here are some resources Lauren has compiled on makerspaces and libraries:


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