Over the last several years, makerspaces, maker lending, and maker programs have exploded in libraries. As we, libraries as a whole and agents of the library, develop the trend or determine if it is even a trend at all or something that will become integrated into the concept of a library long-term, we must do better to define and describe what it is we’re talking about when we talk about makerspaces, maker lending, and maker programs. When we focus on makerspaces (which I’ll use to refer to the whole package of making in libraries), we are primarily focusing on the space and the tools within that space. Those tools, in these discussions, are often limited to tools that deal with science, technology, and building in the traditional sense (think screwdrivers and hammers or Raspberry Pis and 3D printers). But I think we can do better.
So let’s start with, what is the purpose of a makerspace in a library? Answering this question brings a more robust understanding of not only what it is we accomplish with makerspaces (both intentionally and unintentionally), but also but what we could accomplish.
Space and Tools Create Opportunity
Customers of libraries in urban environments can appreciate the physical space found in a makerspace. Many of those customers live in small apartments without ample room to pursue projects due to space limitations or rules set by the building management. Surface area, such as large tables, may be lacking in these environments as well. But at a public library, we can create a space dedicated to making and building. Space is limited and this may require some shifting or even constructing an addition to the building, but as long as the budget is there and the town is on your side, there’s no reason a makerspace can’t be just that: space.
Similarly, many customers may find that the purchase of a soldering iron for one project isn’t practical. Perhaps the cost is prohibitive or simply not worth it for the one project. Maybe, again, space is an issue as the accumulation of tools can be a challenge of storage. Certainly the purchase of a workbench with the capability to withstand sawing would be impractical for most apartment-dwellers. But perhaps an apartment-dweller would like to build their own bookcase from scrap wood rather than make yet another trip to Ikea. None of their friends have such a setup to lend and so they are left with few to no options. Furthermore, if the individual has the funds and space for a workbench, they may still find the time spent reviewing, selecting, purchasing, and transporting the item is unreasonably high for the gain they expect.
The library can help.
While it may not be suitable for your particular library to purchase a workbench, I’ll continue with that as an example for the time being. So, say the library does have a workbench and, what’s more, an electric saw available for use. Perhaps the customer needs to reserve the bench in advance or maybe they can simply walk in. An individual who might not have had the space, or another who might not have had the money, can now accomplish a wide variety of projects.
This means one of the purposes of the makerspace is not just providing tangible things, but a sense of equity among community members.
Space, Tools, and Resources to Learn to Make
Small spaces don’t suddenly become large when an individual decides to learn how to solder. Makerspaces as spaces inherently provide a space to learn. With room to look at projects from different angles, move them around, and even pace while considering next steps, makerspaces facilitate learning in simple, passive ways. As makers interact with each other, project- and experience-sharing may happen organically, leading makers to teach and learn from each other, space is once again the crucial element.
But what we put in the space can influence learning, too. The presence and availability of tools, for one, empowers visitors to play and gain experience with these tools. Meanwhile, book displays that focus on particular types of projects or even famous makers can provide instruction or inspiration to visiting makers. Passive programming in which tools and supplies are set out either with or without instructions give makers the opportunity to create independently and learn through the process. Librarians or library staff may hold instructional sessions in which they teach a project, either through participatory demonstration or simple lecture.
Space to Share Making and What Has Been Made
With space to make individually, there is space to make collaboratively. Whether participants come in with the intent to collaborate or they come to work on projects independently and end up collaborating with or learning from each other, the open nature of the makerspaces allows for visitors to see what other visitors are working on. Surrounded by plenty of conversation material in the form of projects, it’s easy for visitors to comment on each other’s projects or ask how one accomplished some piece of a project or other.
And if makerspace visitors are interested in others’ projects, hosting a regular show-and-tell can serve several purposes. Visitors may have the opportunity to ask questions of makers. Makers can seek feedback from their audience. The community discovers what other community members are working on and may find other applications of the project for the good of the whole community. Show-and-tell need not be limited to the product itself; makers may bring examples of the fruits of their product (if, for example, the product is a machine that weaves friendship bracelets, the maker may wish to share some of the bracelets). Even moreso, the maker may wish to discuss or even demonstrate the process of making their project.
Space to Build Community
All of this serves to build community. As we provide the space and opportunity for building and sharing what has been built, we contribute to the structure of the community. Making not only contributes to the community as it potentially brings new technology to a neighborhood or the whole world, but it brings people together. Individuals may gather to collaborate on projects, creating relationships which continue to exist and grow outside the library and therefore building a stronger community as a whole.
Maker programming encourages community partnerships with the library as well. If your city is lucky enough to have a Tech Shop, for example, the library may wish to collaborate with Tech Shop to bring in expert speakers or encourage library makerspace users to visit Tech Shop or another makerspace for tools the library is unable to provide. The external makerspace gets publicity from the partnership, which may increase visitors to the external makerspace, especially if users are able to show their library card for a membership discount. Thus, not only do individuals create a network through the makerspace, but the library creates partnerships with other community organizations and individuals, both of which contribute to the strength of community.
At their hearts, makerspaces have two primary goals or functions: to democratize or create equity and to build community. Making space and tools available to create the opportunity to make and making space and tools available to create the opportunity to learn ultimately serve to democratize making. It’s not perfect — not everyone can get to the library. Constraints on time and transportation put up barriers still. As of now, there is little libraries can do to mitigate those obstacles. But by having a makerspace at all, we provide real, tangible access to space and materials that enable folks to learn to make and to make.
Meanwhile, these spaces which create the opportunity and occasion to come together either by design or organically serves to build community. When we host makerspaces or maker programs, we give people a reason to come and exist in the same place. As they occupy the same space, they share projects, ideas, and expertise. This creates a network that ultimately strengthens the community. Whether we’re offering the space to share the act of making or to share what has been made, we create opportunities for connecting. Then, when we invite individuals or organizations into our makerspaces, we create a link between ourselves (the library) and those organizations, who may in turn reach out to others to connect them with us. This web continues to grow, helping to build a community stronger than what already exists.
And isn’t making all about building, after all?