Culture, Humanity, Maker, Social Justice, Uncategorized

Back for the Future: Makerspaces that Matter

Resharing this post from Eureka Factory, for which I originally wrote it.

When we first embarked on the library makerspace journey a few years ago, the concept was still relatively new.  3-D printers were all the rage, Maker Faires were the new state fair,  and makerspaces in libraries were cutting edge.

Six years down the road,  3D printers are still cool, and prices have dropped. But beyond rapid prototyping and small business uses, hobby use hasn’t gotten much beyond key chains and the ubiquitous plastic octopus.  Attendance has waned at the name brand Maker Faires, although independent maker festivals like Gulf Coast Maker & Comic Con have sprung up worldwide.  And makerspaces in libraries – well, they’re pretty common these days but mileage has varied and they’ve proven a bit too cutting edge for some libraries, where they’ve been scaled back to arts and crafts programming, or high end computer labs.

We bought in fully to the new age librarianship idea, that we could and should transform libraries in the 21st century with new functionality and resources. However, the basis for that contention was the belief that libraries still subscribed to the higher mission of serving as an intellectual sanctuary, providing a place for people to learn new things, develop new skills, and generally be interested in improving themselves. After all, that’s how we’ve always used the library.  We also subscribed to that idea of the Library as the Third Place, that vital gathering space that is neither home nor work, but the “third place” where we find community and like mindedness.

This isn’t to say that library makerspaces aren’t creating new opportunities for public engagement, providing those vital and safe Third Places,  or that people aren’t enjoying having these creative spaces and programming in their local libraries. But in our experience, a lot of what we’re seeing isn’t really much different than programming libraries were already offering, perhaps just with better work spaces and somewhat more sophisticated tools – and usually an underused 3-D printer.  In several cases, though, initially creative and innovative programming has been dialed back, and spaces that were filled with tools have become craft centers or repurposed back to meeting space.

What we failed to fully appreciate was that many libraries today are far more interested in bodies in the door than minds being enriched, and if adult coloring and rock painting will do it, then that’s what’s offered. Instead of the Third Place for communal gathering and knowledge sharing, this type of library functions more as an adult club house. Many feel that’s just fine – libraries should be safe central gathering places for fun and R&R.

But here’s the thing – there are no shortages of places to hang out, from community centers to meetups and malls and clubs. What there is a shortage of are real opportunities for intellectual growth and development that’s free and accessible to all. This is the niche that libraries were born to fill, but which in many cases is deeply diminished in favor of the customer service ethic of institutionalized amusement.

Drilling down a little more deeply, to better understand the issue, one of the things we’ve discovered is that the issue isn’t so much the whether the goal of library makerspaces is being realized, but whether libraries themselves have clear goals about their purpose in the community.  When we started looking, we discovered that there are as many library mission statements as there are libraries, from being “the world’s best library” to “attract and satisfy customers” to “facilitate a common library experience” and so on, often with little mention of literacy or knowledge development.

In an interesting article in the Austin American Statesman in 2015, about the evolving role of libraries, Austin Public Library spokeswoman Kanya Lyons said, “ We’re interested in providing the content in whatever container people are using at the time. We’re not pushing e-books, and we’re not saying we’re not going to have regular books. It’s what the people want.”

The library, noted the Statesman, “is becoming less of a repository for information and increasingly tapping into the community spirit by bringing people together.”

In 2013, the American Library Association created the Center for the Future of Libraries, to address the challenges of the 21st century library as a place “less about what we have for people and more about … a place where we’re connecting people to ideas and experiences.”

This trend of giving people what they want, which we’ve supported as well through our emphasis on community focus groups, may have taken an unintentional turn.  Many times, we discovered, over the course of running these “stakeholder” sessions,  people didn’t really know what they had a stake in, or fully understand the possibilities.

The original Carnegie Library, on which many American libraries were modeled,  opened in 1903 “to women, children, all races — African-Americans remember when it was the only place downtown where they could use the bathrooms. During the Depression, D.C.’s Carnegie Library was called “the intellectual breadline.”  No one had any money, so you went there to feed your brain.” (NPR ) Today, there is perhaps less of an interest in feeding our brains, than perhaps distracting them, in filling our time instead of minds.

Outside of the United States, the Carnegie mission – which can still be found in U.S. Carnegie Libraries today, to ” Engage our Community in Literacy and Learning” – still seems to hold great value, especially in developing nations like Bangladesh , which the British Council says “urgently needs greater access to reliable information for all its citizens.”

“Not only do they need vital information about health, safety, nutrition and public services, but they also want opportunities to develop their literacy, learn skills for employability, and take part in collective educational and cultural activities. In Bangladesh, information is essential to survive and prosper – and lacking the right information can lead to worsening economic poverty.”

Maybe we need to consider that not only developing nations need access to reliable information for all its citizens, and the tools to survive and prosper, but so do developed nations to prevent them from going dark. It is the height of hubris, and dangerous precedent, to believe that American libraries no longer need to serve deep informational and educational purposes.

We would suggest that this is not a mutually exclusive proposition – that libraries can still be safe and welcome social gathering places, but also places that connect people to important and challenging intellectual experiences, as they originally did. People have recreational opportunities everywhere. What we need as a society is a renewed valuation of knowledge and the development of critical thinking, core values for preserving our country and our Constitution, and prospering as a nation.

Library makerspaces continue to hold great potential for improving personal and social well-being through the development of valuable skills and new knowledge.  But to best achieve those ends,  we believe it’s time to embrace anew the knowledge-based purposes of our original libraries for a more nuanced road map to the future.  Libraries can take the path of least resistance as consumer and social services centers, or rise to the challenge of our current society and the issues we’re facing as a nation, and provide patrons with the intellectual tools, resources and skills we need to be better citizens, and which our public libraries are uniquely and historically positioned to provide.

Terri Willingham is the co-author of Makerspaces in Libraries (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) and Library Makerspaces: The Complete Guide (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018) , with contributors Steve Willingham & Chuck Stephens.  She’s currently working on another book project with Chuck Stephens.

She’s also presenting at two upcoming Tampa Bay Library Consortium events:


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