Library Makerspaces: Bringing Access to Knowledge in a Whole New Way

Gareth Branwyn

Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. And he has a new best-of writing collection and "lazy person's memoir," called Borg Like Me.

4021 Articles

By Gareth Branwyn

Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. And he has a new best-of writing collection and "lazy person's memoir," called Borg Like Me.

4021 Articles

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In 2009, Make: published a piece by then-contributor Phillip Torrone, entitled “Is It Time to Rebuild & Retool Public Libraries and Make ‘TechShops’? The piece was part of Torrone’s Soapbox column, a forum we created for him to editorialize about maker community issues and to challenge individuals and mainstream institutions to better serve the interests of makers. The library article began:

To me, public libraries — the availability of free education for all — represent the collective commitment of a community to its future. They symbolize what is most important, a commitment to educating the next generation. The role of a public library should also adapt over time, and that time is finally here. It’s time to plan how we’re going to build the future and what place public libraries have, should have, or won’t have. The goal of this article is to get everyone talking about one of our great resources, the public library, and its future.

The argument Torrone made was simple. Libraries were originally designed to serve the local community by providing something that individuals didn’t otherwise have access to and couldn’t afford to amass on their own: A deep library of books and access to a wider universe of information. But with the advent of the internet, those resources were now at much of the community’s fingertips. The buildings, budgets, and infrastructures of libraries were still there, but much of their core mission was draining away as traditional library usage was plummeting. In this day and age, he argued, the new thing that a community needed but didn’t have access to was not information–not books and magazines–but desktop fabrication and prototyping tools and the needed training on how to use them. New technologies like 3D printing, laser cutting, CNC, embedded systems, were still expensive or esoteric enough that most individuals couldn’t afford them and had no idea how to use them. Perhaps it was time for libraries to retool as makerspaces to provide these tools and training to the community.

techshop

Image courtesy of TechShop

At the time, lots of people thought it was a kooky idea. Or, that it was a great idea, but that it would never happen. But that conversation within the library community that Torrone hoped for, did, in fact, begin to happen. Soon, Maker Media was being approached by the American Library Association (ALA), CEO Dale Dougherty was invited to address ALA conferences, and eventually, a few library systems began taking the bold steps to build makerspaces under their roofs. Today, there are hundreds of library makerspaces, with more opening their doors every day. And the mainstream media is starting to notice. The Atlantic just recently ran a piece about the increasing appearance of such spaces in America’s libraries. I love how it begins:

If you could ask Ben Franklin what public institution he would like to visit in America today, I bet he would say the public library. And if you asked him which part of the library, I bet he would say the makerspace.

Ben Franklin is well known as a founder of the early subscription library, the Philadelphia Library Company, almost 300 years ago. It may be less well known that Franklin used the library’s space for some of his early experiments with electricity.

Today, perhaps taking a cue from Franklin, libraries across America are creating space for their patrons to experiment with all kinds of new technologies and tools to create and invent.

Beyond outlining the basic idea of a library makerspace, the piece goes on to describe the author’s experiences in the Fab Lab at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library in DC. This hit close to home because I live in Arlington, Virginia. But even closer still, I had recently been contacted by the Arlington Public Library system about maker programming that they are now running and a Maker Lab that they eventually plan to open at our wonderful central library. I was so thrilled to see that the idea that Phillip had discussed in this Make: column six years ago had finally spread all the way to my front door, both in that my library system was now planning a makerspace, and literally, where local library staff were on my doorstep asking me for my advice on setting up and programming their space.

We have watched the Maker movement grow so dramatically and satisfyingly over the past ten years and this is just another example of cultural and institutional changes we only could have dreamed about actually coming true. It’s a profoundly good feeling.

Does your local library have a makerspace or are they planning one? Ask, you may be surprised. If they are, you may be able to get involved. Or if they aren’t, maybe you can help spearhead making such a space happen. There is a lot of momentum in this area right now, and a growing collection of resources. The Open Education Database has a brief Librarian’s Guide to Makerspaces to get you started. The ALA also has a website dedicated to helping libraries build such spaces.

If Torrone was still doing his “Soapbox” column for Make:, what do you think his next bold idea would be? How about turning abandoned Walmart (and other big box retail) locations into makerspaces? As I was finishing up this piece, an article about doing just that floated across my transom.