Makerspace is the hot topic this year. The American Library Association is running online classes on it. The New Media Consortium’s Horizon Report lists it as one of the hot up and coming topics. It is the theme for a number of conferences. Makerspace is a buzzword for remaking unused space into community involved space and extending the offerings of schools, libraries and other organizations. The skills required to conceive and operate a makerspace can be all over the map depending on the focus of the organization. But they are not calling for strictly defined skills. There are few places that even teach makerspace as a discrete field. In the spirit of the dot.coms of the last decade it is a field in development and most skills are self-taught or learned on the job.
Who is your audience?
Before choosing the space and the stuff you need to know who your audience is? Is it children, adults, a combination of both? Are they students?, student teachers?, hobbyists? crafters? Are they already makers? Local business people? Or a combination of a number of these groups? Libraries already serve a broad population depending on the type of library you may already have things in place. Obviously you can’t serve everyone at once so targeting the times the space/event is available is desirable. And, you don’t have to know it all. Each of these groups has or can develop expertise across a broad range of activities. Ideally your goal is to empower them to take the lead. It’s no longer a world of “sage on the stage” and even the youngest children have something to bring to the table—even to teach—and potentially create something new. As a practice I don’t let anyone get away who expresses some familiarity with something we haven’t offered yet. I recruit them as engineers of experience and expand the pool of expertise and enthusiasm that we can tap into.
Science, Technology and STEM
Libraries remade themselves 30 years ago when computers hit the scene. Computers were embraced and incorporated into the information and back end of the field. Like the rest of the world though, the inner delving and practical applications of the software were largely ignored except by systems librarians and IT people. The rest of us were satisfied that learning how to construct a proper Boolean argument was sufficiently high tech and alarming enough. In schools, shop and home economics departments were repurposed into computer and technology departments. Shop tools were phased out. The push for STEM (or STEAM-science, technology, engineering, art and math) has changed the playing field in education and in some cases added additional job qualifications or opportunities to the library field. Yet, I have been watching the job postings as they come up and realize that the idea of makerspace/hackerspace is still quite new and as undefined as the early days of computers. The desired qualifications range from engineers to artists and craftspeople. The way to learn it is “on-the-job” and it is more often driven by the passion of the person than any academic qualifications. Given the creative and innovative nature of the new discipline that makes sense. It also makes it hard to figure out how to get the experience that will qualify you to do it. At some point there will undoubtedly be an authority who declares that thus-and-so degree, accreditation or certificate will qualify a person as a maker. Until then it will remain passion driven and self-taught.
Art and craft with some design thrown in
Usually the artistic field coincides with the library field in the children’s area where crayons, markers and cut paper abound. These are key tools for teachers. But it’s not just child’s play anymore as both teens and adults are also learning to expect some sort of engagement with handwork and access to technology beyond word processing.
A class of natural makers has risen out of the creative sector. Artists and craftspeople who have been “making” as a way of life are finding their way into library and school makerspaces. Sometimes these folks happen to be librarians and teachers too. Creativity and problem-solving are the hallmark of creative workers and ironically are key factors in the success of makerspaces. They are also key to developing an innovative and nimble organization.
Makerspaces require staff. In the absence of hiring a person trained in science or art developing the current staff in the ways of makerspace is the often challenging goal. When activities perceived as “creative” arise they can be the source of a great deal of stress to individuals who don’t generally engage in creative activities or think of themselves as creative. With adults there is also a fear of looking foolish if one attempts something new and untried, particularly in front of teens or younger patrons.
You don’t have to be an expert
Makerspace activities can exhibit the best in effective teaching by transforming the old ways. Too often in libraries materials and devices are “over controlled.” That is, in the spirit of making sure things don’t get broken or stolen they are locked up and non-apparent. The very nature of makerspace calls for trying and failing and sometimes breaking things in the course of innovation and experimentation. The strength of the process lies in giving up and become a facilitator or co-learner. The most empowering statement can be, “I don’t know how it works/how to do it either, let’s figure it out.” For the patron, particularly a teen or child this opens up acknowledgement that they bring their own unique knowledge and experience to the table. To the librarian it opens up the freedom to experiment, learn and not have to feel like they have to be the expert. In the case of technology, the current world is one where the children are in their medium. It’s all they have ever known and there is a base comfort level that an older staff member might not feel. While there should be some oversight when starting out engaging the user as a knowledgeable learner and encouraging them to take ownership of their learning and the makerspace will go much further to preserving the equipment than keeping it locked up. If something does get broken then that opens up a whole new area to explore—that of fixing things or repurposing them—in itself, a whole activity of makerspace that is gaining ground.
To approach makerspace with a sense of play is key. The nature of play removes inhibitions because there is no judgement involved. Activities can continue as long as one chooses to engage. There can be a product or not and experimentation is required. There is no success or failure. There may be multiple attempts to accomplish something but without judgement. Failure is a necessity and a driving force.
Controlling the stuff
Makerspace generates lots of small parts. Some may be part of the equipment and some may be the result of the making. Some parts will get lost. Most replacement pieces these days can be located on the internet so losing the back door to a playmobil ambulance isn’t the end of the item. Often when staff are uncomfortable with unfamiliar items they lock them up to preserve them. To be successful items need to circulate–to be used– and even occasionally broken. There is nothing more discouraging than technology that sits in a closet, protected from the public until it is too old to be useful. The nature of makerspace incorporates the idea that things can be fixed and, in fact, fixing things is a true makerspace activity in itself. One activity might be a “fixing night” or a “repurposing” or “taking apart” activity. Makerspace moves people from being consumers to being creators. Some of that can include fixing things that once would have been discarded.
In a curriculum resource center that serves teachers in training and faculty it is important to allow the items and kits to circulate to allow the users to gain skill, bravery and familiarity so that they can present the possibilities to others with confidence. The only way to acquire this confidence is to have an extended time to “fiddle around”. People learn in many different ways but with some of the makerspace items “messing around” is the best way to develop skills or at least questions to bring back and examine.