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Makers Gonna Make: The Rise of Makerspaces in Libraries

Grace Dobush

Folks who haven’t spent a lot of time in their local libraries this century might still be under the impression that they are just repositories for musty books and shushing staffers.
But library use is on the rise, thanks in part to modern institutions reimagining themselves as places for creating, not just accessing, information. High-speed internet access and public computers are just the tip of the iceberg: Many libraries are now providing their patrons with tools including 3D printers, laser cutters, CNC routers, audiovisual gear, sewing machines and more.
A 2013 study by the Information Policy and Access Center at University of Maryland College Park found that nearly 17 percent of public library systems have some kind of makerspace. Clive Thompson’s recent piece in Wired further piqued my interest about the rise of makerspaces in libraries, so I set out to talk to some of the experts in the field.

The brave new library

Lauren Britton, a doctoral student of information science and technology at Syracuse University, is studying the trend closely and helped the Fayetteville Free Library in central New York develop its Fab Lab in 2011. “For a very long time, libraries’ mission statements were to provide access to information,” Britton says. “I think we do so much more, and this mission of access has shaped the way people see a library.”
Sharona Ginsberg, an IT consultant at the University of Michigan, runs MakerBridge, a resource for anyone interested in facilitating making, with a special focus on libraries and schools. “Makerspaces make so much sense for libraries, because libraries are there to serve the community, and a good makerspace should grow out of the community,” she says. “Libraries are all about encouraging learning, and makerspaces are an important way to encourage that.”
Since the advent of the internet, libraries have made teaching digital literacy part of their repertoires: giving the public the knowledge they need to find, use, evaluate, create and share information digitally, whether it’s on a computer, tablet or phone. Ginsberg suggests the next step in that evolution is for libraries to teach creative literacy: learning how to think through the process of making things.
Many of the most stellar library makerspaces aren’t in the biggest systems. One place that kept coming up in my conversations with librarians was the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Ind. Norm Compton manages the Access Fort Wayne TV studios and the Maker Lab at Main, and he told me a bit about how their program came to be.
“We’ve always been a maker of television, and now we’re makers from a larger scale,” he says. The library’s director was a big supporter of the makerspace concept, investing a quarter million in capital funding to the project, and a local nonprofit, TechVenture, brought people with the know-how to help support programming. A computer center in the main library was converted into a maker lab, and a second makerspace has opened in a branch library. In addition to 3D printers and audiovisual equipment, the Maker Lab is outfitted with sewing machines, soldering benches, computers with the Adobe Creative Suite and a vinyl cutter. With 3D printing priced at $1 an hour — and the machines lined up in the front windows of the main library — the barrier to entry is very low, and patrons’ interest is very high.

When it comes to creating a makerspace, “money and space are the biggest issues for libraries,” says John Burke, a library director at Miami University Middletown in Ohio. And if systems are struggling to maintain standard services and keep branches open, a makerspace might seem superfluous. But some libraries are revamping their mission statements to reflect their evolving services and goals. In the case of the Chattanooga Public Library, with the mission of being “the community's catalyst for lifelong learning,” makerspaces are a perfect fit, Britton says.
She also points out that libraries have to engage the community and implement training and education so the 3D printers aren’t just collecting dust. She points to the Detroit Public Library’s HYPE program as another great example. “They have really created an inclusive, diverse space that’s built around the community and the community’s needs,” she says.
“There’s worry about having the expertise on the library staff,” Burke says. “But you can reach out to people in the community to fill those gaps. It’s such a huge part of that maker ethos to share your knowledge with others.” Many public libraries with makerspaces have found support from maker groups in their communities, such as Allen County Public Library’s partnership with TechVenture and Detroit’s partnership with a local bike shop. And a makerspace doesn’t require a physical home to be effective. Fayetteville’s setup started with 3D printers on book carts that could go wherever needed, Britton says.
For cash-strapped library systems, the support of tech companies can be vital to making a makerspace reality. The nonprofit Techsoup connects those companies with libraries and nonprofits who desperately need hardware and software donations. Go here to learn more about getting involved as a donor partner.
For librarians who are on the fence about whether a makerspace fits in their institution’s mission, Meredith Nelson, who oversees the Johnson County Library’s makerspace in Overland Park, Kan., has two words for you: Do it. “We never expected this kind of turnout,” she says. “People were thinking too much, like, ‘What are you going to do with a 3D printer?’ We don’t know! And now it’s just a part of our library culture. It’s pretty incredible what people come up with.”

READ MORE: Three Quarters of 3D Printer Owners Report High Daily and Weekly Usage, Finds New CEA Study