In Part 1, I mentioned that there has been some recent interest by libraries in “maker spaces”, or if you prefer “hacker spaces”. That is, frankly, a big understatement. “Making”, has become such a buzz word it now comes attached to every library program and event that might even remotely relate, and people are getting sick of it. Sadly, only the smallest fraction of these programs get even close to capturing the true spirit of a maker space, so I will spend some time in explaining it here.
Compare and contrast this approach to media access, with the experience of attending an English Literature course. There is a set reading list. Class takes place at very specific times in the week. The teacher will inform you of important events and ideas relevant to the book, and you need to demonstrate an understanding of these to successfully pass the class. Any discussion of other media or books will somehow relate to these same events or ideas, and discussions of unrelated ideas or events will be considered “off topic”.
Ironically, many library programs on “How to Make X” are far more closely related to the “Class” experience, than they are to the “Library” or true “Maker Space” experience. This is not at all bad because both experiences are necessary to build “critical reading skills” – those skills that make you aware of influencing biases and fallacies hidden in the works you read. In class, any discriminatory influences will be pointed out to you. However you need the library experience to practice identifying these same influencing techniques in the books you choose for yourself. Being aware means we are less likely to be influenced, and more likely to form our own opinions.
Many people are very good critical readers. Fewer people are good at thinking critically about the designs of the items they use every day. Is your operating system biased against certain users? What about your smart phone or tablet? Maybe the design of your house and neighborhood? What about the thousands of other designed items and systems that influence how we do what we do every single day?
Obviously, not everything can be designed to be perfect for everyone. Hackers at least have the skills to take what they have been given, identify what they don’t like, and change it into something that works for them. (As an aside, I should mention that this is the difference between “making” and “hacking” – making starts from scratch, hacking alters something that was already made. Which you use simply depends on what you consider to be “already made”.)
One can learn the skills for hacking or making from library programs, classes or workshops. However, many people lose access to the tools and materials required to practice these skills as soon as the workshop is over, and therefore never get the chance to apply what they have learned for their own benefit. The more skills you acquire, the more tools you need, the more prohibitive the cost and space needs. For example, you may know how to operate a computer controlled lathe and do basic oxyacetylene welding, but you cannot afford to buy the equipment for both and neither will fit in your apartment very well. Your landlord might also complain.
Especially in urban and economically impacted areas, there is a huge need for a library of tools with an accompanying work space that can be accessed on a regular basis – in other words, a maker space – so that individuals can apply critical thinking or hacking skills, and have some control over the objects and systems that govern how they accomplish everyday tasks. Some of these tools, however, are significantly different from most things you find in a library, in that they can be very dangerous, very messy, very expensive, very delicate, and operating them is not often common knowledge.
There are many private maker organizations or communities that DO offer access to such tools and accompanying work spaces, but unlike libraries, these organizations can be selective about membership. They can deny access to those they suspect may be disrespectful of the communal nature of the space, or those who may cause damage to the equipment, themselves, or others. Public libraries, on the other hand, are accessible by everyone including babies, children, those with cognitive disabilities, people which emotional instabilities, and those who do not speak English – all groups of people who may not be able to make well informed decisions about the safe operation of certain equipment.
The issue of safety, of course, comes on top of the previously mentioned issues of space, staff expertise, and money. The good news is, not every library needs to offer access to a wood shop right away. In fact, it is quite possible that every library has the equipment and tools required to provide a simple maker space for children, right now. Every library programmer I know has a closet full of pom-poms, scissors, glue, popsicle sticks, googly eyes, construction paper, and cardboard. Creating a maker space simply requires placing these materials out so they are available for children and families to play with on a regular basis. Initiating conversations about what other tools or equipment patrons might like to see can begin from here.