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What is a Makerspace? Creativity in the Library

Submitted by Caitlin A. Bagley on December 20, 2012 - 12:06pm

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of posts by Caitlin A. Bagley. Learn about the makerspace at Carnegie Public Library (Pittsburgh) in our free webinar Monday, January 7, 2013 at 2:00 p.m. Eastern. Register.

I first heard of makerspaces when, as I sat in my office, a colleague called me over to see if I wanted to join a webinar on makerspaces. Listening over her shoulder, I heard phrases like DIY, and tools kept popping up. Not the usual web-based tools talked about in webinars, physical tools... y’know, wrenches and pliers? Real tools. I’ve always seen libraries as community centers for people to gather and work together, but this? It stretched my imagination.

When most people think of libraries, they naturally think books. Anyone working in a library today, however, knows that we are so much more than just books. Libraries are places of community engagement. Recently many libraries have begun to develop spaces for design and activities that both teach and empower patrons. The learning in these spaces varies wildly--from home bicycle repair, to using 3D printers, to building model airplanes. Fittingly, they are called makerspaces.

Makerspaces have evolved from hackerspaces and Maker Faires. Defining a makerspace can be somewhat difficult due to the differences among spaces and activities, but the emphasis is on creating with technology. STEM education (science, technologly, engineering, math) has been quick to embrace these spaces and technologies, but it is important to stress that makerspaces are not for STEM activities only. Jeff Sturges of Detroit’s Mt. Elliott Makerspace said in ALA TechSource’s December 3 makerspace webinar, “Beyond engineering and STEM, this is about creating creative people.” He’s absolutely right. The maker movement in libraries is about teaching our patrons to think for themselves, to think creatively, and to look for do-it-yourself solutions before running off to the store. In short, a makerspace is a place where people come together to create with technology.

So who uses makerspaces? Anyone! Already libraries of all types have found a way to create makerspaces. Most of these early makerspaces are in public libraries, each with a different focus, some working only with children, and others with adults. Academic libraries also are developing makerspaces, as are school libraries. Early experiences show that the potential users of makerspaces are not limited to a specific demographic. If you have patrons and you’re looking for a unique method of outreach, a makerspace might be the course for you.

Odds are high that you’re a maker yourself. When I think of skills I taught myself or learned growing up, they align well with what many makerspaces are doing today. Didn’t my mother teach me how to knit? Didn’t my father teach me to fix a flat tire? Didn’t I spend hours as a teenager teaching myself HTML to build my first Web pages and blogs? Makerspaces are about encouraging our patrons to take initiative and to learn and create. When those patrons walk out our doors, they will know about a project, yes, but they will know also that they are capable of doing more and that the library will help them accomplish it.

The use of library services has blossomed during this economic downshift, and I think that makerspaces are a reflection of the times. Here we have people coming together as a community to fix things, creatively and cheaply, and to continue to maintain and create, including those who lack individual purchasing power. This is true library form: accepting and helping everyone, together, as a community.

In the next several months, I will be collecting stories about our library makerspaces for a book to to be published by ALA and LITA. As I explore and learn, I will write occasional posts to the blog. Do you have a makerspace in the works?