Research in library makerspaces–a good idea?

I was recently at a meeting in which one of the participants challenged the idea that LIS scholars should investigate what occurs in makerspaces “after the fact.” Her point (as I understood it) was that the practitioners should have the skills to pragmatically assess outcomes, instead of awaiting for white-coated researchers to come & tell the practitioners what was “really” happening.

I had to let this percolate a while. Because while she was absolutely spot-on, she was also absolutely missing (part of) the point.

My answer to this critique is that we need both feet-on-the-ground practitioners and theoretically-rich scholars to look at stuff together. Librarians should do outcome measures assessment. AND scholars should do research. Ideally each would help the other do their thing better for the good of the field in general. But I feel like this needs some fleshing out, so I’ll do this here:

  1. Some reasons why practicing librarians could kick ass as researchers

Practicing librarians (contrary to the expectations of some academics, many of whom have never worked in a library) are pretty smart. They are fully capable of the reflexivity, theoretical richness, and careful conceptualization that good research entails. They are not trained to do this, but so what? Anyone can learn anything, and learning research skills, though a complex task, is well within the range of any moderately intelligent person.

Librarians have the added advantage of understanding the complexities of a case—why something relates to something else, why so-and-so does that, and how x caused y. It can take a researcher AGES to learn this stuff, and they never get it all.

Librarians are situated where the action is. Researchers have to make up fake situations (we call them experiments) if we can’t get access to the “real” action. (Yes, there are other reasons for experiments. Whatever.) Researchers are dying to get access to the real empirical data and  interactions, and librarians are marinating in the stuff. Lucky them.

Practicing librarians are already gathering all kinds of data, including survey data and all sorts of metrics.

  1. Why they generally DON’T kick this research-ass

They are not, as I noted, trained in research. They often ask really lousy questions, which are not carefully explicated, and don’t link practice to any sort of overarching theory (all of which could be said about a hunk of LIS research in general). They may or may not be well-read in social theory, and they likely have no idea of the scope of LIS research in general. They often don’t have access to the expensive databases containing the research articles, or don’t read research for a variety of other reasons.

They may be too close to the stuff happening. Reflexivity is possible, but challenging. They also may be too close to see that their stuff is interesting or useful for a general audience. They may have relationships with patrons that both help AND hinder research (I think this is likely a wash, with somewhat more advantages accruing to being situated and participatory already, but I have little evidence to support that opinion).

They may be looking “too” micro at stuff that could be explained with “macro” level theory. Anything from Bourdieu to Heidegger might be useful in conceptually linking what’s occurring on the ground, but they may not know that.

Practitioners are gathering data, but this data may be too inwardly-focused or individualistic to be useful, other than a “how we done it good” explanatory case study. Their outcome measurements might be focused on the “wrong” thing, or at least and unexamined set of assumptions (again, so so so true for LIS research in general).

Here’s an example: at the meeting where this issue came up, the focus was on “learning.” When one focuses on learning instead of other outcomes, one uses a particular set of measuring tools and assumptions that may not be the most ethical ones, the richest ones, whatever. Or they might be exactly what is needed, for very particular reasons. But if those reasons aren’t carefully sussed out, the research won’t be useful at all. Case in point: the “social capital” research done by a few people in LIS (not the awesome Norweigan PLACE studies) doesn’t appear to really understand social capital, uses quirky tools to measure it, and isn’t very generalizable.

Finally, in the interests of time and maximizing service, ideally practitioners would focus on practice, and scholars focus on research, with a lot of partnering up and cross-pollination. In this way, practitioners don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but can add the amazing to a project, and let the academic types do the theoretical backstory work. And academics will add the depth and flavor (in a perfect world) and perhaps even some new points of views to practice. And let’s face it, librarians have enough on their underfunded plate without having to learn research from scratch on top of it.

But, for whatever reasons, some practitioners appear to dislike theory, academic researchers, and the idea of academics doing research in their libraries. Not sure why. Probably LIS does a lousy job of teaching theory and showing how it literally frames every decision we make from the moment we get up in the morning. But I hope more practitioners will start seeing the benefits of partnering with scholars to get grounded, useful research done on topics like:

Library fines—I’m working on this right now. What happens when fines go away? We don’t know, because no one has done the research since 1988.

Library boards—are they helpful or do they hinder? When does which thing happen? Are there best practices we could be disseminating to use our trustees insights while not getting bogged down if they try to micromanage? Don’t know, there’s no research.

Library policies—what happens when you add or change a policy on just about anything? We largely don’t know.

Library programs—there are like 2 things published on these. I exaggerate very slightly—other than the barely-researched-storytime, we know nothing.

And so on. I’m hoping the UWM SOIS Public Library Collaboratory will help to bridge research and practice so we can learn this stuff, and start gathering useful data that practitioners can actually use in their funding, staffing, programming, policy-making decisions. If you are interested in participating in research at your library what would you want to study? How involved would you want to be?

FAQs: dangerous tools in the library

I’ve been asked how my library (that I left in late 2013) handled dangerous tools such as soldering irons in our library makerspace. Here is how I’ve answered these questions:

As a small library we were often able to accommodate fairly dangerous activities safely that larger libraries might worry about, including soldering. We do have a liability release form, which we adapted from existing makerspace forms (one is here, adapt as you like but vet with your legal counsel).

What about kids and dangerous tools?
We never had more than five kids soldering at one time and often had two adults overseeing them. But sometimes adults were not closely supervising individuals, but let me explain how this worked:

We held several soldering workshops in which people of all ages (but mostly kids) learned to solder LED pins, printed circuit board kits such as the Octolively, and robot kits. We followed the “learn one, do one, teach one” model, in which each person “certified” to use the soldering tools on their own had to learn from us, demonstrate good skills and safety in a later interaction, then teach someone else how to do the task safely and well. At that point we used our best judgement to allow people to use the tools in a traditional makerspace manner–i.e. whenever they wanted to. Still, if the solderers were kids that we were concerned about being distracted, we would keep a close eye on them as they worked with the tools.

Our rules were:

1. MOST IMPORTANT: Always treat the soldering iron as if it is hot. At 475 degrees you’ll burn anything you touch, so it’s critical, even if you JUST saw someone taking the iron out of its box and plugging it in, to treat it as if it is at full temp. No waving it around. Always return the iron to its stand immediately.
2. Keep the mat under your work. We bought mats that one can iron clothes on, to prevent an accidental “set down” of an iron from melting or burning the table. (Before that we’d had one kid get distracted and set the iron on the cardboard she had under her  project. Since we were watching closely, it barely touched the cardboard before we told her to pick it up, but this made us aware that even with supervision, accidents happen.)
3. Use the helping hands. These are little metal stands that have clips on them to hold whatever you’re soldering.
4. Keep your grip far back on the solder. (i.e. don’t hold it so close to the part that’s being melted that heat travels up and burns your fingers, causing you to drop everything in alarm–this never happened)

5. Learn to fix your own mistakes, but make sure you tell someone when you’ve made one. (We helped extra with mistakes because it seems like it is easier to do stupid stuff with the soldering iron when frustrated.)

Did you have any incidents or problems?
The slight charring of cardboard is the only incident we ever had, and it happened only once. That said, these were good, responsible kids (and adults) who listened to directions, took our authority seriously, and WANTED to be able to continue using the tools. We told them that if there were an incident, it was likely the tools would go away forever. So, keep that in mind. I’ve had other batches of kids (and adults) who I’d never trust with soldering irons unless we were one on one. And even then, I’d worry. USE YOUR JUDGEMENT–KNOW YOUR PATRONS.

soldering hands

Did you hire expert teachers?
I was the “expert” and had never soldered before in my life. I learned via the fabulous Ladyada, Limor Fried, practiced a few times, then taught. No problem. I had another volunteer “teacher” in exactly the same position. She and I did great, and I think it made a great impression on the girls and women in the audience that we had just learned and were already pretty good, and we were female. I now teach classes on this and have taught a hundred or so librarians to solder! (if your library system wants a program on makerspaces, I’d be happy to consider it–I’ve done it for several systems so far)

Anyway, we did have expert volunteers for other stuff, such as robotics, and circuit bending, but usually I learned it, then taught it. For me, there are a lot of power/pedagogical reasons to be just ahead of the kids when teaching, and letting them surpass you is great. As I noted before, often the kids took over some of the teaching (part of our learn one, do one, teach one model) and our best soldering & 3D printing teacher was actually just shy of his 12th birthday.

Should I be concerned about kids using dangerous tools? What age limits should we consider?
Yes, you should be very concerned about kids using soldering irons. We had kids age 11+. Again, these were calm, responsible kids. I knew them, at least by name–I was not the teen librarian. I would have a great deal of concern about a rowdy group, one that “shows off” a lot when in groups, or kids I didn’t know at all to be fairly laid back. If you have kind of wild kids, I would highly suggest getting a 1:1 ratio of volunteers to eagle eye every move during the initial training period. And give kids plenty of elbow room so they don’t burn someone whilst gesticulating with soldering iron in hand!

Younger kids also soldered during our maker faire type of event, but only with their parents right there.

Where did you use soldering irons, and what about the fumes?
We soldered in both a small classroom and in the library proper. I was not concerned about the fumes, because we had good ventilation naturally circulating, but if you are concerned, see my post on 3D printing and air quality here.

I feel like the very limited time that people will be soldering, the large scale of most libraries, and the frankly small level of fumes being spewed out by the solder probably make this a non-issue for libraries. Now, if you’re doing intensive work over hours and/or have a small space with poor ventilation, that may be another story.I am not an expert on this, and your mileage may vary.

What other dangerous tools could people use?
Exacto knives are particularly terrifying, moreso than soldering irons, because people don’t respect their danger.
Dremel tool, hammer, scissors, paper guillotine (honestly, we never let this out in the makerspace area!), PVC pipe ratchet cutter, boiling water, oven and stove, knives, garlic crushers…
books, ideas, pen (being mightier than sword) and so on.

Any further questions? Check out my other FAQs, email me, or comment here. I also do workshops on all these tools and makerspaces in general.

FAQs: Advice on makerspaces in libraries

1. How did you determine that you wanted to offer Maker programs/space in your library?
Really, just like most people I’ve spoken with, it was just an obvious step forward for me, so it’s difficult to pinpoint how I decided to do this. The first time I heard about a 3Dprinter several years ago, I tried to get my then-boss to allow to me write a grant for it, and failed. As soon as I became a director, I started moving forward with a makerspace, first the easy steps of adding a digital media lab, then a 3D printer and other tools. I’ve always (for the last 15 years) offered maker-type programming and it wasn’t so different to add open access to tools of production for a variety of ways to create. I am a maker and had talked with many others, hosted a “maker fair,” hackathon, and tried a Maker Camp before entirely committing to full-on “makerspace” services though–it makes no sense to add stuff your community won’t want.

2. Who initiated the project and how many staff members did you have on your implementation team?
It was just me. In a tiny library in a town of fewer than 2500, it is often just one person who does everything, and in this case, I took the makerspace project on alone as the director. I did work with a local maker group somewhat, when compiling a wishlist of equipment, and they did programs for the library.

Unfortunately, since the only person who really worked with the makerspace stuff aside from me was my VERY-part-time teen library assistant, when I left a couple of months ago, no one really had a sense of what to do next. I’d taught them how to use the equipment and thought I’d done a good job of presenting the “why,” but now only the teen librarian is furthering the use of the space, I think. The new director is interested but I think it’s largely unpromoted right now until I can train her in use of the stuff.

3. Please describe the space you use for your Maker programming. If it is a dedicated space, what is it called?
We have a pop-up space, which means that the equipment is on a cart and shelves in the library, and those who are “signed off” on various tools can use them as they wish. So people will come in and use the 3d printer connected to a computer that’s in the computer lab area, or use electrical or robotics equipment or music-mixing stuff on one of the tables in the main library space, in a very small study room, or in the program room. It doesn’t really have a name, just ‘the makerspace stuff.’ we offer digital tools of all kinds, Arduino and Raspberry Pis, a Printrbot, soldering irons, electronics equipment, robotics kits, Technic legos, jewelry making supplies, knitting tools, a pasta machine, Dremel tool and other hand tools, and all kinds of other stuff. We’re working on adding a laser cutter and more advanced robotics tools, which would be shared with other libraries in a roving makermobile.

4. What types of programs do you offer?
Everything from cooking to coding to chainmail. I interpret makerspaces as “any participatory creative space that is open for the free use of all library patrons to interact with at will, irrespective of the types of workshops, tools, staffing, materials created, or location.” This means that knitting and soldering are equally welcome and supported in the makerspace. Cooking is actually the most popular program–we don’t just demo, but people of all ages come together to make food and eat it, often some type of ethnic food such as Ethiopian or Thai.

5. Is your space open to the public when you don’t have programs?
Yes, it’s open. People need to be signed off, meaning that they or their parent/guardian have signed a form saying they understand the dangers of the space and won’t sue us if they burn themselves or whatever. Then for each “dangerous” tool, they are taught how to use the item, watched as they use it, and teach someone else how to use it. Thus learn it, do it, teach it model works well for ensuring that the very limited staff doesn’t have to be on hand for every use of the tools. But we do keep a sharp eye on kids using everything to ensure nothing stupid occurs. And we often must, due to this limited staff situation, ask people to wait to learn how to use the tools until either a program is offered or another maker can teach them.

6. Do you have external partnership/sponsorships?
Yes, at least we were granted some start-up funds from Alliant Energy Foundation and the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, and are hoping for an LSTA grant. We partnered with the local Maker Meetup group at the start as well, though that partnership has waned since I left. New partnerships with other libraries, the schools, the local historical society, and senior centers were in the works when I left.

7. Any other quotes/stories/advice you’d like to share with other organizations considering making the leap?
This advice is based not just on my experience, but my interviews with librarians and patrons:

The first advice I have is theoretical.I encourage librarians to really think of what libraries are and do, what the role of the librarian actually is. I think–and nearly everyone I’ve interviewed thinks–that offering access to tools is no different from offering access to other materials. It is all about supporting people’s ability to pursue knowledge. The types of tools stems from the types of knowledge your community might want.

The second bit of advice is practical, but stems from the theoretical. Once you’ve decided to embrace access to knowledge as a goal do two things: 1. Talk to everyone outside the library to find out what they’re making or would like to make. Dismiss nothing as unlibrary-like if you think it supports your mission. If patrons want to make nail art, buy an LED light for curing nail polish; if they want to weave, buy a table loom. Find the community first, then offer the tools. 2. But be ahead of what they think to ask for, just as in collection development, where you purchase not only the bestsellers, but oddments that need to be handsold to particular patrons. So a 3D printer (or whatever) may be the best way to market library innovation and catch the attention of the patrons, even if it’s not the tool that makers actually want or need. It will be used, and often you can’t buy a marketing campaign for the $600 it costs for a Printrbot Jr. Put this printer or other cool tool on the checkout counter where people can’t miss it.

The third bit of advice, and the most important, is to consider your role. The librarian’s role is key to the success of a makerspace. If the librarian isn’t connecting people to stuff they may have never expected to find at libraries, the makerspace may not succeed.

Any further questions? Check out my other FAQs, email me, or comment here. I also do workshops on all these tools and makerspaces in general.

FAQs: 3D printers in the library

I am regularly asked about 3d printers and makerspaces in libraries, enough that I think it might be useful to collect all the information I have in one place. So, here are the answers I’ve given to the buckets of questions I’ve received, all based on my own experience, and the information garnered from my research on library makerspaces:

Which printer?
I LOVE my Printrbot Jr v2. It’s easy to build–and BUILD IT even if you know nothing about electronics or machinery, because otherwise it will be hard to fix–and easy to use, with excellent prints. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Cost is $599 for a kit.

DON’T buy the Makerbot, in my opinion. For a variety of reasons, including, most importantly:
1. It’s no better than the printrbots really, and you could buy 3 printrbot jr machines for far less than the cost of 1 makerbot and always (presumably) have one working. Makerbot print quality doesn’t look much better, and it breaks just as often, from what I’ve been told.
2. Makerbot is sort of the evil empire of 3D printing. They took opensource hardware, which has an ethical code to return any innovations to the opensource community, and closed it, sold out to a huge patent-hogging company, made money. This is not playing nicely with others. And open-source fits better with the library ethos of access. Of course, this is my opinion, and you can do as you wish!
4. It IS very easy to use. Just not that much easier than other printers.

So, I ‘ve hear that any of these opensource machines (get kits when possible) are also good:
Bukobot or Bukibot
Printrbot Simple. or Plus

or these pricier, sometimes closed source, models:
Type A Machines series 1
LulzBot TAZ (awesome–I want one!)
Felix 2.0
Ditto+

How do you use the 3d printer?
We use it similarly to our copier/printer–it’s openly available for anyone to use, as long as they have been trained in its use. We also had programs to teach people to use the printer.

How do you train people to use it?
Learn one, do one, teach one. This is a traditional training method. I was working on a sort of badge-card when I left the library, in which people who had a permission/liability release form signed got a card. Then when they were trained, they would get a sticker; when they made something with a piece of equipment, they get a sticker; when they taught someone else to safely use the equipment, they get their final sticker. At that point, they’d be free to use that equipment more or less unsupervised–OBVIOUSLY subject to the best judgement of the library staff (I’ll post on “dangerous” tech such as soldering irons soon). I am not sure if that card system was implemented, but it should work fine. (We were just posting notes on the permission form and in the patron’s computer record, which was tedious.)

What were the policies around using the 3d printer?
Anyone who was trained as above was free to use it. I started to require people to allow me to be the one to change filament or fix jams, because sometimes, even with training, people didn’t really know what they were doing. It was a first-come, first-served service. You had to wait with the printer while the print was ongoing. I spoke with several librarians in my research on what they’d “allow” to be printed. Here’s a quote from my article (in review):

A librarian with a long-running makerspace noted a strong material connection between 3D printing technology and intellectual freedom. He said that one of the early users of his library’s 3D printer built a model of a grenade, leaving him to wonder, “Do I need to write a policy saying they can’t make certain kinds of things?” He decided that the answer was emphatically “No,” and that intellectual freedom means the freedom to create anything. If users were comfortable sitting next to the printer for the six hours required to print a sex toy, he was not going to stop them.

I believe this is absolutely the correct stance to take. Anyone censoring what is created better be ready for a intellectual freedom challenge!

What did you charge for printing?
Nothing.We also didn’t charge for paper printing. We asked people to donate, and came out more than even that way.

What did it cost to run?
Not much. A 2 kg spool of filament costs around $35 and lasted us 4 months or so. It’s not a big cost. The thing to keep in mind is that print times are long, so even with the printer being used a lot, only so much filament can be used per minute. It won’t break your bank.

Where do you put it?
A printrbot jr only takes up about 24 square inches of space. We put ours on the front counter at first, to capture people’s attention as they were checking out materials. Then we put it on a table in the computer lab area. Be aware that the extruder gets hot. If you are concerned about someone touching it, put it where they can’t–but they’d have to actively try to burn themselves, as the printrbot has an insulated sleeve mostly covering the hot parts. We never had a problem; I’ve never been burned even when working on the hot-end. Still, in the interest of not getting sued, you may choose to place it in a safe location. Just make sure it’s visible, because crowds of people will want to watch it.

What about small libraries? Is a 3d printer a big draw?
My community was pop. 2340. It was not the AMAZING draw I’d hoped, but was very, very good. Too many people in that town didn’t know what a 3D printer was to get excited about one. However, when they came in and saw all the stuff we had, then they were intrigued.

Will the 3d printer be “abused” by kids wanting to print toys?
I had kids printing iphone cases and animals over and over, but I didn’t see it as abuse, I saw it as them doing what the stuff was there to do.

Does having a 3d printer take a lot of staff time? Time to print? Lot of maintenance?
It will take a lot of time. Sometimes. These are not consumer electronics yet. They break and there are no repair people. You are the repair person. I recommend buying a kit and making the printer. Even a complete electronics idiot can do this, I know, because I did it. I highly recommend the Printrbot Jr. I have my own, and that’s what I bought for the library. Excellent machine, easy to fix once you’ve built it. If you leave the printer out for anyone to use, you will find that some yahoos tinker with it, unscrewing things, or messing with the filament. If I were you, I’d make up a rule saying hands off. Let the librarians change filament, etc.–which very rarely needs to be done. Then, if you see someone has the expertise to take care of it, make an exception for them, consider them a printer pro or whatever.

Print times are lengthy. To print an iphone case can take an hour or so. Make people stay by the printer for the whole print, not just leave and pick it up later. You’re not a Kinkos, and people need to do the job themselves (in my opinion, and that of several others I’ve spoken to).

Anyway, I was only a librarian 15-25 hours a week because I’m working on my PhD full time, and was the only person to really deal with the printer. I had no problems keeping up. Some days I told people the printer was not available because I needed to clear a jam or something (which has never happened with my own v2 printrbot, by the way, only with the library’s v1)

Do you have one computer hooked up to the 3d printer? Is it wireless?
We had one computer hooked up, but were working on getting it hooked to a Raspberry Pi computer ($40) and running it over the web via Octoprint. I still haven’t done this for my own computer because I’ve gotten so good as using the Repetier/Slicer programs and hate to relearn everything. But if I were you, I’d go straight to the Raspberry Pi/Octoprint setup. Then anyone can log onto the Octoprint site online, and send their print job to your Pi’s IP address. Easy.

Do you need a program to design what you’re going to print?
I use Openscad. Also have available Sketchup and 123D Catch, and Blender. Openscad is a pain to learn, so find some kid to teach you how to use it and spend some time playing.

Do you need to be tech savvy or know about this stuff beforehand?
No. I knew nothing, and learned along the way. Just be OK with confusion and the scientific method. Write everything you try down. I built my printer, have fixed printers, and had absolutely NO machinery skills beforehand. It’s really not hard. But then my personality is comfortable with learning by doing, and is used to befuddlement. You may be different. Try connecting with your local makers–even if you think there are none around. Check Maker Meetup or any local robotics clubs, hardware stores or Radio Shack. They will often help you out. One of the library’s best teachers was 11 years old.

Where do you get filament?
I get my filament on ebay–cheap! Check this list for further suppliers, but don’t buy too much in advance–I think filament can “go bad” though I haven’t seen it happen.

What about the emissions of the melted filament?
See this post for more on this issue.

Do we really need to get one of these things?
No. And perhaps you should not. I am pretty critical of over-technologizing making, and focusing only on the “sexy” hightech stuff. Start a knitting club if that’s what your local makers want. But that said, it’s a pretty inexpensive and cool way to signal that the library is (and always has been) a tech-savvy place. For whatever it’s worth, I can pretty much guarantee that some sort of creative tools and space fits within your library’s mission (from my intensive research on mission statements.) And some people who have never come to your library before will come if you get one.

Any further questions? Check out my other FAQs, email me, or comment here. I also do workshops on all these tools and makerspaces in general, for libraries, systems, or classrooms.