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.

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