Quick political economic overview of public library makerspace research

Here’s the most recent poster and abstract for research I am working on regarding makerspaces.

Crawford Barniskis poster_ALISE 2015

Crawford Barniskis poster_ALISE 2015_final



Policy for library makerspaces

owl oopsI am regularly asked for a policy for a library’s makerspace offerings. I’ve seen many of these, and provided a brief one elsewhere on this blog. But I was thrilled to recently be offered a shot at looking over East Troy Public Library’s policy. East Troy is a small town in Wisconsin, and is part of a group of libraries offering a mobile makerspace. I’ve been consulting with them for the past couple of years.

This file is the DRAFT policy penned by the wonderful director Alison Senkevich, along with my comments and suggestions. While it is not the final, approved policy, I love the thoroughness and thoughtfulness of the policy.

My main recommendation: Ensure that a comprehensive procedures book is created alongside the policy to guide specific, quantitative guidelines for staff to follow when training, and ensuring use of the materials is up to the policy’s standards. If they do that, I hope to be able to share that as well!

Let me know if you have ideas, recommendations, or amendments you’d like to propose. The makerspace model in libraries is full of promise, but without strong policy, any makerspace will probably look like the 3D printed owl on the left of the photo above–starting out well, but devolving into chaos. (Note: the cat you see in the background was responsible for this mess. We call her Pandora for a reason–she is the original curious, and destructive, cat.)

East Troy Library General Makerspace Policy_comments


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 (or seemed to cause) 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.