Sunday, 30 November 2014

Maker Article: Introduction As Intended

Earlier this month I was pleased to see an idea I'd been working on for months appear in CILIP Update. It was a feature on Makerspaces in libraries that had been co-authored by a number of individuals working on library / make projects around the country.

I'd originally come up with the idea for the feature after failing for the second time to secure a CILIP/ESU bursary to go and research them in the US. Commentary from that second interview included the words, "I just don't see what value these activities bring to libraries." At that point I knew I was never going to win the panel over. I also knew I wanted to prove them wrong. So far feedback around the article has been positive and while I'd think twice before embarking on a similar project again I do think the effort has been worth while.

With only 2000 odd words to play with a lot of interesting bits didn't make the final cut. I was especially harsh when editing the introduction because I wanted to make room to show case the projects that were the real stars. Therefore this post is an opportunity to post the introduction as I originally intended it.

Since the article was written the featured projects and libraries have continued their work and developed. Gateshead will be offering Code Clubs and Coderdojo from January in order to support schools in the delivery of the new curriculum while Common Libraries, a partner to the primary organisations behind The Waiting Room, (Creative Co-op and Colchester School of Art) is spreading it's arm beyond the UK. It is currently working with the Tunapanda Institute to create a wireless mesh network to create a new kind of library that will support communities in Kenya. It's an area of technology beyond my expertise but is worthy project in that it will be working with communities very much in need. More information on the Kibera Mesh Network project can be found on the Common Libraries website and you can contribute to the funding needed to get it off the ground here.
Dundee Libraries, mentioned briefly in the published introduction as the first UK library to utilise a 3D printer, also seems to be developing it's offer with it's twitter account indicating that they have been working with local schools and students as well as participating in the Dundee Science Festival that took place in November.

So here is the introduction as intended, opinions are most definitely all my own:

Makerspaces in libraries are about sharing resources and knowledge to create something new, be that an object, experience or a skill. They teach problem solving, encourage interest in STEM and allow both adults and children to learn through creativity. Most importantly they democratise access to skills and technology by putting both in the public domain, rather than within institutions or closed communities.

In America library makerspaces are well established and operate under several different models, from the large scale enterprises of Chattanooga's 4th Floor to the slightly smaller set up of the Tekventure makerspace - located in a converted shipping container in Fort Wayne. Marginally nearer to home, on the east coast, New Jersey State is subsidising a number of initiatives ranging from a handcrafting space in a public library to a mobile makerspace that will travel events and libraries around Somerset County.

Back in the UK there is a well established maker movement with meetups in many towns around the country. While several years behind activity in the US the movement is slowly taking hold in public libraries, materialising itself in different forms, not all associated with the 3d printing technology that so often appears to be the focus in this area. In many cases library/make spaces are growing up as joint ventures.

However not all in the maker community see libraries as natural partners. Mark Miodownik, of UCL and The Institute of Making, raised a number of eyebrows back in March when he shared the opinion that libraries as institutions were redundant and that councils should give over library buildings to maker organisations in order to better serve their communities. In just a few sentences he created an "us or them" mentality around libraries and makerspaces, while (in my opinion) also showing a fundamental lack of understanding around what libraries do and the ways in which libraries and makerspaces can compliment and grow from each other. He did however explain quite well the value of making in the modern world and why it is an activity that should be supported and developed. You can listen to that interview on the BBC website here.

The feature (Available in the November 2014 issue of CILIP Update) is intended to be a snapshot of activity of public library maker and hacker activity in the UK at the moment. It makes no claims to be comprehensive, maker activity has existed in some form in libraries for years and every week we see an new event or initiative come to fruition. The Oldham Hackspace Hack the Library event and the 3d printer demonstration at Upper Norwood Library are just two that I’ve been made aware of recently and there has been activity in academic libraries for years.

The articles explore the activity happening in public libraries at the moment, the work that has gone into bringing ideas to fruition and the challenges around creating spaces that meet the needs of communities. The work at The Waiting Room compliments the projects, in that it provides a toolkit for organisations seeking to start their own Makerspace.

Invariably any discussion around making in libraries attracts some uncomfortable questions including whether 3D printing has any place in libraries at all. Add in community run libraries, shared delivery models with private enterprises and a move towards income generation and you will naturally come across differences of opinion. Even the good practice in Exeter at the FabLab is not without controversy if you look at the wider situation in Devon Public Libraries. The central library may be a shining example but arguably it has come at the cost of local libraries around the county that have either been closed or are under threat. This model, increasingly seen across cities in the UK, favors centralised hubs over smaller libraries, often putting services, however good they are, beyond the geographic reach of the communities and individuals that need them. I understand the economic arguments behind this centralised model, yet still I find myself not entirely comfortable with the concept.

Without doubt the role of volunteers in delivering these services also raises questions at a time when local communities are effectively being blackmailed into running libraries on a volunteer basis. However, as the volunteers from the Fablab in Devon demonstrate, many of the skills needed in a maker space are very different to traditional library skills. Activities around making and hacking demonstrate the value of volunteers when they operate in a mutually beneficial arrangement that adds value to library services. In this sense community involvement in library makerspaces is essential. This appears as a key theme throughout the libraries appearing in the feature, as does the equally vital element of developing partnerships with organisations such as schools, universities and the maker community in order to create a sustainable service, rather than just jumping aboard the 3d printing band wagon because there is a bit of money left to spend at the end of the year.

So there you are. The introduction as intended it, complete with my personal opinions that I removed from the published article - more due to lack of space than any political motive.  Make of it what you will, if you'll excuse the terrible pun.

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