By Elizabeth Wroten
Makerspaces and the Library
On 20, Nov 2013 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten
On this blog I try to keep a separation between my professional development and my personal life, but back in October I attended two conferences (CUE and Internet Librarian) that brought some of my personal research into play. Over the past 6 or more months I’ve been really researching alternative educational philosophies and options for my daughter’s education. I know it’s a little early, but our public school system is abysmal and our private schools are less than impressive. The more I read about these philosophies (primarily Reggio Emilia, Montessori, and Waldorf) the more I agree with their underlying principles of student-led learning, teacher as mentor or co-learner, the incorporation of art and creativity, an emphasis on imaginative play (which is almost totally gone even from our local private schools), and a mixture of “subjects” that include more practical activities like cooking, cleaning, and developing hobbies.
I know libraries continue to see budget and staff cuts and keep having to do more with less. The new popularity of makerspaces and the insistence of some that they be part of libraries doesn’t help that situation. Neither does the fact that they feel a bit like some hipster fad. I can totally see how they aren’t right for many libraries and would be downright impossible for others to pull off. But I also think they’re a really important opportunity, especially for school libraries, to help curiosity, creativity, and outside-the-box thinking. Three of the sessions I attended at my conferences focused on makerspaces and I found myself very inspired by them, largely because the idea dovetails so nicely with the educational philosophy I have found myself drawn to in researching for my daughter.
So what exactly is a makerspace and what happens there? A makerspace is just any space that has been designated for free creating that is open to either the public, or, in the case of stand-alone makerspaces, people who pay a membership fee. Oftentimes it will be a place that has equipment that you would not have at home because it is large, expensive, or specialized, like CNC machines or letter presses (although I have to admit we own one of those) or 3D printers. They tend to be spaces that encourage people to collaborate, bounce ideas off one another, and teach each other. Some makerspaces aren’t permanent, they “pop up” when a cart of materials is wheeled out into an open room. They can be large, they can be small, they can be medium. Some makerspaces have a specific focus for the types of projects created there, like printing (again with the letter presses!), others simply provide an open flexible space and a variety of classes (like the University of Nevada, Reno’s Science and Technology library that has whiteboard walls and offers classes from lock picking to Nerf nights themed around zombies and science). Making doesn’t have to be complex or expensive and any age can do it. Think toddlers with blocks, school kids with a bunch of cardboard boxes and some tape, and high schoolers with some wood scraps and a few basic tools. All making is, is creative thinking and imaginative play. It also frequently taps into STEM (another buzzword) and STEAM. Kids building with blocks to explore architecture. Kids using Minecraft to build in a virtual world. Kids creating art to express what they are learning about biology or math. Kids learning how a camera works by taking one apart and experimenting with one. Kids writing a play and making costumes to share what they have learned about a historical figure or event. Making can be cooking, baking, or brewing.
To me, the most important piece of making and makerspaces is that it emphasizes process over product. I think far too often in school, and even the work place, the product is more important than how a student got there. Even though that process can be incredibly enlightening. I would rather a student made a mistake and turned out a less-than-perfect product, but learned from the mistakes and made adjustments later than produced something perfectly the first time and was able to simply move on without much reflection. Product is obviously important, but it isn’t the end all and be all that our educational system makes it out to be. Makerspaces provide a great opportunity for students (and people) by giving them a space where it’s okay to fail and try again.
Makerspaces also provide a place where students can direct their own learning and follow their own interests. So much of our schooling focuses around a pre-set curriculum that requires learning facts that someone else has deemed important. Sure there’s value in what we learn in school, but, at least for my daughter, I would be happier if she learns how to learn (metalearning), learns where and how to research when she has a question and learns to love learning than learns a list of historical dates. That doesn’t usually happen when someone else is telling you what to learn, what questions to ask and to answer. A makerspace allows students to explore what it is they want to explore. They learn to ask questions and then set about answering them without someone telling them how. And, again, they learn how to fail and what to do when that happens. They learn to play and have fun learning. They learn to be creative and flexible thinkers.
All of this isn’t to say that because makerspaces are great I think libraries need to become makerspaces, nor do I think all libraries should create a makerspace. You need to know your institutional culture, your time constraints, your space limitations, and your budget. It’s important to note, though, makerspaces don’t have to be large or expensive (bring in some rolls of masking tape and a stack of newspapers or save large cardboard boxes and see what a group of kids can do). They don’t have to require loads of extra staffing (roll out the materials during a lull). Certainly a lot of what makerspaces stand for and encourage are tenets of libraries. I know where ever I end up when I am back in the workforce I will certainly consider creating a makerspace.
To go along with this post I would like to create post with a list of makerspace resources for anyone interested in learning more. My hope it to compile that over the next week, but I can’t be sure it will happen especially with the holiday coming up. At any rate, when it is up I will put a link in this post to it.