How to level up your library makerspace

Makerspaces have been a fixture in the library sector for a while now and it’s been great to witness and contribute to their continuing development. _TechSoup for Libraries recently included ‘Updating Media Labs and Makerspaces’ as one of their Tech Trends for 2019 (albeit with a focus on new technologies rather than new approaches).

We’re entering an interesting phase of makerspaces. We’ve been working closely with libraries over the past few years on planning, launching and supporting makerspaces and digital making programmes and recently the conversation has shifted for some from ‘how do we get started?’ to ‘what do we do next’? Of course, this is the libraries that have already received some kind of injection of capital funding – other libraries are only just dipping their toes into the makerspace water.

So we thought it would be useful to share what we’ve learned and some things that can help as your makerspace evolves.

We are strong proponents of applied learning and iteration so it’s no big surprise that we employ these approaches in makerspaces too. We’re now entering the personalisation phase of makerspaces where libraries can take what they’ve learned from their initial rollout and work towards best customising this experience for their communities. And so here are some considerations for the next phase of your makerspace programme.

1. Don’t be beholden by past decisions

First, it’s important to continue to iterate and improve the services you offer and regularly review the objectives of your makerspace. There’s no need to be bound by decisions past – what may have made sense when you first rolled out your makerspace may not still be resonating with your users a year later. This can be as a result of conversations with users as well as your own experiences in hosting events and measuring success. The makerspace needs to grow alongside your users (while also being welcoming for beginners which is no mean feat).

STEM education is now a big, commercial juggernaut so it’s easy to feel pressure to get the right tools, to choose the right technologies. There’s ongoing temptation to have the next new thing, the latest version, to update and upgrade continually. Regular equipment audits can help you keep on top of the best tools and technologies to kit out your makerspace but it’s also important to regularly review the services and events that your makerspace provides and what you’re aiming to achieve.

During the first wave of makerspaces, there was definitely a lot of parity when it came to the tools and technology made available to users. But this has changed as libraries have been able to get more input from users and been able to see first-hand what works with their communities and what doesn’t.

It can feel that once you’ve invested in certain equipment, you need to get the most out of it by using everything in every workshop, every code club, every event. But some tools and technologies are a better fit for this than others and you can also utilise technology to enhance the space in other ways. So instead of having a Raspberry Pi option for each coding session, why not use them in competitions, for exhibitions of members’ work and for digital signage or online learning? And 3D printers can be a great resource for local business and entrepreneurs but don’t always fit well for a 2-hour code club session. Not every tool needs to be used the same way and different technology can enhance the experience of the library in different ways.

2. Sustainability is a difficult (but not impossible) nut to crack

One of the issues many libraries are facing is how to continue to support their makerspaces after an initial injection of capital funding. Equipment requires upkeep, staff require training and support and the pressures on library services are ever increasing.The problem with project-based funding is that supporting the development of our communities is not a project with an end date.

Various funding models are starting to emerge, including charging for some services (classes, access to specialist software, 3d Printing, special events). Working in partnership with other organisations (local businesses, universities) can also help provide ongoing funding streams. But the most important investment for creating sustainable services is through investing in staff. An over-reliance on volunteers and a lack of training for library staff can combine to leave gaps in the service and unreliability for providing these services on a long-term basis.

Creating a collaborative programme for your makerspace both with staff and users can help contribute to longer term goals. But as the technology changes (and then changes some more) supporting staff to develop digital skills helps your organisation continue to support these important skills and access needs of the community.

3.Take a user-centred design approach

This means talking to and observing people who use the space, if not a more formal user research approach. Qualitative measures such as event attendance can be supplemented with some guerilla user research methods to help you get a better picture of what’s working and what’s not. You may not be able to immediately act on the insights you get from users, but these insights are valuable nonetheless. And it’s not just for people using the space, but for those who aren’t too.

The most successful makerspaces that we encounter are the ones where users (both library staff and members of the library) feel ownership of the space and are actively involved in its development. The groups that meet their regular, the weekly and monthly events that you host should all be part of the ongoing conversation of the makerspace.

Over time you’ll gain a better understanding of the audience for your makerspace – both the existing one and the one that you still want to reach.

Every conversation you have with users, ever observation about how your makerspace is being used can help you continue to develop and improve the makerspace offering. Better yet, embed feedback into the makerspace in creative ways. Does your makerspace have a feedback wall yet?

4. Makerspaces are a digital literacy service

Makerspaces can sometimes feel like just another shiny and new thing but there are very real reasons that these are springing up in libraries and other spaces in the community.

Digital literacy is an area that continues to be a vital service provided by libraries and makerspaces are a key part of this provision. As IFLA put it, “to be digitally literate means one can use technology to its fullest effect – efficiently, effectively and ethically – to meet information needs in personal, civic and professional lives”. This technology that we use to meet our information needs changes rapidly. By providing access to new technology, by helping people learn how to engage and create with new technologies, we can better support the digital needs of the community and ensure that everyone is able to participate.

How do we support digital literacy skills in ever-changing ubiquitous computing world? Makerspace form at least part of the answer to that question. They can provide a new approach to digital literacy support, of which access to emerging technologies plays a key part. If you’re interested in learning more, check out our post about building digital literacy into makerspaces.

5. Sometimes it’s not really about makerspaces at all

Libraries are both knowledge-sharing and knowledge-creation spaces and there are a few different aspects of makerspaces that would be beneficial to implement in other parts of the library too.

Constructionism is the idea that people learn best through making things, particularly things that are meaningful to them. It’s an approach that encourages an active and personalised approach to learning, which can also be very effective for learning new skills in professional contexts.

If libraries are going to stay on the forefront of digital literacy (not to mention information literacy, media literacy, privacy awareness) than there needs to be a pretty major change to how we support the continuing professional development (CPD) of library and information staff.

Makerspaces also promote experimental play and creating an environment where it’s ok to fail which can help create a culture of innovation in your organisation. It’s not necessarily about a single space in the library but about a paradigm shift for digital technology access and learning.

Keep learning, keep listening

It’s exciting to see how makerspaces and digital innovation in libraries continues to evolve. The key to developing services that users want is to include them in the design of these services from the earliest possible stage. And then every stage after as your services iterate and improve to best meet the needs of your communities. Makerspaces have been an interesting innovation in the library sector but they’re one that we’re only just starting to see the benefits of as they stop being one single thing and branch out into many different directions..