Makerspace in libraries

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Last Update

  • Updated.jpg 4 January 2015


See also Civic media | Collaboration 2.0 | Digital citizenship | E-learning | Information technology topics | Media literacy | Social media | Web 2.0

  • affinity spaces, creative spaces, collaborative learning environments, fablabs, hacklabs, hackerspaces, iCreate lab, makerspaces, participatory spaces, possibility-spaces, tech-shops

Introduction – what are makerspaces?

"During the past year, makerspaces have been gaining traction in libraries. A makerspace is a place where people come together to design and build projects. Makerspaces typically provide access to materials, tools, and technologies to allow for hands-on exploration and participatory learning. They are occasionally referred to as fablabs, hackerspaces or tech shops. Makerspaces emerged around 2005 as an offshoot of the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) movement. A makerspace often includes a 3-D printer, digital media and fabrication software, tools for welding, woodworking, and soldering, traditional arts and crafts supplies, and other electronics. However, makerspaces are defined not by specific equipment but by a guiding purpose to provide people with a place to experiment, create, and learn.." ~ Fisher ES. Makerspaces move into academic libraries. ACRL TechConnect blog.

Makerspaces refers to places, sometimes digital spaces, that promote active involvement in making or creating things (both physical and digital). As such, these spaces "to make things" are rooted in the digital age and deeply affected by it. Public institutions, community centres and libraries are (and have been) places where people can create things, and find outlets for creativity. In 2012, the ACRL wrote about the rise of makerspaces; Brahms & Werner say that makerspaces are "...places where groups and individuals of diverse ages, genders, and backgrounds come together to “make”: to mess around at the crossroads and fringes of disciplines such as science, technology, engineering, art, and math. (2013)"

Two-way interactions via social media is a 21st century concept. Historically, citizens may have participated in elections by voting for their favourite candidate, or even written a letter to a local newspaper. However, for at least the first fifty or sixty years of television, especially public broadcasting, the whole medium become very command-and-control in terms of content and where, on one side (the powerful side), cultural producers and hegemonic political and economic elites controlled the flow of information. On the other (weaker, more passive) side of the equation, there were scores of citizens (or television viewers) who were fed information en masse with no chance to interact with the producers.

In recent years, television has transitioned to new forms of audience participation through shows such as Canadian Idol and America's Got Talent - and, live streaming of events such as the 2012 Olympics. The push for audience participation places us into specific, new roles - e.g. participant as cheerleader, wary, watchful citizen, police informant - and creates new forms of and spaces for democratic participation and surveillance. Audience practices should not be viewed as obvious starting points for participatory spaces. Audiences get shaped by spaces they are drawn to whether online or via environments created by radio and television. The notion of space is fluid; space institutionalizes agency for actors in given contexts. Space may enable or prevent interaction between certain players. In new social media spaces such as Twitter for example there is a more anarchic freewheeling participation, making it possible to examine audience practices and how they become normative. YouTube, for example, combines conventions from television and those from oral cultures, focusing on ratings by providing direct content editing facilities as well as digital spaces for feedback, interactions and conversation. This is a real source of agency in the online sphere because anyone can be a part of the conversation.

Connection to libraries

The Digital Innovation Hub at the Toronto Public Library provides access to new technologies like 3D printers and scanners, Raspberry Pi computers, Arduino kits, high definition video and audio mixers, and is intended to be a collaborative space where people connect and learn from each other. There will be meet-ups, speaker events, and free classes on everything from 3D design to computer programming. “The opening of our first Digital Innovation Hub is an important step to broadening access to emerging technologies. To succeed in today’s digital world, Torontonians need the opportunity to use emerging technologies in spaces that encourage collaboration and creativity,” said Jane Pyper, City Librarian. “We’re looking forward to welcoming many people to Toronto Reference Library’s digital innovation hub, and to hubs opening later this year at Fort York and Scarborough Civic Centre branches.

Connection to learning

A great deal of learning – especially learning aided by information technologies, and the Internet – is a product and symptom of temporally-specific socio-cultural context. That is to say the participatory spaces that are created should be a logical extension of the social and cultural needs of a community. Therefore, it's important to consider the functions and features of participatory spaces within a framework of 21st century participatory cultures. According to Jenkins, a participatory culture is one with relatively low barriers to expression, and where one can find social support for creating and sharing ideas. There is typically a DIY (do-it-yourself) element in many of these cultures. The members of a participatory culture believe that each contribution matters, and feel an obligation - a collective sense of mentorship and social connection - to help others, even if (or especially if) they have never met in person. These particular features of participatory cultures affect, to a great extent, the type of learning that can best flourish within it.

Gee clarifies our understanding of participatory cultures further by introducing the notion of affinity spaces. He differentiates affinity spaces from previous frameworks of participation such as communities of practice by shifting focus from membership to interaction. While “community” is associated with affiliations and a deeper sense of belonging, affinity spaces are understood as the interconnected activities and interests of a collective. Gee reclaims the idea of “space” in terms of interactivity. In that sense, thinking about “space” indicates a certain passivity on the part of the participants. This seems to emphasize the circumstances of association rather than the actions or motivations of the participants. This seems to pose some danger when “spaces” are inherently more passive than active (historically, think of libraries). Thinking about learning spaces in more active ways is a significant step in realizing their true pedagogical and social potential. This includes society's beloved libraries.

Affinity spaces are collaborative

In affinity spaces, there is no designated apprentice or master. Gee lists the following characteristics of an affinity space:

  • A common endeavour (interests, goals or practices)
  • People with varying levels of experience and skill share the same space
  • Ways of entering the space can also generate content
  • Content is organized and transformed by the users
  • Intensive and extensive knowledge is encouraged
  • Individual and distributed knowledge is encouraged
  • Dispersed knowledge (not in the space) is highlighted
  • Tacit knowledge is modeled and articulated
  • Many forms and routes to participation
  • Many routes to status
  • Leadership is porous and leaders are resources


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