MakerSpaces: new tradition in context
Generally, a MakerSpace is considered a place where informal, collaborative learning and discovery take place through hands on creation, via use of any combination of art and technology. MakerSpaces facilitate both analog (low-tech) and digital (high tech) creation.
Teen library programming and services that include use of a MakerSpace or equipment associated with a MakerSpace provide 21st century skills that contribute to new forms of literacy which include exposure to various types of technology, problem solving and collaboration skills. Much of the literature on the maker movement offers practical guides for design and implementation of MakerSpaces, including tools, technology, projects, and kits, as well as advice for libraries in the beginning stages of planning the physical layout of a MakerSpace.
The emphasis in the profession on the deployment of specific equipment in order to facilitate the making of objects and artifacts should not overshadow the need for librarians to know, understand and be able to articulate the reasons why libraries provide MakerSpaces for teens and engage in ‘maker” or DIY programming /activities. While practicalities are important, there are some basic questions that need to be considered long before the 3D printer creates its first item:
- Why do libraries have MakerSpaces for teens?
- What are libraries trying to achieve via MakerSpaces?
- How do MakerSpaces fit into the library’s mission/vision?
- Who are our target clients and are their unique needs being addressed through access to a MakerSpace?
- Where should libraries begin (once they have asked and answered these questions)?
Value added approach to technology through MakerSpaces
Through offering MakerSpace equipment, libraries can take steps to remain relevant regarding the technology provided to teen users. Understanding that simply providing desktop computers and Internet (a connected box without context) does not satisfy the technology needs of teens. While access remains an important issue, libraries must be mindful that as teens increasingly use mobile devices as a means to access the Internet, providing basic access to the web is becoming less important in some communities. What libraries can concentrate on is providing “value added” technology, that is, software and hardware teens may not have access to at home or even at school, and that this equipment is made available in a way that facilitates creativity, experimentation, participation and play.
Teen Experiences – Not Adult Agendas
Creativity, experimentation, participation and play are what we hope happen during MakerSpace activities. These results can be achieved via high-tech and low-tech means. Librarians are encouraged to consider that at this moment in time, as technology is swiftly offering new opportunities, librarians must not become so enamored (distracted) with the “gadgets” that we fail to recognize that MakerSpace activities are essentially traditional activities accomplished in new ways. Providing a MakerSpace and equipment is not a replacement for cultivating a full range of meaningful teen user experiences (both analog and digital). Librarians should make sure that providing specialized equipment does not become a rationale for devising adult (librarian) interest driven activities for teens. Staff are essential to this process and yes, new technology means that staff will need to be competent with a variety of “new” equipment types – but what is perhaps equally as vital is for staff to have an expertise in articulating how the maker movement fits into the still relevant traditional library mission.
The reasons why libraries do any type of programming with teens is to foster opportunities for teens to have experiences that ignite creativity, imagination, to satisfy a hunger for information, pique an interest and, frankly –to have fun. This ”fun” takes place in the library – a venue in the community that, through the provision of such experiences, demonstrates that the community values teens, acknowledges their interests, celebrates their achievements and responds to their needs. Keeping in mind that the goal of providing equipment – whatever it might be (3D printers, guitars, sewing machines) remains the same as in all library programming/activities for teens, that is, having teens play a decision making role in the development and implementation of activities. At the same time the problems inherent in the planning of all teen programming also exist in the activation of a MakerSpace.
Libraries have been “making” things with teens for decades. “Make and take” arts and craft activities are a staple of library activities with teens. Librarians are perhaps framing this making in new ways e.g. with an eye to connected learning and 21st century learning skill development. This framing is positive and useful as we demonstrate the library’s relevance in teens’ lives but there is some need for caution. Librarians tend to focus on the “what” of library programming/activities. They swap ideas and “how-to’s” among themselves and the conversation can be rather inward facing. In MakerSpace programming for teens, teens should not arrive and be expected to partake in a proscribed set of experiences established by adults. This approach is troublingly close to the experience teens have in school. So how can librarians approach MakerSpaces and implement activities in a way that is not similar to school?
The activities that take place for teens in a library’s MakerSpaces should be
- user driven
- peer directed
They should NOT be:
- adult interest driven
- reliant upon imitation of other libraries’ MakerSpace initiatives but upon the interests of “local” teens.
Not School – Not Teachers
When speaking with librarians about MakerSpaces and maker culture, they often begin to use language foreign to teen library culture – referring to teens as “students” which implies that librarians have taken on the role of teachers. This is problematic and has a great potential for confusion. In the common pedagogical framework, adults serve as directors of learning and teens as receptors. The impulse to imitate this model reinforces librarians’ already prevalent impulse to act as “creator” and “presenter” of teen programming and activities including MakerSpace activities.
MakerSpace activities should have limited adult direction. This is not school. When teens visit their local library they are not a “captive audience” required to attend and participate in a given adult directed activity. Because these activities take place in a library the experience is very different than it would be in a school setting. This is not structured, class-room based learning – even if it may look similar to or its organization takes on some aspect of a classroom. Planning specific activities may lead to frustration on the part of librarians. Librarians should not plan maker activities that are too restrictive (“Today, we are all going to make….”). Instead, they must be prepared to yield to the improvisational nature of teen activities and experiences. Librarians may find teens are more engaged if they play a decision-making role in selecting and implementing MakerSpace activities. Teens may wish to have a one-time experience or to participate in the same or several activities in a given session or over the course of several weeks or months.
Loops Not Lines
How can libraries foster a “come –and-go” environment for seemingly linear activities? Librarians are encouraged to craft experiences for teen users that create Loops instead of Lines. Loops are activities structured to be joined during any stage of a process, while Lines have a beginning, middle, and end – a process that cannot be interrupted. MakerSpace activities should have looping structures. Such activities:
- can be self-directed, peer-directed or adult- mentor supported
- have multiple incision points for teens to initiate an activity
- do not limit teens’ participation to a single sanctioned activity
- can be joined at any point and concluded at any point
- can be left partially completed or can be completed multiple times
- do not have predetermined/ established outcomes or results
- can be engaged in at different levels given the interest and expertise of teen participants
- allow for self-paced skill building
When teens visit a Library’s MakerSpace they will arrive with different interest and levels of familiarity and expertise. They will choose to engage at different levels from a one-time experience to a desire to achieve expertise. Peer mentors may emerge from the group of teens who regularly visit the space and these teens can take on leadership/mentor roles and should be given responsibilities to help shape the space and the experiences of their peers.
It is suggested that libraries schedule “open lab” times in MakerSpaces – blocks of time when all the “maker” equipment ands supplies are available for teens to use. In this way, new interests can be discovered and connections between resources can be made. These suggested teens-only open-lab times should be recurring, ideally taking place weekly; this consistency allows teens to build upon skills, gain new interests and become mentors in the process.
New professional competencies that don’t have anything (really) to do with new “technology” increasingly come into play with staff– such as the ability to involve teens in the development of activities around “new features” and to systematically place teens in decision-making, leadership and peer-mentor roles in the MakerSpace environment. This method shifts the role of librarian from creator/presenter to facilitator. It is not a new method, but one that teen services librarian should strive to put into action with all teen library programming. It is important for librarians to understand that they are doing traditional activities with teens using new resources and new equipment – but the essential mission of the library remains consistent.
MakerSpaces foster all the best things the library has to offer teens: a space to satisfy and discover curiosities, engage in self-directed learning based on independent interests, connecting with adult and peer mentors around a given interest, creating and sharing those creations in a community venue that celebrates teens, their capacities and accomplishments. The MakerSpace and its features, though new as a designated physical space, fit within the context of the evolving landscape of library services for teens and, if activated appropriately, can further the library’s mission of service to this vital age group.
Jennifer Velasquez @jenVLSQZ
Lecturer at the San José State University School of Information (California, U.S.)
Coordinator of teen services for the San Antonio Public Library (Texas, U.S.)
A 2011 Library Journal ”Mover & Shaker”, she is the recipient of the New York Times Librarian Award (2005). Her book, Real-World Teen Services will be available Summer 2015 from ALA Editions.