Libraries are one of the fastest-evolving learning spaces. As many resources move online, and teachers require students to collaborate more and demonstrate their learning, librarians are trying to keep up. Some are even spearheading the changes. Public libraries have led the effort to provide access to 21st century technologies and learning resources, but now university and K-12 libraries are beginning to catch up. Makerspaces are one way a few groundbreaking libraries are trying to provide equal access to exciting technologies and skills.
North Carolina State University’s librarians have the reputation for being innovators and leaders of change. So when the university built its new James B. Hunt Jr. Library in 2013, it had a very small “makerspace” in what was originally designed to be a storage closet.
“Our library mission is to be a competitive advantage for our campus and for our students,” said Adam Rogers, the emerging technologies librarian at NCSU who pushed for the makerspace and now runs it. The makerspace is one of the few places on campus where anyone can access a 3-D printer or laser cutter. Often individual departments like engineering will have those tools, but they aren’t accessible to everyone. Rogers feels access to a makerspace fits firmly within the library’s mission.
“Our culture really favors us doing things like this,” Rogers said. “That said, I think it’s been very important that we’ve tied something that might look like a weird fringe thing to the library’s mission and the strategic goals.”
In his first foray into making, Rogers was able to provide only 3-D printing and a laser cutter. While Rogers is the first to acknowledge that doesn’t make it a real makerspace, he was eager to align the library with the movement and continue to grow what they can offer.
“We think of a 3-D printer, a laser printer, as actually being an information tool or resource because it’s all about the data that goes into the tool,” Rogers said. “You can’t do anything without understanding the data that goes into the machine.”
He sometimes compares the process of designing and 3-D printing a project to research. Students have to think about what they are making, understand its scale, design it on software and only then can it be printed.
The new library also opened up more space at NCSU’s older library, D.H. Hill. When the smaller, 3-D printing-focused making experiment went well, Rogers pushed to open a second, more hands-on focused makerspace in an area that used to be staff offices before those employees were moved over to Hunt Library.
“It allows for hands-on learning in a different, maybe richer way,” Rogers said. He offers workshops in the new makerspace and has been able to fill it with a wider variety of tools and materials, including hand tools, sewing machines, fabrics, circuitry, a sautering station and more.
“Everything in the space is pretty flexible,” Rogers said. “We can move all the tables and chairs around. We’ve got power coming down from the ceilings, so we can have power anywhere we want without tripping.” And they have ventilation, a key aspect of makerspaces.
Rogers has also done a lot of outreach to faculty so they know the space is available to support their in-class teaching. Rogers said last semester he worked with eight to 10 professors on class projects.
One professor from the English department teaching a digital humanities class brought his students to the makerspace three times: once to learn about the tools, once to do a hands-on project and finally as part of their final project.
“That was really exciting because as librarians we aren’t so much the drivers of pedagogical innovations, but we’re really supportive of it,” Rogers said. He believes some of the most successful uses of the space have been through these faculty collaborations because students come in and work on a project from start to finish.
“This is really a space where we’re offering additional learning experiences alongside the formal learning experiences in the classroom,” Rogers said. “And I think we’re seeing that the experiences we’re offering are becoming a really valuable part of the full university experience.”
Rogers offers several core workshops on 3-D design and printing and Arduinos in the makerspace that are meant to be accessible to everyone. They introduce students to the technology, help them understand the range of capabilities and give them some kind of project that will produce an output.
“The workshop is saying this is a tool for creativity and for problem-solving,” Rogers said. “It’s one any student or researcher on campus would benefit from knowing and find some application for.”
In the Arduino workshop, Rogers tries to familiarize participants with the components of the SparkFun Inventor's Kits that the library lends out. They examine how the light sensor and temperature controls work, and experiment with actions like running a motor or transmitting an output onto a screen. Rogers shows students how to write a few lines of code that controls a LED light so they can see how the code is controlling the physical activity. Then he lets them play around for the rest of the workshop.
There are very few learning spaces at most universities where students can tinker with materials and get exposed to technologies that are quickly becoming part of every discipline. Rogers said students also bring their own passions into the space, designing and sewing Cosplay costumes or animae swords, for example.
Rogers recommends that university librarians start small when thinking about developing a makerspace. Find out who else on campus is already doing some of this work and partner with them, maybe start lending out some tools or kits, offer a workshop or two to gauge interest. He also says: Don’t jump right into 3-D printing without thinking through what it means to offer a service like that to the whole university community.
While there are logistical challenges to having a makerspace in the library, Rogers said it has been a positive experience at North Carolina State University. Librarians are showcasing skills like bookbinding to students, and there’s a lot of excitement and learning going on beyond the classroom.
MAKING UNDER CONSTRAINTS
San Diego State University has had a makerspace focused on 3-D printing and laser cutting for a little over a year now. Like NCSU, it, too, started in a closet and has moved three times since then, until finally finding a home in the lobby of the library. Jenny Wong-Welch, the STEM librarian, started the space with the intention of offering students access to new technologies and tools.
“The whole point is to be a welcoming environment,” Wong-Welch said. Her space started as a fringe project, one that many of the other librarians didn’t really understand, but it has grown into a space staffed by a variety of students who volunteer their time. Wong-Welch says at first she mostly had engineering students, but now art and business students, among others, have joined. They’re all interested in learning something new in a low-stakes environment.
“My engineering students have been shocked to see how the arts students use the 3-D printer,” Wong-Welch said. Students from different disciplines have learned a lot from one another, approaching projects, materials, tools and software in ways that other students had never thought of before.
Wong-Welch says it has been especially fun to learn alongside students. They have discussions about intellectual property rights, figure out scale together and teach anyone else who comes into the space how to use the technology. Each of Wong-Welch’s regular volunteers is also working on an individual project. One student mapped out the marketplace for open-source versus proprietary printing. Another is trying to program an Arduino to sense when visitors come into the space and count them.
While the school administration has been fairly supportive of the effort, Wong-Welch says her biggest struggle has been getting buy-in from faculty. “There is a weariness from the faculty to learn new technology and incorporate it into their curriculum,” she said. And, without faculty partnerships, it’s hard to get the funding to continue expanding what the space offers. There are many competing demands on the library’s budget, and Wong-Welch had hoped that professors might write some makerspace equipment and materials into their grant proposals.
The other struggle is a fundamental one around the idea of making as an academic endeavor. How does one measure what goes on in a makerspace? Anecdotally, Wong-Welch can point to the interdisciplinary dialogue, the hands-on experiences that often result in failure and necessitate trying again. She can say the students she works with are learning software, hardware and programming skills, but it’s harder to quantify things like the effect of a tight-knit community on a commuter campus, a creative, safe space.
“We don’t have the data to show they learned something while they’re here,” Wong-Welch said. She believes university makerspaces will continue to struggle because their definition and purpose is murkier than the traditional and clearly defined library mission of storing and retrieving books.
A COMMUNITY SPACE
Four-year universities aren’t the only ones branching out into makerspaces. Several community colleges are also cultivating spaces for creativity, problem-solving and access to new technologies. The College of San Mateo sits in the heart of Silicon Valley and its library director, Lorrita Ford, demonstrates the entrepreneurial spirit for which the area is known.
Ford believes the library should be at the center of the college community and the broader community as well. “We serve a population that in many cases isn’t sure about what they’re going to do,” Ford said. Many College of San Mateo students are the children of service workers in the area. Their families don’t have a lot of experience with higher education, and students are still trying to discover their strengths.
“We really want them to have a place where they can come and discover their inner engineer that they may have not known existed,” Ford said. She and her staff embarked on their makerspace adventure in 2013 and have steadily grown what they offer since then, all without a dedicated space. Many of their tools can be checked out, and when specific workshops are offered Ford repurposes library tables or holds them outside.
“It seems to us that it’s a good intersection between learning and creativity,” Ford said of making. “It’s also a social place. We welcome everyone.”
The unique thing about a makerspace, Ford said, is that it shows you a different side of people. A biology professor might lead a workshop on jewelry-making and a student could lead a workshop on knitting. “They come here and they share that with other people, and then they talk and get to know each other at a different level,” Ford said. “I think it fills a niche.”
When Ford started the makerspace she gathered faculty from science, technology, engineering, art and math disciplines to gauge interest. It was then she realized how much expertise and excitement already existed in the community.
“The fact that we had buy-in from faculty really helped,” Ford said. “It wasn’t just the library pushing for it, it was faculty from engineering, physics, the arts that were supportive, too.” Ford ended up getting an innovation grant that helped jump-start the program. Since then, the library has partnered with faculty to design solar cars, build telescopes and learn about African-American textiles, among other things.
“We really see it as supporting what’s going on in the classroom,” Ford said. She described one science professor who used the makerspace with his class to print out each section of the cervical spine. Each segment is slightly different, and he wanted his students to be able to see and touch them.
Ford has also done a lot of work with student groups on campus. “We really work to make it a multicultural space, and when we’re designing programs we try to reflect and help expand cultural awareness,” Ford said. The Pacific Islander student group came in and led a workshop on how to make graduation leis. The Puente program did a Dia de los Muertos skull-making activity where Ford was surprised to learn that the holiday is celebrated only in some parts of Mexico.
Faculty members have also used the space to teach skills not covered in their courses. One engineering professor was so excited about the space he taught coding classes to students for fun. The library supported him by buying the software, circuits, Arduinos and other supplies he needed. Another faculty member taught students about online privacy and two-step encryption.
“We have this great physical space here, and I think as we involve in terms of what the library of the 21st century will be like, I think it makes sense for us to embrace and reinvent ourselves and make this part of our ‘new normal,’ ” Ford said. And she emphasized that while many people talk about libraries becoming irrelevant in the digital age, that hasn’t been her experience.
The College of San Mateo library is busier than ever, mostly with students looking for a quiet space where they can spread out. Ford and her staff try to respect various student needs simultaneously in the library. They try to make the library a welcoming space by letting students bring in food and offering relaxing activities like Legos and adult coloring in addition to everything else. Ford says if a noisy making activity is planned, they try to communicate that early, and even pass out earplugs to students who are trying to study.
Ford’s advice for anyone starting a makerspace on campus is to first develop relationships with faculty. “I’ve been really intentional in cultivating relationships with faculty and staff and have been really intentional about becoming part of the fabric of the college,” Ford said.
When she started at College of San Mateo 15 years ago, the library was very isolated. But over time she has worked to put library staff on key committees and to help support faculty whenever possible. She also made it clear to faculty how a makerspace could support the work they’re doing in classrooms.
Ford also suggests finding faculty champions, the people who already go to Burning Man or to Maker Faire, the ones who already have the hands-on gene. And, be patient. She’s also done a lot of partnering with the county, trying to make the college’s workshops and materials available to the wider community.
“Build it and keep nurturing it and eventually they will come,” Ford said. “In a lot of ways we are ahead of the curve a little bit, but they know we’re here and people show up at the library looking for stuff.” She described a student who came in looking for an adapter so he could hook his computer up to the projector in class. The library didn’t have those to check out, but Ford had one in her desk, so she quickly made it available for checkout.
She says when the library is an integral part of the whole college community, and its staff is there to help anyone who needs access to something, it changes the whole tone of the endeavor. And in that kind of environment, a makerspace just makes sense.