Makers all the way down: The library/makerspace connection

Joshua Glenn & Rob Walker, editors (2012). Significant objects: 100 extraordinary stories about ordinary things

Joshua Glenn & Rob Walker, eds (2012).     Significant objects: 100 extraordinary stories about ordinary things

From heirlooms to makerspaces

Though my paper-laden days are well behind me, I recently had a data retrieval need for which a 3-ring binder was the ideal solution. This sparked my discovery that the heirloom 3-hole punch I inherited from my Aunt Eleanor is missing, probably from an office move/reorganization a couple of years ago. Obviously the punch is not as critical to my office routine as it once was.

One avenue for my ensuing office equipment quest would have been to presume upon my wide acquaintance with the back rooms of public libraries. But I try not to presume.

Mulling over my vanished heirloom led me to think about other, more modern tools, not consigned to back rooms, that libraries are beginning to invest in: 3D printers, and beyond printers, complete makerspaces. The premise is that libraries have an opportunity to give readers access to the tools they need to practice as makers.

I jumped on the reader-as-maker bandwagon some years ago, advocating for shaped cake pans as a public library resource. Toy libraries before that, come to think of it: a room full of toys is a room full of tools that help a child imagine and create. 3D printers are another step in the maker-with-artifacts direction.

Can’t afford a 3D printer? How about a 3-hole punch?

Not many libraries offer 3D printers. The online buzz is extensive, but orbits around a small core of early adopters. My home state of Iowa has 543 public libraries; only one responded when I put out a call for 3D printers or makerspaces.

This is not surprising in an era of reduced funding and close scrutiny of public services. 3D printers are expensive. And the space, overhead, and time needed to set up and manage a new service is an even greater commitment. It will be years, if at all, before public library standards require that every library have a makerspace.

So back to Aunt Eleanor’s 3-hole punch. Dee Crowner at the North Liberty Public Library has rounded up some “take for granted” courtesies that public libraries offer, such as an “Office basket (stapler, tape, paper clips, ruler, etc.).” I would like to add a 3-hole punch to Dee’s office basket. I suspect some libraries offer a designated service such as she describes, but I know most libraries don’t. In my experience, quite a few libraries consider reader requests for office supplies and equipment to be a nuisance at best. It’s not the business they’re in.

But those pesky readers are making something.  A résumé; a class assignment; a love letter; a business plan; Das Kapital.  As you lay the groundwork for your library’s makerspace, which may well attract a whole new set of readers, why not practice with the readers makers you already have? For small libraries, a care basket of equipment and supplies; for large libraries, a work space equipped to rival the office-away-from-home of a 4-star hotel.

Readers are makers

I want to hold on to the metaphor of readers as makers, and not just because many readers happen to be creating a tangible product. Cognitive research shows that reading is an active process through which a person uses physical signs to create meaning. The old metaphor of readers as passive consumers of disembodied information has been retired. Whether the text is Lord of the Rings or a recipe for gooseberry fool, readers are makers.

Helping readers make stuff is the business we’ve always been in, no matter if the result is a physical or a mental artifact. Makerspaces are just a more obviously physical version of what we’ve always done,  not a revolutionary reset. To awkwardly gloss Ranganathan, books [and 3D printers] are for use. Always have been, always will be, in a marvelous put-it-together-yourself sort of way.

And not just books and 3D printers. If you’re lucky enough to live near a public library with an active toddler program, drop in on a session in the company of the requisite toddler.  Attention spans don’t really exist; tangential noise is more-often-than-not welcome; and when the big musical finale breaks out, absolutely no one is on beat or in tune. But occasionally you will glimpse a toddler smile with joy, struck by an insight she hasn’t put together before. Occasionally you will witness a toddler making her life, in a library makerspace.

Links, citations, and asides


  1. Please make more blog! Love the blend of intellectual and practical. The Further Reading section is inspiring!

Add your comments