A Visit to MakeShop: Learning for Libraries

I took a class on makerspaces during this last semester of my MLIS. It’s been great – we played with some of the “toys” used in makerspaces to get us familiar with them, but also talked about the grants used to fund most spaces, as well as the goals of a makerspace and why they fit in with libraries. Part of the course was to visit a local makerspace and record our impressions, observations, and thoughts on how what we saw could be adapted for library use.

I visited the MakeShop in the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh in the afternoon. I had visited previously after hours, during a maker educator’s session, but had never seen it in active use. I noticed immediately that children were actively engaging in the most basic activities – pre-built electricity and block units, while they required some encouragement to attempt some of the more unfamiliar activities, such as stop-motion photography. I came soon after their new “Maker Story Time” ended for the day, and was able to ask the staff, some of whom also work at libraries and/or have their MLIS degrees, about the way they put the program together.

They follow a basic storytime format – book followed by activity – using several books on one theme to segue into a pre-arranged set of activities. Unlike many storytime crafts, the intention of the maker activity is to allow children to self-direct the actual creation process, providing a clear origin (the book and related discussion), but no formal goal. When discussing this with staff members, they emphasized the importance of letting the children pick out what they think are the important parts of the story, which is contextualized by the activity set up behind them.

They also discussed the importance of a transformable space. Everything inside MakeShop is modular, allowing them to transform an active workspace into a storytime area (complete with rug!) with relative ease, then transition back. This is true of both the open area of the space, which includes several of their exhibit tables and their loom, as well as the interior space, which can be closed off using massive doors. This is where the tools are stored, away from children’s hands when they are not being supervised.

The necessity of supervision was another aspect of makerspaces that came to mind. Children in the museum are required to have an adult with them, which is not always a luxury that public libraries have, and is a struggle I have encountered when doing maker programming with children and teens already. The idea of signed waivers was mentioned, but no specifics were mentioned, as neither myself nor the MakeShop staff were well-versed in the legal implications of a parent-signed waiver. One of the staff members, who had previously worked at CLP Labs, mentioned that the Labs program occasionally sent home waivers to permit maker activities for the entire year, but didn’t know the specifics.

The most important thing, both from the interactions I witnessed and from staff testimony, is that staff in the makerspace require a very specific type of personality – a blend of on-their-feet creativity, a skilled background, the ability to teach (which is not inherent), and a willingness to participate in maker ideas themselves. When I was discussing the idea of iteration as it applied to the permanent activities, the importance of iteration in all things was brought up. Not only a tool for exhibits in the MakeShop, iterative design is used by staff to create basically everything in the space, from hardware to curriculum. Libraries, in their rush to participate in the buzzword-heavy wave of maker culture, are often susceptible to the age-old library adage that the collection makes the library. While the collection may be shifted from books to tools in makerspaces, there is still a temptation to always have the best, brightest, and shiniest, whether or not they are the most helpful. 3D Printers come to mind for both myself and MakeShop staff when this was brought up. (For the record, no one in the MakeShop thought a 3D Printer was particularly useful for makerspaces, especially those aimed at general public use and encouragement of design thinking).

While the reluctance of granting organizations to fund staff positions has been discussed, I wonder if the most important tool in a makerspace arsenal is a passionate maker educator that can communicate the importance of the thought process and the freedom to fail. Machines and supplies can allow for the removal of design constraints in free-use spaces, but are not usually in themselves inspiring or instructional. My takeaway from the MakeShop is that engagement is a human feature, not an aspect of machines. Learning is a constant process, and as the MakeShop staff said to me several times: “Never finished. Always working.” The “build it and they will come” idea that many libraries seem to have about all collections, makerspaces included, needs to be updated and humanized. Human interaction with a library educator will increase relevance of any program or collection more effectively than any number of tools.

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