Making Things in Academic Libraries

The past few months have seen lots of discussion about makerspaces in libraries. What’s a makerspace? Buffy Hamilton’s great post over at the Unquiet Librarian has a couple of good definitions, but essentially it’s a place for folks to make things, perhaps writing and illustrating a zine, using the open source Arduino computing platform to program a robot, screenprinting, or creating model houses with a 3D printer. Makerspaces often include tools and equipment that are too expensive or specialized for most people to have in their homes, as well as provide a gathering place for like-minded hobbyists to create and collaborate.

Makerspaces seem like a great fit for public libraries, which often run programs designed to teach new skills and to create something, like an arts and crafts hour for kids. And indeed, some public libraries are experimenting with makerspaces, including Fayetteville Free Library in New York, Westport Public Library in Connecticut, and Cleveland Public Library in Ohio.

What could a makerspace look like in an academic library? What do we help our patrons make? We have computer labs, some more specialized and high-end than others, and we could add equipment like 3D printers. Of course, not every library will have the funding and staff to create tech-centered makerspaces. And faculty and departments may already have that equipment for students to use, especially those in engineering, computer science, and other technical majors.

For those colleges or universities that can’t create a physical makerspace, what are some other ways we can encourage the maker ethos in our libraries? When it comes to instruction and information literacy, I’ve definitely got a some ideas about how to make things with students in a semester-length course. We could produce a student journal or create a zine, and I have a colleague who asks students to create their own citation style. But I’m struggling with the idea of the one-shot instruction session as makerspace. What can students “make” in a one-shot? If we give them a worksheet to fill in or ask them to come away from the session with a specific number of sources to use for their assignment, have they made something?

Perhaps applying the makerspace concept to library instruction and information literacy really means expanding our own understanding of what we do when we work with students. We’re not just teaching them to find information — when we help them zero in on a source that really fits their needs, we’re supporting them as they make: make new knowledge for themselves, construct the outline for their assignment, build their ideas into an argument.

All the same, I’m interested to think about how we as academic librarians can take the concept of libraries as makerspaces even further, especially with students. We need to find ways to support creating, not just finding. The Student as Producer project at the University of Lincoln in the UK is an interesting model to consider. Undergraduates are deeply involved in research across the curriculum, and thus come to their college studies to actually create knowledge rather than passively consume it. Again, this is something that perhaps comes more easily to faculty teaching semester-length courses or doing lab research with their students.

How can academic librarians, our contact with students often limited to a few minutes at the Reference Desk or an hour or so in the classroom, become involved at the making, producer level with students?

Author: Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

24 thoughts on “Making Things in Academic Libraries”

  1. How does this make sense in an academic library? Almost all colleges are makerspaces – and have been, long before this term started to trend in the library blogosphere. There are kilns, studios, labs, student newspapers, graphic design suites, etc etc, if there is a need at your campus and classes that need supporting. Libraries can bring what to the table, exactly? The fact that you’re struggling for an answer is telling.

  2. Like Delibrarian, I’m not sure it makes sense to have the public library version of a makerspace in an academic library — although bringing specialized tools like graphic design suites or 3D printers out of department offices and into the library would make them accessible to users from all academic disciplines. But I’m interested in adapting the *spirit* of makerspaces for an academic setting, by giving students a space the facilitates content creation and experimentation and play. I’m wondering if Digital Media Labs are in some ways equivalent to makerspaces in this way?

  3. I also struggle with this question, but I do commend you, Maura, for opening a discussion. This is a topic that seems to be EVERYWHERE. I think part of the problem at the college level is that students don’t visit us for creativity purposes per se–we are there to provide study support, research assistance, information etc. A specific and relatively narrow purpose. Students generally have one thing on their mind–pass their classes and they visit the library to do that. Even if they never speak to a librarian, they may find the ambiance of a library conductive to the end goal of passing a class. They often do not have the time or current interest to pursue creative endeavors, at least not in the library. They instead go work out at the student athletic center or participate in student organizations that provide a more creative outlet. In other words, it’s a different community and a different mission than the public library.

    Some of us do go outside the traditional definition and provide less academic activities, such as gaming nights or book collection competitions but these aren’t makerspaces as I understand the word. I don’t think there is anything wrong with offering makerspaces such as is done in public libraries, but when you are already stretched thin with staff & budget for instruction, maintaining electronic access to thousands of resources, providing faculty support, and so forth–it’s just another thing that can’t be squeezed in.

    But . . . I am interested to hear if other academic libraries have pursued makerspaces and what topics or interest areas you have covered.

  4. Beth- it’s true, we have a narrow specialization, but I don’t think this is “part of the problem”. However, if others think that staking a claim to every hot new trend is important, it’s certainly worth discussing. We could meet in Second Life, or set up a Google Wave to do this, perhaps.

  5. Thanks for all of this great discussion! I agree, Delibrarian and Elizabeth, that the kinds of makerspaces that public libraries have may not be relevant for us in academic libraries for those very reasons — if students need support for work in classes in which they make things they often have that support outside of the library.

    I guess more than anything I’m interested in the spirit of makerspaces, as Elizabeth notes, as a place where creativity and excitement are encouraged. Maybe these feelings aren’t as closely-associated with a place intended for (school)work as they are with one intended for hobbies/leisure. But I think it *is* exciting to research a topic and make something out of the information you find. I know I’m self-selected here — of course librarians think research is fun! — but I wonder if we can bring some of that creative excitement to our students, and whether we can harness the spirit of makerspaces to do so?

  6. it’s all about getting OUT of the library and finding out what the community actually needs. Maybe they don’t need a makerspaces at all. But if you’re in touch with the needs of the community the library serves, then the answer should be simple.

  7. Maura, I don;t knwo how I missed this post!

    I present at CCUMC a few weeks ago on this exact topic — exploring how the ethos of Library and the ethos of Makerspace line up, and the implications for libraries as we move forward. Shifting our thinking to this (which becomes easy, once the parallels are drawn) opens up the future in some exciting ways.

    The slides are up, and eventually the recording will be as well, at (I think slides the comparison of the two ethos are on slides 5 and 6 )

  8. At U.Iowa we’ve been developing a 75-90 minute lesson plan with an overview of zine history, hands on time with zines, and then time to make a collaborative zine. I’d be happy to chat about it, send an e-mail! Colleen Theisen, Special Collections & University Archives – University of Iowa

  9. Of course! Creating zines is a perfect maker project for academic libraries. Thanks Colleen!

  10. Our library is in the process of creating a Makerspace. I am trying to locate information to determine the number of academic libraries that contain Makerspaces. I’ve found information on public libraries, but when I look at academic libraries I find mostly older information and doesn’t address how many academic libraries have Makerspaces. I’ve very interested in gathering information from other academic libraries who have been involved with Makerspaces as space in the academic library and I would love to share successes and issues that are unique to academic libraries in this process with others who are creating these spaces. Is there something we can do via ACRL to gather a together academic libraries and determine how many of us are doing similar projects?

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