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Dispatches from PLA 2014—Library Makerspaces: Building Community through Participatory Learning

by on March 25, 2014

Makerspaces were a hot topic at PLA 2014. At Friday morning’s program entitled “Library Makerspaces: Building Community through Participatory Learning,” several top library innovators discussed creating and running makerspaces and participatory learning experiences in their libraries.

Moderated by Matthew Hamilton, IT Director at Colorado’s Anythink Libraries, the panel featured Nate Hill, Assistant Director at the Chattanooga (Tennessee) Public Library; Honore Bray, Director of the Missoula (Montana) Public Library; Trent Miller, Library Program Coordinator at the Madison (Wisconsin) Public Library; Dara Schmidt, Experience Expert at Colorado’s Anythink Libraries; and Steve Teeri, Technology Trainer at the Detroit (Michigan) Public Library.

The panel began by discussing why makerspaces and participatory learning are valuable undertakings for public libraries. In discussing Chattanooga’s makerspace, the 4th Floor, Nate Hill argued that “the time of libraries being static places full of stuff is over” and asserted that libraries need to take different approaches and design new services to facilitate learning and engagement in our communities. In discussing Detroit’s HYPE (Helping Young People Excel) Teen Center Makerspace, Steve Teeri emphasized how maker programming on topics such as electrical engineering and 3D printing helps teens develop into interesting and capable people who can become valuable, contributing members of society.

Panelists agreed that community involvement is key to the success of their library makerspaces and participatory learning programs. Trent Miller discussed the importance of identifying staff members who are “connectors” and can build connections throughout the local community. Madison’s Bubbler, which acts as a community hub for a broad cross-section of “makers” in the local community, features an artist-in-residence program and a monthly after-hours series called Night Light, which brings in local community members to perform music, theater, dance, storytelling, and performance art. Honore Bray highlighted Missoula Public Library’s partnership with a local fabric store to provide materials for the library’s upcoming Makers’ Ball, which will include a fashion show featuring garments designed by local community members using repurposed materials; she also described how the library serves as an incubator for the local makerspace business in Missoula.

Acknowledging that many libraries are currently considering or planning to create their own makerspaces, moderator Matthew Hamilton asked the panel to discuss challenges they had encountered, what they had learned, and what they would do differently if they had to start over. Dara Schmidt of Anythink Libraries responded that she wouldn’t try to limit their maker programming to a teen audience as they initially did, because adults and kids wanted to be involved in it. Trent Miller underscored the importance of curation and assessing which community programming will be the best fit. Steve Teeri pointed out that libraries offering innovative programs and services will be questioned about what the library is doing and why; he shared his own response that libraries are multifaceted organizations and that there is a place for these activities in the library.

Judging by the packed room at this session, many in the public library community are interested in learning about library makerspaces and participatory learning from those who are paving the way. One key take-away from this session is that tailoring your spaces, services, and programming to your unique community—through partnership with and involvement of community members and groups—is an essential component of success.