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Makerspaces: On Scanning the Road & Gently Easing the Brakes

makerbrakesAs school librarians, we are driven by our mission and our vision, by our national standards, by the needs and interests of our communities, and to some degree, by our own talents, passions and dispositions. We are all about inspiring learners to think, create, share and grow.  We are all about becoming empowered leaders who transform teaching and learning.

But, there is NOT just one right way to do library. And there is not one right way to inspire creative culture. And, while there are so many wonderful ways to inspire authentic, hands-on learning by doing, some of us feel a very strong pressure to radically transform already effective programs and spaces for a prescribed and limited vision of making.

Making is important. Informal learning is important. Tinkering is important. Connected learning is important. STEAM is important. Invention is important. Access is important. Project-based learning, problem-based learning and constructionism are important. Student choice and creativity are important.

But should a formal makerspace need to be a part of every school library?  

Lately I hear from administrators who, after reading an article or post about makerspaces in libraries, believe their library must have or be a makerspace, without serious consideration of how that program might or might not address local needs.

At conferences, librarians share with me that their administrators insist they devote significant library real estate to 3D printing and a variety of other maker equipment.

I hear of librarians who jump into making because they feel pressure to identify with a trend or because they are lured by a commercial promotion and a growing number of available turn-key kits. Or because they see changes in the way their spaces are used.

The space case: Library spaces ARE changing and we need to do some thinking

The changes we see in library usage patterns, and our ability to reach our communities in new ways, provoke us to re-evaluate and re-imagine our programs, our space and the evolving way our learners work in school libraries.

Some examples:

  • Participative culture and the Learning Commons movement: For many years, school and academic libraries have been rethinking learner space to support participative culture. In their Knowledge Quest article, Climbing to Excellence: Defining Characteristics of Successful Learning Commons, David Loerscher and Carol Koechlin write about a space that is a collaborative physical and virtual environment that invites and ignites participatory learning. Making is one part of this larger shift. Loerscher and Koechlin describe four major areas to position the library as Centers of Knowledge Building, Centers of Literacies, Center of School Culture, as well as Centers of Experimentation.
  • From desktops to mobile: Our clunky desktops and computer labs have made way for laptops and mobile devices and 1:1 rollouts that may be used more flexibly wherever kiddos choose to plop to learn, explore and create.
  • Print collections are giving way to digital: Reference collections and certain nonfiction areas are especially prone to shrinkage. There’s a whole lot of weeding going on as we rethink collection. As our space opens,  we question how open areas might be best used.  [Note/side trip: Weeding decisions should not necessarily be binary decisions. While we cannot afford to buy everything on every platform, some students prefer print for some tasks/learning experiences. We need to watch the kids and we need to ask them questions. Some kids at my very academic high school simply loved to browse shelves. They loved the searchable unglued digital version of Annals of America online AND they also loved browsing those volumes on our shelves for contextual discoveries and for the experience of browsing with their research partners.]
  • Digital use of library and librarians: Students use our libraries for inquiry even when they are not physically in our spaces. Our databases, digital curation efforts and collaborative efforts to flip learning make our resources, guidance and instructional voice presences ubiquitous. Learners can visit our libraries through multiple portals.
  • Emerging space considerations: We may have more space, but we need spaces for all types of active learning. We are seeing the need for space that can be used for making AND for mixed reality, and the Internet of Things, and for virtual field trips and for poetry slams. We co-learn. We collaborate. My students loved rearranging the flexible furniture of our learning space for collaboration and brainstorming and planning and storyboarding and sometimes art or music making.

The compelling learning case for library as makerspace:

Libraries are and have always been about self-directed, interest-driven learning.  The broad, inclusive Educause definition in 7 Things You Should Know about Makerspaces practically screams library to me:

A makerspace is a physical location where people gather to share resources and knowledge, work on projects, network, and build.

In my 2014 post Making Inside the Space and Outside the box, I wrote about a growing convergence that points to libraries as the most promising site for making

  • School pressures and discrete curricula make it challenging to make space for interest-driven, interdisciplinary learning.
  • In many schools, the library is the only haven for self-directed, informal, life-wide learning–the place to go when a student just wants to know more about or know how to do
  • In some schools, curricula have dramatically narrowed to focus heavily on areas of high-stakes assessment and remediation.
  • In some schools, students love their library spaces, but the time they spend in them does not always involve meaningful learning or creative activity.

AND making comes in so many flavors (and in many places!)  

In my former high school, making happened nearly everywhere. The action in our huge open technology wing engaged kids in robotics and coding and CAD and now, 3D printing. It was led by my computer scientist colleague who was regularly recognized with National Science Foundation funding. We collaborated often. (We co-hosted a virtual visit with Cory Doctorow.) But, she did not need my space. And our students did not need to create robots in our library, although their collaborative projects sometimes traveled there and I found ways to support, augment and celebrate that learning.

We did not need dedicated space for STEM in the library. It naturally happened all over the school, and all over the library. We did need space for digital storytelling–formal and informal. We needed space for young artists to gather and share and critique. We needed gallery space and space for literacy celebrations and poetry slams. So we facilitated making by purchasing and lending green screens and cameras and creating space for production. And we also needed significant and flexible space for collaborative guided inquiry.  It would have been a shame to abandon all that good stuff we had going to make duplicate room for robotics and coding and 3D printing and cutting and milling and Raspberry Pi.  When students needed materials for solving problems, I was able to collect or purchase the materials they needed at the point of need.

Depending on the needs and culture and interests of a school community, I can see making the case for multiple types of making, as well as activities that may reach beyond what the spectrum of making:

  • found poetry, book spine poetry, book face centers
  • performance centers (for drama, storytelling, poetry, dance, music, performance art)
  • multimedia production centers/with green screens and tripods or curated apps
  • cartooning spaces
  • sewing and knitting and fabric arts
  • nail art
  • music /podcast recording (maybe in a more closed studio space or office)
  • upcycling or making new useful things out of old things
  • storytelling resources
  • design challenges
  • science challenges/experiment tables
  • mathematical problem solving
  • game design
  • connecting groups globally
  • presentation–formal and informal
  • filmmaking
  • debate
  • History Day, Wax museums and Science Fair demonstrations
  • art exhibit and critique
  • writing centers
  • research/inquiry support and consultation
  • puppetry making materials and stages
  • virtual and augmented reality experiences (and building them)

And some of the spaces we create for making might, in fact, be curated digital collections to support both curricular and personal creation and invention.

Chatting with Ewa

Recently, Ewa Dziedzic-Elliott, my former student–now an exemplary, high school librarian, reached out with concerns about the pressures she sees among our colleagues. I believe that Ewa’s thinking represents the kind of decision making many of us now face. Her email and our phone conversations inspired this post.

We chatted about priorities and balance and the danger of one-size-fits-all solutions. And we wondered, are some districts actually pressuring librarians to throw the baby out with the bathwater without considering the value of the existing program or carefully forecasting community needs? Should we engage in change because a few administrators believe they are fashionable or should we move forward because the changes we plan truly serve the needs of our learning communities?

In her subsequent email, Ewa shared her thoughts and her own approach to discovering the real needs of her learning community as she made decisions about making.

Ewa wrote about her own thinking process:

Before you spend thousands of dollars on the best 3D printer, find out how many are already in your school. You may want to investigate initiatives that exist across the program.

I went around the building and spoke to several of my teachers. I discovered:

  • art teachers (who offer traditional art and very creative commercial art classes with hands on experience creating modern book covers and posters),
  • computer teachers (who shared which coding programs are currently implemented–way above my coding expertise)
  • business teachers (my school recently added a Social Media Class!),
  • robotics teachers (OMG! The machines that come out of that class!),
  • home economics teachers (who are already making clothes incorporating modern design and  lights!)
  • the nurse (who hosts a relaxation room)

I talked to my students.

I learned about what is missing in our school. Students wanted ways to relax and blow off steam: games, cards, rubix cubes, chess, and the meditative mandalas (aka old fashioned coloring books). They also wanted ways and space to teach each other how to fix things–a popular movement in Europe. We are in a process to make it happen.

Our library volunteer club uses the library space creating and working on various projects. The students are making the library to be their own by creating decorations, interactive bulletin boards, participating in planning events, actively building the collection through recommendations, weeding and inventory. So many friendships blossomed between the students who met at the table when stamping discarded books…

When hired by my current district, I promised to create a makerspace. As the school year neared an end, I realized that a traditional technology-oriented makerspace would not work. The school delivers so many great programs that we would  be duplicating and competing with the existing ones. So, I am still taking my time to find the right fit. One of the newest considerations is a gardening project. We are talking to administrators and collaborating with various departments (mainly science, but also art) thinking about a sustainable reading garden right in our courtyard.

It’s not just about makerspaces.

Administrators need to see the library as a very needed element of the school: this is a place where inquiry and curricular partnerships happen between the librarian and the classroom teachers–where we can focus on process, allowing the teacher to focus on content. Library is a place where we are always on the lookout for innovative tools, programs and initiatives.  I send emails with my best new finds to teachers at least once a week. I reach out to librarians in nearby colleges–(we have developed a successful partnership with Rider University), but  most importantly: developing a collection that students want to use. It is not true that young people don’t read. They do if you give them what they are interested in. They need to see the same books in their school library as in the bookstores.

Making should exist as an element of school libraries without taking over the library program. A school library plays many important roles in a school’s life. Instead of downplaying the role of the library to a makespace we need to make sure that we keep the other elements intact with the proper exposure to all literacies. Let’s not include a sewing machine for the sake of including a sewing machine. Let’s consider whether having that machine would elevate the students’ learning experiences.

The most important questions should be: Do I need a makerspace? What kind? How would I use it? Is there a gap in our school and can I fill in with the library program?

Making sense

Why do we seem to be focusing on some elements of making rather than others?  Should we plan for a variety of types of activities for making and beyond? Like our more traditional collections, we face new options in collection building that require critical thought and planning.  

Do not feel pressured to jump into any major change without thought. As Ewa did, examine your program. Talk to your students and faculty and parents. Consider your own passions. Consider your space. Read about the inspiring options. Consider what is already going on and if it needs to be amplified. Consider opportunities not currently available to your students. 

If making makes sense, design for it. Pilot it. Prototype it. Make making part of the process of making. But make it about the learning, and not about the stuff. 

Yes, many of us have room for spontaneous, just-in-case inspirational making opportunities, but it needn’t take over the flexible space of a successful program. Based on needs and interests, we can begin with a corner or a cart or a tub or a bag or a rotating station or a wagon or a lunch or after-school club. Consider adding mobile making kits to your collection. (And consider some of the out-of-the-box/no-box ideas suggested by Laura Fleming.) Or not.

I am NOT against making. What worries me are one-size-fits-all solutions and allowing others to make decisions about what our learners should make in our libraries. It would be a shame to sacrifice the solid elements of a program that already work, the baby with the bathwater. Engage your community in the thinking. It ought to be about making up our own minds about our own collections and space and programs based on our best professional judgment and the needs and interests of our communities.

And, by all means, read about making as you make your decisions. Here are some resources to inspire you:

My related posts:

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Joyce Valenza About Joyce Valenza

Joyce is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, a technology writer, speaker, blogger and learner. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza

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