The second coolest thing I took from last Friday’s lecture by maker-extraordinaire Mark Frauenfelder was the metaphor that makerspaces are like libraries– well, at least sort of. Frauenfelder, the editor of MAKE magazine and one of the founders of bOingbOing.net, was in town last weekend to speak on North Campus. Makerspaces (like the local MakerWorks or the more kid-friendly All Hands Active) are places where regular folks can go to use tools and technologies that are rarely used or too expensive to have at home. Once upon a time, when books were copied by hand, they were bits of technology that also were too expensive for home use. Even after Gutenberg, libraries were able to stock resources that were impractical for the average citizen, such as specialized reference materials, historical documents and geneological records. In the early days of the silicon revolution, libraries often provided computers for access to the growing amounts of information available on-line. We often consider libraries just collections of books, i.e. written technologies, but the librarians not only tend the collections but also are themselves experts in research techniques. It’s not too hard to imagine a makerspace as a similar collection of tools and expertise.
Before I pursue that metaphor, let me note it wasn’t the point of Mark Frauenfelder’s presentation. Instead, he charted the roots of the Maker movement from the early enthusiast magazines published by Hugo Gernsback and fix-it-yourself early electronics, on through the hippy Whole Earth Catalog, the punk ethos of do-it-yourself culture, photocopied ‘zines and FactSheetFive, the “search engine” for those self-published wonders. After a couple decades where mainstream interest had focused on cheaply mass produced, non-repairable goods, the internet arrived and facilitated the easy dissemination of niche projects. Frauenfelder noted a couple different eras in the maker movement, an initial one where ordinary folks shared tips on making cool projects (like quadcopters and potato guns) and a second era where folks shared plans for making the tools to produce even cooler projects (like 3-d printers.) Frauenfelder also noted the maker movement is supported by an ecosystem of projects like micro-funding sources (like Indiegogo and Kickstarter), high-tech service bureaus (like Ponoko and Shapeways), low-cost sales channels (like Etsy AND Ponoko and Shapeways), and of course, makerspaces. None of what he said was that new to me, partly because I’ve been quite a fan of Frauenfelder and the maker movement for some time. Truth be told, the number one COOLEST thing about Mark’s lecture was the opportunity I had to have my photo snapped with him.
Makerspaces fill a peculiar societal niche, and the metaphor with a library was productive for me. Lots of folks have a home workshop of one sort or another. In the basement, spare room or garage, cheap mass production has allowed many of us to collect department-store quality tools, the means of production that are accurate enough for many tasks. For instance, I have my dad’s old Sears Craftsman tablesaw, which I swear contains more real metal than the car I drive. I can’t tell you precisely, though, when the last time I used it. It’s a sentimental keepsake every bit as much as my grandmother’s treadle sewing machine. There are times — not too many, to be honest — when I need a table saw, and if this tool didn’t also remind me of my father, I probably wouldn’t let it take up so much space in my shop. There are likely a few times in most folks’ lives when the need arises, say, to rip a sheet of plywood, for instance, and when it’d be handy to have access to a well-maintained table saw for a couple hours–and to someone who can give instruction on how to run the thing safely. That’s the core niche of a makerspace.
But makerspaces can stock tools my dad couldn’t have imagined, like laser-cutters and 3-d printers. MakerWorks has a computer controlled embroidery machine that, nearly as I can grok it, makes color “prints” using thread on fabric. Devices like that, or the plasma cutter in the metal room or the CNC router in the wood room, are more like small scale manufacturing than workshop tools. They’re akin to the rarefied reference materials that the library gives me access to, professional quality resources that I frankly NEVER would have at home.
The analogy between library and makerspaces breaks down, to my mind, when pressed much beyond that level–and that might be okay. For instance, I am enamoured of the idea that libraries are public institutions, paid for with my taxes for the common good because an educated and informed populace is good for democracy. A makerspace, by contrast, seems so well-primed to be a commercial endeavor, I see no immediate claim that they also be publicly funded. I realize that there are private, subscription based libraries — heck, that’s one way of viewing the streaming video provided by Netflix– so I’m not arguing makerspaces shouldn’t be public, or that all libraries must be public. I just don’t see that. Another tenuous extension on the metaphor is to imply that libraries as the institutions they are currently constituted to be somehow *should* develop makerspaces. It’s possible but not a compelling development to my mind. As “reading” and “researching” become less bound by physically printed volumes, libraries as physical building certainly *could* begin to house makerspaces which almost by definition must be physical locations. Heck, I’d be glad if it happened, but I don’t see the logical necessity that my library card also get me access to, say, a laser engraver.
I realize those reservations are probably missing the point. Viewing makerspaces as if they are like libraries is an evocative way to make sense of a relatively new phenomenon. (Yes, I’m old enough to remember the semi-public U of M wood shop.) The analogy probably isn’t intended to suggest actual policy. If comparing libraries and makerspaces does nothing more, it gets folks thinking more about makerspaces, those playgrounds of tools and technical experts and how they might not be all that different from, say, researching one’s neighborhood at the library.