Maker/Hackerspaces the Future of Public Libraries?

The other week, or actually it was the other month, I joined Refresh Savannah, a monthly gathering of people who are interested in positive change. Their guest of the day was  Christian Kruse, the director responsible for Savannah’s Public Library, as well as the county library system.

I love libraries. They are great resources and gathering places for local communities. Savannah Public Library was the first one on the East Coast to have an electronic checkout system, and they have now just added two new libraries, as in physical buildings, in the last years.

One of the most telling statistics from Kruse was that they were expecting the readership in the main library to go down by 50% once they opened the two new branches. But it turns out the new sites mostly attract new readers, and the main library readership decreased only by 20%, and some of this loss can be attributed to SCAD expansion taking away some of their parking spots.

The pressing question is — given the double whammy of budget cuts and e-readers — how will the library of the future stay relevant?

The educated fans of the public library that vote and influence city politics are the first ones to get e-readers and are thus less connected to their local library as they don’t frequent them anymore. What can we do about that?

My first suggestion was to add a tools library which consists of items such as saws, drills, and lawn movers. Like you check out books, you can check out tools on a need basis. Kruse said that the libraries at the county-level are working on something like this. Love that.

My primary suggestion was to focus on the community aspect by giving local people access to space to get together, share ideas, and create. We were told they are doing that, however, they don’t have the resources to accommodate all the requests. Therefore they don’t want to lock down the spaces for one group every week at the same time. They want other groups to have a say in how to split up scarce resources. Good, but not ideal.

Then it dawned on me, that they could retool some of the space, that will get freed up by the library moving to digital media. My favorite place to be can be created: a local Maker/Hackerspace for people that want to tinker and be together with other folks that like to tinker too.

Wikipedia defines Hackerspaces as

“a location where people with common interests, usually in computers,technologyscience, or digital or electronic art can meet, socialise and/orcollaborate. Hackerspaces can be viewed as open community labs incorporating elements of machine shopsworkshops and/or studios where hackers can come together to share resources and knowledge to build and make things.”

It would be ground-breaking and in-line with MIT professor Neil Gershenfeld’s thinking on what he calls “FabLabs” or fabrication laboratories, places that have the tools to create almost anything. Check out the recording of his Future Salon presentation from 2005: Personal Fabrication Future Salon. This is more relevant than ever especially for libraries looking to stay relevant.

As “hacker” has often a negative connotation, I prefer “Makerspace.”

These library-enabled Makerspaces would also be the nucleus of a revitalization of our local economy and community, the nucleus forming the center of a resilient future.

Needless to say, it was an enlightening Refresh Savannah evening.

To my great surprise and happiness I learned from Douglas Rushkoff’s Connect Conference blog today that Lauren Britton Smedley is currently implementing this idea:

1st Fabrication Lab in a public library

One project I’m anticipating hearing more about is being spearheaded by Lauren Britton Smedley, who’s working with Syracuse University and the Fayetteville Free Library to create the first Fabrication Lab in a public library.

Rushkoff shares another interesting library idea:


The other project, LibraryFarm, is a collective farm on ½ acre of public land run on the model of a public library. Anyone can “check out” a plot of land for no cost, plant what you want, and do what you want with your harvest. The idea is to promote “food literacy” and discover the knowledge and empowerment that comes with learning how to grow food. This project is being led by Meg Backus and Thomas Gokey, who taught the “Innovation in Public Libraries” grad seminar at Syracuse University that also led to the above fabrication lab project.

That these pioneers have rolled up their sleeves and are demonstrating novel ideas for the 21st century library is something I envision for for our collective future: not just a room full of dusty books, but a continuous learning center that utilizes technology and information to help communities thrive and businesses grow!

I truly hope that the administrators for the Savannah Public Library takes a serious look at these ideas and try them out. As is typical among we “Makers,” I would be happy to help out with this. :-)

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