The article below originally appeared on KQED News and is being reprinted with permission.
Libraries are one of the fastest-evolving learning spaces. As many resources move online, and teachers require students to collaborate more and demonstrate their learning, librarians are trying to keep up. Some are even spearheading the changes. Public libraries have led the effort to provide access to 21st century technologies and learning resources, but now university and K-12 libraries are beginning to catch up. Makerspaces are one way a few groundbreaking libraries are trying to provide equal access to exciting technologies and skills.
A Community Space
Four-year universities aren’t the only ones branching out into makerspaces. Several community colleges are also cultivating spaces for creativity, problem-solving and access to new technologies. The College of San Mateo sits in the heart of Silicon Valley and its library director, Lorrita Ford, demonstrates the entrepreneurial spirit for which the area is known.
Ford believes the library should be at the center of the college community and the broader community as well. “We serve a population that in many cases isn’t sure about what they’re going to do,” Ford said. Many College of San Mateo students are the children of service workers in the area. Their families don’t have a lot of experience with higher education, and students are still trying to discover their strengths.
“We really want them to have a place where they can come and discover their inner engineer that they may have not known existed,” Ford said. She and her staff embarked on their makerspace adventure in 2013 and have steadily grown what they offer since then, all without a dedicated space. Many of their tools can be checked out, and when specific workshops are offered Ford repurposes library tables or holds them outside.
“It seems to us that it’s a good intersection between learning and creativity,” Ford said of making. “It’s also a social place. We welcome everyone.”
The unique thing about a makerspace, Ford said, is that it shows you a different side of people. A biology professor might lead a workshop on jewelry-making and a student could lead a workshop on knitting. “They come here and they share that with other people, and then they talk and get to know each other at a different level,” Ford said. “I think it fills a niche.”
When Ford started the makerspace she gathered faculty from science, technology, engineering, art and math disciplines to gauge interest. It was then she realized how much expertise and excitement already existed in the community.
“The fact that we had buy-in from faculty really helped,” Ford said. “It wasn’t just the library pushing for it, it was faculty from engineering, physics, the arts that were supportive, too.” Ford ended up getting an innovation grant that helped jump-start the program. Since then, the library has partnered with faculty to design solar cars, build telescopes and learn about African-American textiles, among other things.
“We really see it as supporting what’s going on in the classroom,” Ford said. She described one science professor who used the makerspace with his class to print out each section of the cervical spine. Each segment is slightly different, and he wanted his students to be able to see and touch them.
Ford has also done a lot of work with student groups on campus. “We really work to make it a multicultural space, and when we’re designing programs we try to reflect and help expand cultural awareness,” Ford said. The Pacific Islander student group came in and led a workshop on how to make graduation leis. The Puente program did a Dia de los Muertos skull-making activity where Ford was surprised to learn that the holiday is celebrated only in some parts of Mexico.
Faculty members have also used the space to teach skills not covered in their courses. One engineering professor was so excited about the space he taught coding classes to students for fun. The library supported him by buying the software, circuits, Arduinos and other supplies he needed. Another faculty member taught students about online privacy and two-step encryption.
“We have this great physical space here, and I think as we involve in terms of what the library of the 21st century will be like, I think it makes sense for us to embrace and reinvent ourselves and make this part of our ‘new normal,’ ” Ford said. And she emphasized that while many people talk about libraries becoming irrelevant in the digital age, that hasn’t been her experience.
The College of San Mateo library is busier than ever, mostly with students looking for a quiet space where they can spread out. Ford and her staff try to respect various student needs simultaneously in the library. They try to make the library a welcoming space by letting students bring in food and offering relaxing activities like Legos and adult coloring in addition to everything else. Ford says if a noisy making activity is planned, they try to communicate that early, and even pass out earplugs to students who are trying to study.
Ford’s advice for anyone starting a makerspace on campus is to first develop relationships with faculty. “I’ve been really intentional in cultivating relationships with faculty and staff and have been really intentional about becoming part of the fabric of the college,” Ford said.
When she started at College of San Mateo 15 years ago, the library was very isolated. But over time she has worked to put library staff on key committees and to help support faculty whenever possible. She also made it clear to faculty how a makerspace could support the work they’re doing in classrooms.
Ford also suggests finding faculty champions, the people who already go to Burning Man or to Maker Faire, the ones who already have the hands-on gene. And, be patient. She’s also done a lot of partnering with the county, trying to make the college’s workshops and materials available to the wider community.
“Build it and keep nurturing it and eventually they will come,” Ford said. “In a lot of ways we are ahead of the curve a little bit, but they know we’re here and people show up at the library looking for stuff.” She described a student who came in looking for an adapter so he could hook his computer up to the projector in class. The library didn’t have those to check out, but Ford had one in her desk, so she quickly made it available for checkout.
She says when the library is an integral part of the whole college community, and its staff is there to help anyone who needs access to something, it changes the whole tone of the endeavor. And in that kind of environment, a makerspace just makes sense.