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Makerspaces in libraries: progress

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Case study, Good practice, Outcome: culture, Outcome: digital, Outcome: learning

[Editor’s note: this post reports the highlights of our second Makerspaces masterclass, held in Leeds central library.]

As we described in our previous post, a number of the projects funded under the Libraries Opportunities for Everyone (LOFE) fund involved setting up some form of makerspace, so we asked people if they would be interested in getting together and sharing experiences. They said yes, and a number of other people who are either setting up, or thinking about setting up makerspaces in libraries also signed up. After that event, many people expressed an interest in keeping in touch, and meeting again - so we organised a second masterclass at the start of September.

Participants starting to arrive for the workshop in Leeds library Room 700.
Participants starting to arrive for the masterclass in Leeds library Room 700. Photo credit: Julia Chandler/Libraries Taskforce

Initial discussions

We started by inviting participants to share their biggest successes, challenges, and the things they wish they had known. This was partly to help inform the topics for discussion in the afternoon round tables.

Successes included:

  • getting up and running!
  • getting community engagement/awareness, and people approaching us proactively
  • getting agreement to keep running - and funding
  • instilling proper project management processes
  • getting paying customers
  • overall enthusiasm - from those involved in the project, more widely in the service, and from users

Challenges included:

  • losing a partner very close to launch (although this did have the silver lining that a new partner was found who got even more involved)
  • lack of consistent staff knowledge - on equipment, and makerspaces more widely
  • finding a way through internal processes and getting the buy-in of council IT teams
  • cost of consumables
  • marketing the space
  • selling the project internally
  • working with volunteers

Things people wished they had known were wide-ranging and echo the issues listed above. Many wished they had done more research and known more about what equipment and support was available. They also said they had found this group, these workshops and the Innovators Network a great help. Several mentioned the importance of getting a project manager in as soon as possible, and engaged with their IT and procurement colleagues earlier. The enthusiasm of a local university to get involved was an unknown at the start - and everyone was encouraged to reach out to their local higher education establishments and test their interest.

Tour of Studio 12 and the Drawing Room

To take advantage of the venue, participants then had the opportunity to tour 2 spaces in Leeds central library. Neither are perhaps what many people think of as a makerspace - not a 3D printer in sight - but each encourages and supports creativity.

Studio 12

Studio 12 is (in the words of their publicity material): “a place to be creative, experiment with new technology, realise hidden talent, reach personal goals and explore new professional avenues”. It is a room furnished with high spec Apple Mac computers, keyboards, a greenscreen, plus it contains a soundproofed recording studio.

Equipment in Studio12.
Equipment in Studio12. Photo credit: Julia Chandler/Libraries Taskforce

It's available to young people aged 16-30, and provides them with free access to training, accredited qualifications and an Industry Panel of creative professionals. Alumni keep in touch, and have worked with the team on many creative projects including the film promoting Leeds’ bid to become European City of Culture.

The Drawing Room and the Dressing Room

These rooms are a newer space, still in the process of being set up. They lead off the arts library, and the first is the Drawing Room: a space full of art equipment (paints, easels, a portable sink, and big tables for creative projects). They currently have an artist in residence who runs open sessions, and the team run regular classes, including reminiscence work and exploring how technology intersects with art (for example they had set up some ozbot robots tracing the patterns in classic paintings in art books).

The room next door will become the Dressing Room - and reflect the heritage of Leeds as a textile producing city. They will install high tech sewing machines, tailors dummies and mannequins and focus on tailoring, embroidery and creative crafts.

Fuelled with the inspiration of these 2 very different creative spaces, participants regrouped for plenary discussions.

Promoting makerspaces

A common topic of debate was how people have gone about promoting their makerspaces. Participants were encouraged to share what had worked for them, and ideas included:

  • consider having a separate social media account specifically for the makerspace - and then cross promote using library and council channels (discussion around which channels to use included twitter, instagram and facebook)
  • create a mailing list
  • exploit word of mouth - brief staff, including library outreach staff (they can be your best advocates)
  • have stands at business networking events
  • Meetup groups
  • use local radio (one library regularly hosts a BBC local radio show)
  • run taster sessions and hold Open Days (the latter works well with young people who are used to this concept)

One idea for creating content to share to promote activities in your makerspace was to create short films - including stop frame animation using (for example) LEGO characters.

Attracting and retaining volunteers

While many teams were used to working with volunteers to deliver Code Clubs or individual sessions in libraries, people wanted to talk about the challenges of attracting and retaining volunteers to work in makerspaces. Issues were in many cases no different to working with volunteers in any context. They included:

  • build on learning around volunteers from another activity (e.g city of culture):
    • meet and greet at the start of every session
    • debrief afterwards
  • if working with students, get their input tied into the curriculum or a specific project
  • work with local volunteer centres
  • make sure volunteers have a job description, and create a standards of behaviour policy or volunteer agreement, for them to sign
  • if opening the space depends on them, recognise that circumstances can make them can be unreliable, or they may have to cancel at short notice, so have contingency plans
  • look at incentives and rewards, for example: travel expenses, Points of light nominations, local awards, thank you letters, or volunteer receptions
  • give feedback on performance
  • spend time and resource in training - note that accrediting training may be an added incentive for volunteers
  • look at how you might attract: retired university lectures, teachers, engineers, or STEM ambassadors
  • Friends groups may be able to assist, particularly with access to funding streams
  • work with local businesses

There were questions about the need for DBS checks, and we suggest that participants share their experience in more detail to help guidance on good practice to emerge that all can use.

More in depth discussions

Following those discussions, the workshop broke into smaller groups, who looked in more detail at the following topics. These had been identified by the group as things they wanted to talk about during the morning session:

  • Staff training and culture
  • IT
  • Building partnerships
  • Researching Equipment
  • Building ‘lesson plans’ or an activity programme
  • Selling the project internally

Staff training and culture

Culture change is a big issue for some. Makerspace project managers have had a mixed reception: from ‘it's not my job’ to enthusiastic champions. At the very least, all staff need to know about it and promote it. Many services offer staff training sessions on the equipment - so they know what it is and what it can do, not that they have to be able to teach people to use it. Several advised talking staff through the offer, in order to improve confidence about it, and break down fear.

Pragmatic advice was that it needs to be OK for library staff not to want to be hands-on involved, and it’s more effective to focus efforts on people who are interested. Look for the hook for people which makes them interested in getting involved - perhaps personalise training to the individual, and focus on their interests and hobbies. How about setting up a test lab - an area of the staff room to play around with the equipment?

Recognise the difficulty of having another job at the same time, but still finding time to experiment with the equipment. Not all makerspaces have dedicated members of staff, so it is about juggling responsibilities and timetabling, and fitting it in. One approach can be partnerships with other communities eg raspberry pi community, code clubs and hackspaces.

IT: finding ways to work with your IT department - or creating your own network

The single biggest topic for discussion around setting up a makerspace which involved computers was working with local authority IT systems and set-ups. One participant shared the solution he had created, around setting up a separate network - albeit one that was known about and endorsed by IT. He was happy to talk to participants about the details, both the advantages and risks of such a solution. The conclusion for most was to keep the makerspace IT “free range” so that you can experiment with different kit and software.

Traditionally the Mac suite is designed for creatives, offering high specification editing of music and film etc, and there is seamless interoperability between devices. This equipment is expensive though, and if your makerspace also has the aim of digital skills training and wants to echo what people might have at home, then it makes sense to have a range of equipment.

There was discussion about the question of storage of people’s work - and universally a form of cloud storage was recommended.

People also talked about physical security - from how to make sure kits which contained lots of parts remain complete, to how to manage mobile devices like laptops and tablets.

Building partnerships, including with schools and universities

Participants shared a wide range of approaches they had tried, including:

  • approach schools and the code clubs already running there
  • work with community groups, especially the library Friends group
  • don’t forget peers across the library sector - connect with others planning or running makerspaces
  • use business partnerships the library already has - explore getting groups in who will pay for sessions and perhaps have specific days when those less privileged can use facilities for free
  • talk to your local university and particularly sell the benefits of the space to the students
  • offer to share equipment with other organisations - especially items which are no longer needed or used less frequently
  • look for sponsorship - participants shared examples including a local supermarket providing fruits for childrens activities
  • use your cafe - perhaps offer free vouchers for coffee for customers who come into activities in the makerspace

Researching equipment

Discussion centred around finding out the sorts of equipment people are getting or planning, and sharing experience about issues that related to them. Many are still at the shopping list stage.

There were lots of questions about the ubiquitous 3D printers. One thing to consider is leasing over purchase. Leasing arrangements tend to cover support, and call outs for fixing problems, and allows for potential upgrades in future. Someone commented that people should be prepared for things to pop up that you didn’t expect - for example people wanting more colours in the things produced. And others advised you set up a model for charging for consumables (but be prepared to be flexible to encourage people to experiment).

Other kit on people’s list included:

  • VR - options ranged from Google cardboard (which works when people bring their own phone) to fully integrated headsets
  • tablets - a range of devices including iPads and android tablets
  • Sphero - a miniature robot - they can be programmed to follow a route, can be controlled by tablet, and are waterproof
  • 3D pens
  • vinyl cutter
  • different sorts of 3D printer, including one for clothes (a sort of digital knitting machine)
  • Hull is considering a kiln, although recognises there are lots of issues involved, not least the space needed, and different temperatures depending on the material
  • soldering irons - to support jewellery making

Other issues discussed included deciding between cheaper equipment and larger groups vs more expensive and smaller groups, exploring crowd funding to purchase specific pieces of kit, and a final point about being flexible as the project evolves. One participant said that their initial bid included 3D printers - but the age groups they want to target didn’t want that, they want to learn to make video games, and use ‘proper’ cameras to support film making and editing.

Building ‘lesson plans’ or an activity programme

Common themes included researching what was already available and repurposing it, and working with partners - which meant you could build on their programmes. One particular example was a project where the team is working with a local charity who works with young people with anxiety and other mental health programmes. The makerspace will provide the equipment (in this case video cameras and access to editing programmes) and the charity will develop the programme.

Many decided on the pragmatic approach, starting with programmes based on the skillset of the staff involved. Once groups had started to get involved, whether that was local schools or Young Enterprise groups, programmes could be developed. In many cases, the teaching staff are just one step ahead of students! All agreed on making a virtue of simplicity, and learning by doing.

As mentioned in a previous blog post about Lego clubs, there is a move towards having activities designed around a real problem, as this makes the exercise more meaningful. The key is to get people started and hands-on.

Some teams were looking at using an an online learning library. That would deal with understanding the basics of the software and/or equipment. One team has set up a store to collect basic lessons and tutorial videos. All emphasised the importance of flexibility: iterate, and use plans as a stepping stone, not a constraint.

One was keen to get members of their makerspace to make material for their personal social media channels, to make their profiles into a live portfolio and showcase their ability. Also to use these skills to create things to promote the makerspace. Others agreed that sharing lesson plans to gain ideas and avoid reinventing the wheel would be useful.

Selling the project internally

A range of approaches were discussed in this section, depending on whether people were starting from a position of scepticism or just a lack of time and awareness. People talked about having open days for staff and encouraging colleagues to explore and experiment.

The biggest challenge though was to make the case for having makerspaces in libraries and demonstrating to decision makers that they added value. Tactics include:

  • setting KPIs: such as social impact measures of activities
  • increased number of interactions for a specific age group - and if they’re using other bits of the library service, look at what’s responsible
  • showing impact as way of getting further investment from the council
  • one team methodically evaluate all their activities in libraries and this creates a means of talking to councillors
  • a university is doing one team’s evaluation - into targeting unemployed people to give them business skills
  • when confronting risk aversion, recognise that you need to be really prepared for meetings
  • using Friends groups to make money and then reinvest it in the library
  • looking at council outcomes, such as creating a skilled workforce
  • linking makerspaces with local microfirms
  • creating a Techtown? Map the digital footprint of the town and think how the makerspace would link into that

Next steps

Following the previous workshop, we listed all the makerspaces in libraries that we were aware of, gathered together all the reports, links and good practice we could find, and created a page on GOV.UK. We’ll continue to update this - please share any material that you think would enhance it, and contact us if you would like to create a guest blog or case study on your makerspace.

We asked participants if they would like to meet again, and there was enthusiastic agreement, so we’ll plan another workshop in around 6 months time.

It’s impossible to do complete justice to the day’s discussions in a blog, but we have shared full notes of the masterclass with participants and via the Innovators Network. Please email us if you are interested in more of the detail.

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