In LJ’s latest 2015 In-Depth Interview with Library Journal Movers & Shakers from academic libraries, sponsored by SAGE, we spoke with Adam Rogers, emerging technology services librarian at North Carolina State University (NCSU) Libraries. Rogers leads the DIY creation and collaboration space in NCSU’s D.H. Hill Library and Hunt Library’s fully equipped Maker space, which features 3-D printing, scanning, and laser cutting; electronics prototyping kits; and instructional workshops.
LJ: What do you do as the emerging tech services librarian?
Adam Rogers: I’m mostly focused on the Hill Library Maker space now, which opened in June—we’re wrapping up our first semester. But I still manage both spaces and their technologies and tools, the technology lending program, and the workshops connected to the program, as well as collaborations with faculty. I manage a team that helps with all of these things, and I direct the program—think of new directions for it to move in, new technologies to take on, how to increase our impact on campus, and how to respond to users’ feedback and suggestions.
What was your career path like?
I’ve always kind of been a hobbyist Maker, since before I came into the library world. I knew I wanted to explore emerging technologies, and how [libraries] could move forward embracing technologies in a way that matched our values and focus on critical thinking and literacy. That helped me to be a good fit for NCSU and for [it] to be a really good fit for me. My first job out of library school was as a fellow at NCSU, and then I moved into my current position.
Since I’ve been here I’ve pursued new technology initiatives as well as user experience design—thinking through the whole experience of a technology or service that we offer and focusing on how people get access to it. What are the barriers to entry? What does it look like for someone to hear about something and then be able to integrate it into their academic or career lives? Not just thinking about what’s the latest thing and where do we buy it, but how do we implement something that everyone on campus has access to, and that we’re doing a lot of explaining and teaching around? I’ve done some teaching with video editing, movie-making, and audio production, as well as work on mobile apps and things related to that.
What kinds of users are you seeing in the two spaces, and how are they using the resources?
The Hill space is a new 900 square foot Maker space that’s open 66 hours a week as a kind of open lab. Anyone on campus—students, faculty, staff—can go through an orientation to get access to the space whenever we’re open. Most of the people who’ve done that have been students, mostly undergraduates. We don’t have the demographics, but about 650 people have gone through that orientation since June. We’ve had the orientation sessions multiple times a week. The last month or so, those have been getting filled up and we’ve needed to add more.
We also offer our services to faculty who want to use the space, teach in the space, and develop assignments that send their students into the space. We’ve worked with, I think, about eight different instructors this semester.
We’ve worked with people in textiles, in horticulture, in English and communications—mostly with digital humanities—as well as in engineering, which is maybe a little more expected. Previously we worked with design and biomedical engineering and kind of a broad swath of campus disciplines.
So we’re supporting both informal learning, which we see happening as people are pursuing interests and hobbies and finding ways to use the 3-D printer and the laser cutter on their own time, and supporting faculty who want to teach in new ways or integrate technologies into their classes, and students coming in and working on a project for a class. It’s an interesting thing—we’re supporting the campus curriculum and also adding to it with learning experiences that students aren’t necessarily getting in the classroom.
You know, it’s a really open world. We had a workshop in our Maker space a few weeks ago on bookmaking and bookbinding that was taught by our special collections conservation staff. It’s an open environment that we can bring new things into and make available to more than just the geeks or the people who might always find us no matter where we were.
The library administration at NCSU seems to be very forward-thinking when it comes to emerging technology. Did you feel supported on the Maker initiative? How do you make the case for projects that interest you?
I’ve certainly found a lot of support for things that I’ve wanted to do. And, really, this Maker program wouldn’t exist without lots of colleagues’ and administrative support, people in development helping with the fundraising that’s made it happen, people in our communications department who’ve helped with web communications and promoting events and workshops, and subject specialists who’ve helped make connections with faculty and support that work.
The Maker space, early on especially, felt like this fringe thing—3-D printers don’t look normal in the library—but really the Maker space is an intersection of learning spaces, technologies, librarians and library staff, and in some cases collections, too. It’s right there at the intersection of lots of different core strengths of the library.
We do have a very supportive environment for innovation, exploring new directions, so I don’t run into a lot of those kinds of barriers. But I am a big proponent of taking small steps and getting feedback from users, getting some stories of how people are using things. When the Maker space started in Hunt Library we had a very small physical space and a relatively small expense in terms of technology investment. That made the case that this was something that had an audience on campus that fit well with the libraries and that would benefit from further investment and expansion. That’s what helped us build toward our current program of a second much larger space and growing staff and funding.
There are a lot of great programs at NCSU that have made this happen. One is called Library Stories, a program that some of my colleagues started, that is highlighting how librarians are collaborating with faculty and others on campus.
Is outreach also part of your work?
Yes. I think most university libraries have these great, centrally located, physical spaces. We have a lot of people coming into them already. Our new space is located right in the lobby, where people enter the building, so we’ve intentionally made that space welcoming. We have an open door, and there’s a visitor area where people can see examples of projects people have done in the space. So that’s not necessarily reaching out of the building, but it’s making the space accessible for people to serendipitously discover it and to see what can be done.
We did the same thing in Hunt Library. We had our small space on the fourth floor, but then we have a showcase of projects and technologies down near the main entrance. And that’s been really useful. We have gotten a lot of inquiries, so we’re very responsive when people, whether they’re faculty or local museums or schoolteachers, reach out to us. And outreach takes the form of going out to events and workshops that are happening elsewhere on campus, meeting people who are doing similar work, participating in kind of the bigger campus events around student orientation, open houses—things like that. But we’ve benefited from having a lot of traffic coming to us.
You have the advantage of working with a well-funded academic library, but what would you advise a smaller library to do in order to put together an engaging Maker space?
Start small, work from where your existing expertise and interests are. Maker spaces don’t have to look a certain way. They don’t have to be a physical space, they don’t have to have 3-D printers. I think Maker programming, pop-up Maker spaces, or workshops and events are where some of the most exciting things happen.
In some cases it can be useful to add an impressive capability because it would draw people to you, but it’s also important to think about the whole user experience—can we offer this as a service that’s accessible to everyone, where students can learn the tool set and have a good experience of getting interested, going to a workshop or learning a piece of software? That doesn’t come from buying the machine. It comes from developing expertise, developing learning experiences, and meeting people where they are.
You don’t have to have a really technically capable staff, just as long as you have an interested and enthusiastic staff. We’ve focused on tools that are accessible to any student on campus, regardless of discipline. That means everything in the space is relatively easy to learn, easy to get started using. And that means any of our library staff can also take those on. There’s a lot of great community out there for folks who want to get involved in the library Maker space community. There’s a LITA group as well as an email list that’s run out of the University of Florida that’s called LIBRARYMAKERSPACE-L.
One thing to add is that in terms of funding, so much of the Maker materials and tools are radically affordable—the Raspberry Pi Zero now is $5. Arduino kits that we lend are about $80. It’s a fairly affordable investment, even just adding them for your staff to start learning with and exploring.
What are some projects that you’re working on right now or that are about to happen?
We just launched a program of support for the Internet of Things. There’s quite a lot of hype around [it], but we’ve found that tools, both the hardware and software and the web services for building connected projects, are very accessible in terms of affordability and learnability. We saw an opportunity to collect some of the hardware so people could build projects and to develop a program of helping students or faculty who are interested. You can get a Wi-Fi module to integrate into a project now for about $3, and just last week the Raspberry Pi Foundation, which develops open source Linux computers for learning, announced a $5 Linux-based computer that you can use to build some of these projects, too. So the costs are coming down, the tools are becoming easier to use.
A big thing we’re doing right now is starting to schedule workshops for the coming semester. We do an introduction to 3-D printing, and an introduction to Arduino that is really an introduction to electronics prototyping and using code to control physical devices. We’ve had faculty come and teach workshops in our space this past semester, so we’re going to reprise those. And there’s a visualization platform called Processing, which is an easy to learn coding environment for making visualizations and making data visual. We’re going to add in a 3-D scanning workshop as well as a [computer numerical control] milling workshop.
We’re also very excited about starting to work on a Hackathon, or Hackathon-type event. We’re collaborating with our campus sustainability department and some of the communities on campus to challenge students to work on [campus] sustainability problems. That’s going to be a weekend-long event with prizes in February. And we’re thinking about a similar event later in the spring that’s going to be around wearable technologies. It’s a trend, there’s a lot of hype and interest in it, but, similarly, the tools are becoming really accessible.
If you had to give three tips to someone in an academic library who’s interested in promoting a Maker space, and becoming a leader in that space, what would you tell them?
- Make connections, human as well as conceptual. Connect with people on your campus or in your community who already have expertise that you’re interested in developing. Learn from them. Connect with people who share interests that you can collaborate with. In terms of the more conceptual things, connect what you’re doing to the mission of the organization, to the values of libraries, and to the community that you serve. That’s something that’s worked for me: this is not all that different and weird. We’re helping our community to learn about technology, complete projects, get things done, engage students in the classroom. And we’re part of the democratization of access and information literacy that is very much part of the library’s DNA.
- Start small and get results soon. So put something out there and see how it goes. If it doesn’t go the way you expected or if it fails, learn from that. Evaluate and take the next step with that knowledge, rather than starting big and ending up with those implications being much bigger.
- The tools are accessible, the physical stuff is affordable. So take a chunk of what you see in the Maker world that’s most interesting to you. Start learning that and think of how it fits into a library program or how you might give access to it within that framework of your library. Look for a field for inspiration, for learning experiences, for evening conferences to attend. Look for those opportunities in your communities. Look beyond the library world. Go out to be inspired and learn new things that we can bring back and introduce to our organizations.