March 18, 2018

Beyond the Maker Space | Backtalk

How often do librarians find themselves trying to explain that the library’s mission is not about books but about information? This public mis­understanding about what we are doing and why leads to a community misconception of what we should be doing in the future. The reality is that we as librarians make the same mistake all the time. We know intellectually that informational flow and access are our main missions, but our decisions and our hearts often put the focus on books. Books, in many cases, remain by far the best delivery vehicle for information, but there are many subject areas where other informational vehicles would be more effective, even if implementing those vehicles might mean less money spent on books. (This is the real issue we face: most of us have no problem spending money on programs, AV, special devices, and other things as long as we aren’t cutting our book budget to make them happen.)

Maker spaces make info

One current movement that has expanded the idea of what libraries can do to improve information dissemination is inspired by Maker culture. This idea of helping in the creation and dissemination of information through hands-on production has had libraries nationwide constructing Maker spaces of their own. Libraries are looking at information as more than just a one-way street from creators to consumers. Maker culture not only builds a dynamic learning environment and helps to grow community through the library but also allows for unique production of local information. This info wouldn’t exist otherwise and helps encourage others to innovate, as well as informally instructs them in how they might do so. Information doesn’t just travel in one direction as it has so often in the past. It now has much greater potential for multidirectional flow. Seen in this light, it is clear that Maker spaces fit into the core mission of the library, as long as we embrace flows of information that are contained and carried in vehicles other than books.

Maker spaces are only scratching the surface of the deeper possibilities waiting for those willing to dive even deeper into the untapped possibilities. The most successful projects have given whole floors to these new environments, which helps to build communities and aids staff in providing better service. The generation of information is only one aspect of the puzzle.

Are magnet libraries next?

Taking the concepts further and examining how information flow is best facilitated, you could imagine a performing arts library with soundproof practice booths and networked practice tutorials, plus instruments for check out during practice sessions or even to take home. You could envision several recording studios for the making of music and video projects. You could imagine practice rooms for bands, small dance groups, theater, and more. You could see a theater that allowed artists in your community access to performance space just as so many people in our communities currently use our meeting spaces. You can dream up rows and rows of CDs and LPs with an incredible selection of popular and important artists of today and yesterday. You could see patrons chatting over the new Animal Collective album and others lounging around on couches strumming guitars or jamming on banjos. The whole library would have nothing but performing arts materials, and everyone there would be interested in the performing arts.

It’s the combination of things

Many of these things are already in libraries, but nowhere do you find all of them combined in one location designated just for that use. The potential for community building is huge. The library would be facilitating the three major ways of interacting with arts information: consumption, learning, and performance. The performing arts is just one example; you could also envision a library for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and with 3-D printers, high-powered microscopes, simple labs for experiments and programs, books, and much more. When you start to look beyond the normal parameters we place around information and consider how it is actually used throughout our communities, the possibilities are enormous. These specialized edifices of informational flow would also make for great partnership and grant opportunities. They will also appeal to large groups of people who currently have little interest in libraries because they deal with information in a way that is different from what the library has traditionally offered.

The library I have been talking about does not exist, but I think it will eventually. There will still be a need in every community for the one-stop shopping provided by almost every library today, but there will also be room for these specialized branches in urban and suburban systems. It is just a matter of time before someone works with what is going on in Maker spaces in libraries and takes it to that next level. I can’t wait.

James Mitchell has been working in rural and suburban libraries for 12 years and currently runs the blog We welcome opinion pieces for BackTalk. Please send them to

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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  1. Libraries have really evolved over time. I know our library offers various workshops, story times, pre-teen movie night, art exhibits and more. If you want to know what your local library has to offer, just do an online search for their calendar of events. You might be surprised what they have to offer.

  2. Joneser says:

    And yet a recent LJ article talks about the “library of the future” (how many of those have there been?) and that library has . . . two state-of-the-art sewing machines.

    The original maker space? It’s between your ears.

  3. Barbara Fister says:

    I was torn between whether this was satire or not. I realize it was meant in earnest. Why not have a library with brain scanners and spectrometers and a lab for reading DNA? Why not a fully-equipped film studio and instruments for an orchestra? How about providing a free R1 university with faculty and research facilities? More information than you can shake a stick at. Kind of expensive to run, though.

    I’m all for being creative and imaginative about what libraries can be, but we can’t be maker spaces for all knowledge and arts. What we can do is be a community’s common ground where people can explore these things and we can provide some facilities for performing and making.But let’s not confuse being about information and being THE place where all of this should happen. We aren’t in charge of every bit of knowledge-making happening in our communities.

  4. I would argue that you are perpetuating a myth just as destructive to our future as the one you state that the public has been seduced by. Exchanging “books” for “information” in the minds of our users is doomed to immediately fail, as that ship has already sailed. Ask anyone where they go for “information” and they will say “the Internet” or “Google” or something similar. I can assure you they will never say “the library”. Instead, I would argue our mission has forever been to empower our communities. When put that way, as I did here: then all kinds of things become not only possible, but vital — including many of the things you placed under a tortured definition of “information”.