Libraries and Makerspaces: a match made in heaven

I wrote a guest editorial for the Raincoast Books site, in honour of Freedom to Read Week. It's called "Libraries, Hackspaces and E-waste: how libraries can be the hub of a young maker revolution," and it's about the role of libraries in the 21st century:

Every discussion of libraries in the age of austerity always includes at least one blowhard who opines, "What do we need libraries for? We've got the Internet now!"


The problem is that Mr. Blowhard has confused a library with a book depository. Now, those are useful, too, but a library isn't just (or even necessarily) a place where you go to get books for free. Public libraries have always been places where skilled information professionals assisted the general public with the eternal quest to understand the world. Historically, librarians have sat at the coalface between the entire universe of published material and patrons, choosing books with at least a colorable claim to credibility, carefully cataloging and shelving them, and then assisting patrons in understanding how to synthesize the material contained therein.

Libraries have also served as community hubs, places where the curious, the scholarly, and the intellectually excitable could gather in the company of one another, surrounded by untold information-wealth, presided over by skilled information professionals who could lend technical assistance where needed. My own life has included many protracted stints in libraries — for example, I dropped out of high-school when I was 14 took myself to Toronto's Metro Reference Library and literally walked into the shelves at random, selected the first volume that aroused my curiosity, read it until it suggested another line of interest, then chased that one up. When I found the newspaper microfilm, I was blown away, and spent a week just pulling out reels at random and reading newspapers from the decades and centuries before, making notes and chasing them up with books. We have a name for this behavior today, of course: "browsing the Web." It was clunkier before the Web went digital, but it was every bit as exciting.

Libraries, Hackspaces and E-waste: how libraries can be the hub of a young maker revolution


  1. I like the idea of a public institution that encourages both theory and practice (learning and making).

    It would be tricky to justify public funding if the level of participation was too low, so getting large groups of people into making would be essential (and probably very difficult) but should be worth the effort.

  2. I’ve met Mr. Blowhard. He was the director of a major institutional library. He predicted, in the late 1990’s, that the Internet would make physical libraries obsolete within the next decade. In describing his vision he kept emphasizing the money that would be saved if libraries no longer had to maintain a physical building, and no longer had to buy books, because, he said, most researchers didn’t need a whole book. For their research they usually needed, at most, a paragraph. Imagine, he said, the money that would be saved if libraries could stop spending dollars on books that would sit unused on the shelves and instead spend pennies to buy a paragraph, a sentence, or a single picture.  

    I think the idea of libraries “as community hubs” is wonderful, and while I’m a strong proponent of libraries continuing to acquire and archive books and other print materials, I just as strongly believe that libraries can and must serve multiple purposes. They must serve the community.

    However let’s not overlook the fact that Mr. Blowhard’s attitude is very appealing to those who see libraries as nothing but a money pit. And serving multiple purposes, in spite of the benefits, is going to be even more expensive than just being a book depository.

    This article does a really good job of selling the idea of libraries, but are enough people willing to buy it?

  3. I argued last year on that library makerspaces make sense because libraries have always been about creative, productive engagements with information. Reading isn’t a passive, uncreative process!

    Read more here:

    And here’s a post I wrote for Boing Boing’s LibraryLab on how one mobile makerspace is adapting the bookmboile model to the maker revolution:

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