A New Spin on Maker Spaces

September 28, 2015 by Jennifer A. Diffley

Maker spaces are utilizing existing spaces to keep costs down and engage young minds. Here's a closer look at one successful approach.

The newest wave of maker spaces is popping up in public libraries across the country.

When Dale Dougherty launched Make: magazine in 2005, he couldn't have imagined the way his company would change the trajectory of electronics design, nor did he likely have any idea how successful Maker Faires would be. But there's absolutely no question Mr. Dougherty's impact has exceeded even his wildest expectations, and now Maker Faires exist around the world, from South Korea to South Dakota. The Maker movement has captured the imaginations and talent of everyone from kids to hobbyists, reclaiming a love of electrical engineering that seemed to have been sometimes relegated to a mystic realm only populated by geniuses.

A boy investigates a design at the Oregon Maker Faire.

Maker spaces evolved naturally from the Maker movement as physical locations where anyone with an inclination could find a supportive environment in which to tinker and experiment. These spaces--sometimes known as hackspaces--popped up all over the world and began to be just as popular as Maker Faires. The only problem is that, as physical locations, they're also burdened with the overhead and logistical issues that burden typical storefronts and often rely on fees or dues to stay afloat.

One solution is melding the aims of creativity and innovation with existing community infrastructure. Take, for instance, Idaho's Make it at the Library program. The program was developed in 2012 by the Idaho Commission for Libraries. Erica Compton, lead developer of the project, traveled extensively and researched existing maker spaces to come up with a strategy for successful implementation into Idaho's library system. And it's worked: to date, Idaho has 28 maker spaces in public libraries.

Young makers making blinky bugs at the Burley, ID, library. Photo courtesy of Make It Idaho.

The idea is ingenious for a number of reasons, but especially because it gives the library renewed relevance. Each library is given extensive staff training, but is then allowed the freedom to organize the maker spaces however they like, from offering free classes to having family build nights. Erica Compton has seen example after example of the program's success: patronage is up, socialization has improved, and interest in electrical engineering has proliferated. This last part is crucial, because getting teens and tweens excited about electrical engineering while they're young is what will motivate them to stick with it throughout the frustrating later years of high school. It also keeps them out of trouble, improves their self esteem, and makes them more creative and intelligent.

Using libraries as maker spaces capitalizes on the real aim of public libraries as repositories of knowledge. And, because state and federal governments absorb the cost of keeping the spaces running,  according to Erica, "...all kids regardless of socioeconomic status have opportunities to engage in rich learning experiences." That can improve communities, but will also improve the tech industry as a whole from an eventual influx of young creative minds fostered in public maker spaces.

While the rewards of the spaces are too far-reaching to document, the program sometimes encounters obstacles: “Sometimes we’ve tried things that haven’t worked as well, but we keep pushing ahead," says Erica. That kind of persistence is exactly what makes a successful engineer. 

Maker spaces are more vital and exciting than they've ever been. In addition to working on their own projects, electrical engineers can get involved to help bring the love of creating to the rest of the community. Programs like the one in Idaho are starting to creep up in public spaces throughout the world, and now there are even mobile makerspaces. It all serves to prove that the love affair with making and creating is far from over: now, though, the next world-changing invention could start at your public library.