Local Communities Should Offer Makerspaces

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Imagine for a moment that a visually impaired teenager has an interest in building a marble machine, where a small marble can roll down a series of pieces connected to a wall, landing in a cup at the bottom. This project would take materials that the teenager does not have, with knowledge he cannot easily learn by himself, and without the space at home to even try. He has the intelligence to learn it, and the will to try out new things. But he simply does not have the resources available to him to follow his ideas to their fruition.

A new resource has just opened up in his local library, however, called a makerspace. In it, the public is invited to revel in a do-it-yourself atmosphere, loaded with materials, knowledge, and the space to make dreams happen. The 21st century comes alive in a local makerspace, ready for anyone’s projects to get started. Makerspaces offer education, a space for people who cannot afford equipment, and help to the general public.

This article was originally written for my classwork with CSU-Global, a portfolio project.

Makeability: Creating accessible makerspace events in a public library” explored a local library makerspace as it started up in existing space, detailing the assistance and education offered to those with disabilities3. At the event, an assistant helped a visually impaired attendee to begin building a marble machine wall, and within a short time the attendee was working without help, building his own machine3. With so much to offer, what would it take for local communities to fix the lack of public makerspaces? Many local communities do not offer public makerspaces, due partly to a lack of accessibility, liability, and funding. A potential solution would be for communities creating makerspaces to ensure activities are diverse and accessible; to provide safe environments through education, training, and design; to require user agreements for liability protection; to use existing community spaces to limit costs; and to use fees and grants for financial support.

Problem: Many Local Communities Do Not Offer Public Makerspaces

Despite not being offered in every community, the maker movement has become increasingly popular, with the intent of offering education, resources, and public production opportunities. The maker movement, evolving from the computer programming and electronics spaces that started in the mid-1990s, includes 135 million Americans, and 57% of U.S. adults, and contributes to 28 million small businesses16. “Digital fabrication technology in the library” explained how makerspaces, areas set aside to create virtually anything, allow communities to teach their populations new techniques that could lead to job growth, businesses flourishing, and innovation. People with similar ideas and methods can join a makerspace to learn and teach others, share equipment and materials, and innovate with new ideas and techniques11. Makerspaces can be very different from one another, depending on the needs of the makers involved, in both the size of the space needed and available equipment.

Makerspaces vary greatly in size and space, and each one provides creative and unique experiences that differ from one another. Makerspaces offer knowledge and resources as varied as 3D printing, computer hardware and software, welding equipment, power tools, sewing machines, and many differing supplies and tools to create just about anything14. Library makerspaces can start with just two 3D printers on a series of carts in a library4. At the other end of the spectrum, for-profit makerspace company Vocademy offers large, multi-million dollar spaces, and includes 3D printing and routing, woodworking equipment, programming, welding, and advanced manufacturing13.

“Digital fabrication technology in the library” reported numbers from the American Library Association (ALA) estimating that there were at least 250 library-based makerspaces in the United States, featuring many different programs for makers in an increasing trend. While the trend is increasing, it can be unfavorably compared to 2012 numbers indicating that general library attendance, for various programs in the United States, was 92.6 million attendees, in 4 million programs1. The majority of local community libraries, in this light, do not offer many opportunities for the maker movement.

The Causes: Accessibility, Liability, and Funding Issues

Despite the innovation and growth that the maker movement could supply, makerspaces are not featured in many communities due to inaccessibility, liability, and funding. Equipment is often very expensive, and can be dangerous if not used properly. The increase in liability, and the need to replace materials, can be challenging financially to a local community. With so many different kinds of equipment, and limited space, creating an accessible makerspace for those with disabilities can be difficult, even discouraging.

Accessibility

The makerspace event discussed in “Makeability” succeeded in allowing some with disabilities to flourish at the event, including with the marble machine, and indicated that people in the maker movement would be willing to help in the future3. However, at the same event, a wind tube project was inaccessible to those with visual impairments, and those participants were unable to try it3. If makerspaces are not accessible by default, interested makers with disabilities might stay away, or feel that the space was not for them, especially as many makers might stop by on a whim to create or learn something3. With fewer participants, a makerspace may become unused, possibly leading to a lack of administrative support or closure of the space.

Difficulties exist when designing makerspaces for disabilities in part because there are so many types of disabilities to account for. That includes those that are hearing or visually impaired, have problems with movement or are required to use wheelchairs, and those with neurological disorders. In interviews about the University of Washington’s popular makerspace, “UW Today, University of Washington” described situations where the visually impaired had trouble with wires and outlets being out of the way for wheelchairs, but at a height that struck visually impaired users when they were moving through the space. The University of Washington’s makerspace also features work tables on wheels, which helps with mobility-impaired makers9. Having movable tables, “UW Today, University of Washington” pointed out, unfortunately means that visually impaired users can not make a mental map of the room to help them move through it. That situation could create a hazardous makerspace if large or dangerous equipment was being used.

Liability

Makerspaces in schools and public libraries can increase the liability that local communities face, especially in those makerspaces that use large or dangerous equipment. Power tools, welding equipment, and computer-controlled machinery can cause injury, as well as environmental concerns. “Meet the makers” quoted Susan Hildreth, director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), “If you’re going to have a space that could be noisy and could create smoke, you need to consider where the space is placed, and how it is vented”15. Makerspaces feature equipment that can be more dangerous to use, and events such as a Yale student’s 2011 death due to a lathe in a campus machine shop could make administrators wary of support for makerspaces5. Machinery increases risk, stricter adherence to safety standards, and could increase the need for funding to cover the liabilities.

Funding

Funding local makerspaces can be difficult, between costs for liabilities, tools, supplies, and facilities to house them. Space needs to be found, and often renovated, with the right amount of space for both current and future needs6. Funding needs to be available to create the space for the equipment that it needs, including electricity, networking, safety devices, soundproofing, and structural support, all determined before it is known how the space will be used by the public6. Funding at that level can be enormous, considering the price of the equipment and technology. The for-profit makerspace company Vocademy, describing its expansion plans in California, explained that costs to create a large 30,000 sq. ft. makerspace reached $2,000,00013. Cash-strapped communities might simply not be able to afford a makerspace.

Even communities that only want to start with a smaller amount of equipment face an uphill battle. “Digital fabrication technology in the library” explored the challenge of simply starting a makerspace with a 3D printer, the expense of which can exceed a library’s budget on just the hardware alone, before purchasing the plastic consumables or considering the financial burden of further time and training for staff. MakerBot, one of the leading 3D printer manufacturers, lists new 3D printers in the range of $999 to $6,499, and replacement spools of plastic consumables ranging from $18 to $379 each10. Other makerspaces might offer the use of much larger equipment, such as a CNC router, which ranges from $7,000 to $35,0002. Local communities might not have the budget to put into the equipment alone.

The amount of investment in a makerspace can be staggering, when many communities and educational institutions do not have the money to put into them. “The ‘maker movement’ goes to college” explored the investment in Community College of Baltimore County’s Fab Lab, which spent $400,000 to start the project, and estimates it will need to spend another $100,000 a year for staffing, materials, and replacement parts. For an educational institution to spend extensively on a makerspace requires administrators that are ready to take risks, especially with liability and safety. “Practical implementation of an educational makerspace” studied a high school makerspace in which the administration was helpful, but in many cases administrators are not as willing to come up with funding or assistance with new makerspaces.

However, “Practical implementation of an educational makerspace” also pointed out that makerspaces do not have to start out being the most expensive spaces in a community. A large budget is not a requirement to start, even a lack of technology budget at all should not be a barrier to starting a makerspace as simple as a table in a corner featuring simple tools8. Instead of aiming for multiple printers and devices, finding the funds for a simpler makerspace, even a single device like a 3D printer, might be far easier. The effort to start the space can lead to student or public interest, and starting small can gradually lead to greater technology and equipment.

Some Solutions For Local Community Makerspaces

Starting small with a makerspace can lead to becoming integral in the local community, and grants, fees, and administrative support are crucial to the success of the space. “Practical implementation of an educational makerspace” described the New Milford High School (NMHS) makerspace as starting in simply a corner of the library, expanding as needed with further student involvement. Even a smaller makerspace might give someone with a disability the chance to make their own creative projects, or learn a new craft, in a safe, accessible environment they might not otherwise have available.

Accessibility

Accessibility will always be a challenge with makerspaces, due in part to the many different types of disabilities that makers need to take into account. But with planning, innovation, and inclusiveness, makerspaces can work to include makers of all levels and challenges. “Makeability” explained that offering complete information about the makerspace on a website was a good start3. The website should feature a full list of the available equipment, any rules or guidelines for the space, and that the site be open for comments and discussion from users at all levels3. That gives makers the opportunity to research what the makerspace offers, and examine their own needs for the projects they would like to work on. If there are any rules or guidelines they have questions about, offering those lists online and providing a source for answers gives more opportunities for the community to determine what they require from a makerspace.

Creating more accessible makerspaces also occurs when those with all types of disabilities are a part of the discussion. “Make the makers’ voices count” added that through meetings, surveys, and web communications, makerspace developers can involve the disabled in designing spaces that are useful and inclusive of all. Disabled makers can help with the specifics of the space, not just to include general handicapped access, but to design spaces that consider how the disabled actually use those features11. Disabled makers can help design spaces that are more inclusive and safer for all users.

Liability

Designing safe and inclusive makerspaces helps the problem of liability, and having procedures and plans in place eases the liability problems that local community makerspaces face. With the inclusion of those with disabilities, a “maker culture of safety comes first” can work to reduce liability for all in the makerspace11. “Make the makers’ voices count” described having grips and guards in place to protect users, along with safety gear and proper, accessible labels. Safety and emergency equipment should be provided in ways that the disabled can access them, including access to fire suppression from wheelchairs11. “Make the makers’ voices count” added that training, manuals, and guidelines, in different accessible formats, should be openly available to all in the makerspace.

Along with proper guidelines, makerspaces can limit their liability through user agreements. With so many different types of makerspaces and users, being able to gauge the safety concerns of each user can be difficult. By requiring a user agreement before a maker can use the space, local communities are more protected from liabilities. “User agreements and makerspaces: A content analysis” detailed several types of user agreements, and the information provided in each. Solid guidelines and rules need to be laid out in the user agreement, including specific information for safety, future liability claims based on injury or death, consistent procedures, negligence and recklessness guidelines, and an understanding about the risks involved12. Having a solid user agreement can help to protect the makerspace and the local community from liability, in case of future safety or space issues.

Funding

Many pieces of equipment in a makerspace are novel to the public and are seeing increasing usage as the technologies become normalized. 3D printing has become a cornerstone of the maker movement, allowing anyone to learn how to create all manner of items. “3D printing in libraries” added that 3D printing is, “integral to the changing face of library service”7, and supports how users work with content, the growth of user-generated ideas, and the community formed around that creativity. 3D printing is a technology that can be housed in an existing space within a library very easily, and “Practical implementation of an educational makerspace” observed that several models can be purchased for under $1,500. With administrative support, NMHS was able to add a 3D printing station, and gradually other stations as the makerspace increased in student usage8.

Usage fees for equipment, staff time, and even wear and tear on the machine could be a viable way to help offset the costs of a makerspace. Financial support for 3D printing materials could come through fees for those consumables, and for maintenance of the machine6. ” Fines, fees and funding: Makerspaces standing apart” discussed that fees could also be charged for events such as fairs, through campaigns, and through creating clubs for interested local makers. While charging fees might shrink the number of people who use the equipment, it could also strengthen the dedication of those that use the makerspace, balancing higher demand with the wear on equipment6. Fees could be a good addition to grants and other financial support, from local communities and partners.

“Fines, fees and funding” explained that grants work well for starting a new makerspace, working much the same way as a start-up would. Grants typically have a specific lifetime, however, and further funding and support is ongoing. “A fabulous laboratory” explored a library makerspace that began even before grant writing for the physical library makerspace. The FFL Fab Lab started as a group of carts, staffed with knowledgeable people, allowing them to take their mobile makerspace anywhere4. Through donations, writing grants, winning awards, and raising money through Indiegogo campaigns, the FFL Fab Lab was able to start with two 3D printers and other tools, and has added the ability for the local community to create anything4.

Conclusion

Makerspaces offer education, a space for people that cannot afford equipment, and help to the general public. However, many local communities do not offer public makerspaces, due partly to lack of accessibility, liability, and funding. A potential solution would be for communities creating makerspaces to ensure activities are diverse and accessible; to provide safe environments through education, training, and design; to require user agreements for liability protection; to use existing community spaces to limit costs; and to use fees and grants for financial support. In exploring the ongoing creation of a makerspace at a public library, the author of “A fabulous laboratory” stated, “As librarians we don’t need to become experts in movie making, we need to do what we have always done—provide access, space, and facilitate opportunity”4. “Makeability” observed that makers, especially those with disabilities, find the do-it-yourself nature of makerspaces important, and local communities providing access to that level of creativity offers an impact on their lives. With the increasing popularity of the maker movement, local communities can offer makerspaces within their existing environments, saving money, contributing to community innovation, and increasing inclusiveness of all community members.

Local communities may not be funded for makerspaces, and face challenges of liability and inaccessibility. Makerspaces often feature riskier equipment, and could make administrators wary of supporting makerspaces due to liability concerns5. As “Makeability” explained, some makerspaces and equipment might be inaccessible to those with disabilities, which may make local makerspaces unpopular and unaffordable. Fees that “Fines, fees and funding” explored may thin the traffic to local makerspaces, leading to a further lack of funding.

As “Practical implementation of an educational makerspace” observed, however, a lack of funding is not an excuse for ignoring the value of creating a makerspace. The educational and community-driven environment of a makerspace can be vital to the local population, allowing for new innovations and collaborations that help the community grow stronger and more involved. In examining the NMHS makerspace, “Practical implementation of an educational makerspace” explained how students hurried through their lunch so that they would have more time in the makerspace. Students from completely different groups, who would never work together elsewhere in the school, have found a fascination with learning together and building new things8. Makerspaces are built to bring communities together, to learn from one another, and collaborate in ways that are not possible outside of the space.

References

  1. American Library Association. (2015). The state of America’s libraries. American Libraries. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/news/sites/ala.org.news/files/content/2015state-of-americas-libraries-report.pdf
  2. Baileigh. (2016). CNC router tables. Retrieved from http://www.baileigh.com/woodworking/router-tables/cnc-router-tables
  3. Brady, T., Salas, C., Nuriddin, A., Rodgers, W., & Subramaniam, M. (2014). Makeability: Creating accessible makerspace events in a public library. Public Library Quarterly, 33(4), 330-347. doi:10.1080/01616846.2014.970425
  4. Britton, L. (2012). A fabulous laboratory. Public Libraries, 52(4), 30-33.
  5. Carlson, S. (2015, April 24). The ‘maker movement’ goes to college. Chronicle of Higher Education. p. A26.
  6. Crumpton, M. A. (2015). Fines, fees and funding: Makerspaces standing apart. The Bottom Line, 28(3), 90-94.
  7. Jones, B. M. (2015). 3D printing in libraries: A view from within the American Library Association: Privacy, intellectual freedom and ethical policy framework. Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology (Online), 42(1), 36-41.
  8. Kurti, R. S., Kurti, D., & Fleming, L. (2014). Practical implementation of an educational makerspace. Teacher Librarian, 42(2), 20.
  9. Langston, J. (2015, Aug. 5). UW Today, University of Washington. Retrieved from http://www.washington.edu/news/2015/08/05/how-makerspaces-can-be-accessible-to-people-with-disabilities/
  10. MakerBot. (2016). MakerBot store. Retrieved from https://store.makerbot.com/
  11. Meyer, A., & Fourie, I. (2016, June 6-11). Make the makers’ voices count: Combining universal design and participatory ergonomics to create accessible makerspaces for individuals with (physical) disabilities. Paper presented at the 15th EAHIL Conference, Seville, Spain. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.4401.9441
  12. Moorefield-Lang, H. (2015). User agreements and makerspaces: A content analysis. New Library World, 116(7), 358-368.
  13. Nash-Hoff, M. (2016, Aug. 9). Vocademy – an industry-driven solution to the skills gap? Industry Week. Retrieved from http://www.industryweek.com/education-training/vocademy-industry-driven-solution-skills-gap
  14. Prato, S. C., & Britton, L. (2015). Digital fabrication technology in the library: Where we are and where we are going. Bulletin Of The Association For Information Science & Technology, 42(1), 12-15. doi:10.1002/bul2.2015.1720420106
  15. Samtani, H. (2013). Meet the makers. School Library Journal, 59(6), 28.
  16. Thilmany, J. (2014). The maker movement and the U.S. economy. Mechanical Engineering, 136(12), 28-29.
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