YA Strike Zone June 2016
“Maker Space” Cabal: The Challenges and Obstacles to Our Latest Overextension
Before libraries get too comfortable with the latest flash-in-the-pan and devote precious resources, panels, guidelines, blog posts, and workshops celebrating this Latest Thing, I’d like to hold up a “slow down” sign.
Referred to variously as “makerspaces,” “hacker spaces,” “learning labs,” “media studios,” etc., libraries all over the country are jumping on this tech toy bandwagon, haphazardly inflicting YA departments with “new roles” and responsibilities while exhibiting not a modicum of strategic rigor or curiosity about how or if, they are even fit for purpose.
Of course, it’s easy to be influenced by technovangelist enthusiasms about the wondrous things that cheaper, faster, smaller, more versatile technology offers. I teach at the world’s largest entirely online library school. I know something about high tech evangels.
It’s important, of course, to acknowledge the truly innovative opportunities libraries offer young people, especially those unable to afford private access. With technology, libraries are discovering, at long last, how to attract some boys.
Exposure to new ideas certainly exists as part of the library mission. Some of these tech tools promise to help young people better enjoy, create, and even document their experiences and help them contribute to the broader culture. Of course, that’s something we ought to have been more sensitive about for decades—or, at least, since zines—but that’s another column.
Clearly there are benefits for library exploration and experimentation with new technology. Of course, there are.
On the other hand, however, libraries apparently must learn over and over again, as if for the first time, that without thinking through these new circumstances, without considering their relationship to the library’s core mission or stated strategic objectives, without aligning institutional resources to properly support them, without acknowledging the many associated legal issues, without even developing service metrics (or even defining) “success” or “best practice,” YA services remains a kind of dumping ground for whatever flashy new Thing comes rolling down the hill.
Will YA librarianship remain forever reducible to whatever two new nickels rubbed together can buy? Are libraries so desperate and rudderless about what constitutes YA services that simply anything new will do? An exploratory spirit is fine, but true “innovation” requires criteria.
This year it’s “makerspaces.” Last year, “tweens.” Before that, the “teen brain” and “sexting” preoccupied library brainwaves (not to mention the always-handy long list of conventional anti-youth moral panics). Sometimes, they roll down the hill so fast that they roll over each other.
At this year’s Public Library Association conference in Denver, I convened an informal focus group of YA librarians serving in new or renovated YA spaces hosting a makerspace (by whatever name). The discussion yielded a long list of reasonable concerns. I’ve added a few of my own observations. Let me count the ways.
Take the legal concerns. Before systematically addressing even the most rudimentary issues of insurance coverage, ADA compliance, copyright and trademark, and negligence liability exposure, libraries simply cleared tables and assigned spaces (usually under lock and key) to video and music studio equipment, 3-D printers, video games, and other highly technical activities.
Rafts of operational and strategic questions go unaddressed as well. To what degree, for example, do these tech tools support and advance library strategic objectives and goals? How should libraries define, test, measure, document, and evaluate the experiences of staff and YA users? What library inputs are necessary; what outputs and outcomes seem reasonable? How would we even know, for instance, what a “successful” offering means?
What new policy questions present themselves (access, maintenance and tech support, updating, staffing)? What institutional resources exist to support the objectives these tools and experiences require (what skills do staff need, how do they get them, who else needs them, what space requirements are there, what activities will be retired or diminished or delegated in their place, how will job descriptions and performance evaluations change)?
Do YA librarians even offer the best skill sets to be dealing with such various equipment demands? If not, who should? And how should libraries integrate them into YA service departments?
Few of the librarians participating in our focus group at PLA serve in libraries where these questions received systematic treatment. Instead, they expressed feeling stranded and trapped in yet another hastily-assembled agenda with only stapled-on connections to YA professionalism, training, or vision.
Of course, key to these lingering and haphazard dilemmas is the netherworld in which YA services already exist in many libraries. Relegated—still—to not even 5 percent of total library square footage (even in new buildings); staffed largely by part-time or distracted multiple-role librarians; resistant to even the small amount of field research produced by too few YA researchers; a national association suffering more from author fetish than supporting necessary skills to run libraries, YA services finds itself lurching from one bright and shiny object to the next, unequipped to discern the enduring and relevant from ephemeral mirage.
Given these existing institutional challenges, it might dawn on some that plugging in a 3-D printer may not be our most pressing concern.
One recent LIS-connected blogger, defensively commenting on these whatever-whatever makerspaces asserted, “Not everything has to be planned.”
Well, as a matter of fact, when precious public resources are being expended, instead of what may be better choices, and when institutional connections with YA users are at stake, yes, they do.
As another saying goes, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” Including nowhere.
Makerspaces are no more proven to save libraries or help define YA services than hot air hand dryers in the restroom. Until YA librarianship can define its key service vision in contributing to the well-being of young people through professional information services, hot air about makerspaces is about all we’ll have.
Along the way to what libraries will make of makerspaces—and before we get too comfortable simply trumpeting clichés and multiplying platitudes about them—it might behoove YA professionals and administrators to consider how LIS continues to uncritically pursue so many of these service concepts.
Anthony Bernier teaches at San Jose State University’s School of Information where he conducts research, teaches, and publishes on the administration of equitable services with young people. A fourteen-year YA specialist librarian and veteran administrator, he is a former chair of YALSA’s New Directions Task Force, served a four-year term on ALA’s Committee on Accreditation (COA), and published a Festschrift honoring VOYA co-founder Dorothy M. Broderick in 2013. He lives in Oakland, California, and rides a BMW R1150RT.