Makerspaces in Libraries The Creative Workshops of the 21st Century

3-D printer in the City Library of Cologne
3-D printer in the City Library of Cologne | © City Library fo Cologne

Libraries in Germany have now also started to experiment with open creative spaces, so-called Makerspaces. The experiences have all been very positive and show that libraries and the Do-it-yourself Movement indeed go together very well.

Makerspaces are open spaces in which people can work on physical objects. They are spaces for new ideas and do-it-yourself projects. Makerspaces, also known as Fablabs (fabrication laboratories) are, so to speak, the hobby rooms of the digital age. The tools no longer consist of saws and wood or scissors and fabric, but more of laser cutters and 3-D printers. The new rooms are above all ideally suited to networking. Gone are the days when people used to tinker and fiddle about with things all alone hidden away in some cellar; now they gather in a public space to experiment together with all the new technologies, to exchange their ideas and experiences and to look for fellow DIY enthusiasts.  

The first Makerspaces in German libraries

In 2013 the Makerspace Movement finally arrived in German libraries, although it had already started flourishing in the USA in the early years of the new millennium. The City Library of Cologne was the first German library to launch a Makerspace in June 2013. On the new media floor of the Central Library located on Cologne’s Josef-Haubrich-Hof users are not only able to avail themselves of a 3-D printer and scanner, but also of iPads, a keyboard, guitars, as well as a launch pad for controlling music software. The Makerspace fans use them for digitalising records, recording podcasts, composing on iPads and much, much more. “The Makerspace enables us to impart know-how outside the regular education system and thereby contribute to extending people’s equality of opportunity,” explains Hannelore Vogt, Director of the City Library of Cologne. “The Makerspace prides everybody with access to new developments in the realm of technology.”

The first research library to follow suit was the Sächsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden/ SLUB (Saxon State Library – Dresden State and University Library) in the middle of 2014. It was there that the creative possibilities of a Fablab were explored. The project was a joint undertaking between the library and various faculties of the Technical University, in collaboration with Fablab Dresden, a mobile high-tech workshop with 3-D printers and laser cutters.

Imparting skills as the core mission of a library 

The question is, however, why are libraries, of all places, predestined to set up Makerspaces? Can a Fablab be considered to be the logical further development of what libraries have always provided? Or are the libraries moving in a totally new direction? Hannelore Vogt sees this more as a form of continuity than change. “In themselves Makerspaces are in fact relatively new, if we ignore the handicraft afternoons held in children’s libraries. When it comes, however to the basic idea of a library, Makerspaces are indeed in line with the traditional purposes of a library as a place of learning, as a place of communication and as a place of participation.”

Lukas Oehm, who runs the temporary Fablab at SLUB, also sees Makerspaces as a logical further development. “In a library you can find comprehensive knowledge on almost every subject. The different specialist disciplines, however, lay down different requirements. Whereas the humanities and the social sciences are very text-bound, the engineering and natural sciences have to deal with physical objects of all kinds.”

Networking and further education are the main tasks

Both librarians have evaluated their first experience with a Makerspace as positive. “What we had to offer was well received,” reports Lukas Oehm from SLUB. “And the courses that FabLab Dresden organised for using the tools were well attended.” In addition the faculties involved in the project held a successful summer school that dealt with the technologies found in a Makerspace. Energised by all these positive experiences Lukas Oehm, in collaboration with his partners, is now planning the permanent installation of a Fablab at SLUB. One thing is, however, clear – merely providing hardware does not make a Makerspace. “Users need contact persons, an introduction and to be given a few tips and tricks on how to deal with the new tools,” says Lukas Oehm.

In Cologne the Makerspace has already managed to establish a fully functioning network. “The library serves merely as an agent and a facilitator,” explains Hannelore Vogt. “It provides the technological and spatial infrastructure – and the people help each other and pass their knowledge on.” The emphasis is therefore on networking, information and further education. “Our comprehensive range of courses has been compiled by the people for the people. At the same time the concept’s options have been kept open deliberately.” 

For Ms Vogt intergenerational learning is one of the main points. At the Makerspace in Cologne school pupils from the neighbouring school, the Kaiserin-Augusta-Schule, offer courses such as composing on an iPad, setting up your own weblog, digital image processing and a crash course in 3-D for beginners. “What the Makerspace has to offer is not just being used by tech-savvy nerds, but by anybody who has managed to retain a curiosity for the innovative.”