Do-it-yourself Culture
Hackathons and Makerspaces

The Coding da Vinci cultural Hackathon in the Jewish Museum in Berlin in 2014
The Coding da Vinci cultural Hackathon in the Jewish Museum in Berlin in 2014 | Photo (detail): © Volker Agueras Gäng, via, licensed CC BY 2.0

Hackathons and Makerspaces are the products of a new participation culture on the library scene. Take, for example, projects like “Coding da Vinci” sponsored by the German Digital Library or the digital offerings available at the Cologne Public Library.

These days it is no longer a problem if you want to download the first edition of Friedrich Schiller’s The Robbers or the manuscript of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem onto your smartphone. Most of the cultural treasures of the great libraries and museums have been digitalised and can be accessed at any time. This may well be very practical – but it might well also be the start of a development that will lead to innovations that are even more spectacular

Of course it is an advantage for libraries if their collections are available in digital form to access, says Stephan Bartholmei, Coordinator for Innovation at the German Digital Library (GDL). In his eyes, however, this opening up of digital content is really just the beginning. “Digital copies,” he says, “are the fuel that drives our culture and knowledge.” He is also convinced that a lot more could be done with the data gathered by an institution like the GDL than merely presenting them on a useful portal.

Digital archives

It is in this spirit that the GDL, in cooperation with Wikimedia Deutschland, the Open Knowledge Foundation (OKFN) and the Service Center for Digitization Berlin (digiS), has staged for the second time in 2015 a cultural Hackathon called Coding da Vinci. The idea behind the project – cultural institutions place data material at the event’s disposal that are then transposed into new contexts by teams of programmers, graphic artists and designers. This kind of hacking has nothing to do with cybercrime, as Bartholmei initially had to explain to librarians and museum curators. In the meantime the creative aspirations of the project have to a large extent been understood. “A museum can be afraid of many things, but not of Coding da Vinci,” as Sebastian Ruff from the Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin (Berlin’s Municipal Museum Foundation) emphasised this year on behalf of many.

Without any misgivings the GDL unblocked its programming interface in 2014 so that its artefacts and archives could be accessed by the data craftsmen. What came out of it was a program called Mnemosyne, named after the Greek goddess of memory. It can be used to discover things in digital archives that one had not been explicitly searching for. It is as if you are looking for a book in a library and then, three shelves higher up you come across a book that is equally as interesting as the one you were looking for. A software was also developed called Kulturchronologie, with which the history of a museum’s exhibits can be visually retraced – by means of a timeline.

Teaching and learning in a Makerspace

Coding da Vinci is all about creating opportunities for interaction,” says Stephan Bartholmei. The same aspiration is also shared by the Makerspace in Cologne’s Public Library – of course, in a different form. It is an open, creative space for do-it-yourself projects, based on an American role model, that came into being as a pioneer project in 2013. In the beginning in Cologne, library users, for example, had the opportunity to digitalise their old records at the so called Vinyl Bar. The next step the library took was to purchase a few 3-D printers, in order – in the words of library director, Hannelore Vogt – to make this “revolutionary technology” available in a public space. Ms Vogt finds that the Makerspace performs the traditional functions of a library, i.e. providing information and knowledge, in contemporary guise.

In the meantime the Makerspace idea has moved beyond the walls of the library and is networking all over the city. For example, one project is in cooperation with Cologne’s Kaiserin Augusta School and is entitled Junior Experts. Within the framework of a Makerspace program the schoolchildren pass on their knowledge in the field of digital media mostly to older people who are not so well versed in modern technology. “The pupils become the teachers,” as Ms Vogt says happily. According to her, things like the Makerspace or a series of events for the technologically minded called geek@cologne have given the library “a totally new image”.

Knitting from notes

Generating new perspectives is also one of the aims of Coding da Vinci. And quite successfully, too – in 2014 16 institutions took part in the Hackathon, in 2015 it was as many as 33. The project teams were recruited from a total of 150 participants – both men and women. “The nicest thing,” according to Stephan Bartholmei, “is when ideas come about that one would never have hit upon oneself.” For example, there were two design students from the town of Trier and they got hold of some punch card roles from the German Museum – rolls that used to play music on electric pianos. As in the old days weaving looms used to function in the same way, the students devised a knitting machine that produced a scarf out of roll of musical notes.

The Coding da Vinci project is still in the development phase. It is going to take some time out next year to undergo “further programmatic development”, as Bartholmei says. It is also going to move out into other regions. Although Bartholmei admits that by no means have all the ideas from the project been fully developed or made fit for the future, but some projects are most definitely gaining momentum. The program Mnemosyne, for example, after being presented at Coding da Vinci actually went on to win the Hackathon that was staged by the Europeana portal.

It is not concrete results that Coding da Vinci is primarily interested in, but much more in the ensuing “learning process”, as Bartholmei says – a process that is of benefit not only to the institutions, but also to the participants. This also applies to the Makerspace. “The role libraries play is different now,” says Hannelore Vogt. “The library is changing from being a knowledge archive to an implementation platform. The user is changing from being a recipient to being a producer.” Whereby this approach should not necessarily be limited to the digital sphere.