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Makerspaces in libraries
Leaning by discovering

Libraries long ago ceased to be just about books: Oliver Achilles, director of Kalk Local Library in Cologne, shows children a 3D printer.
Libraries long ago ceased to be just about books: Oliver Achilles, director of Kalk Local Library in Cologne, shows children a 3D printer. | Photo (detail): © Jörn Neumann / Stadtbibliothek Köln

In 2013, libraries in Germany started running makerspaces for creative projects. Has the concept stood the test of time?

By Petra Schönhöfer

Cologne City Library is a pioneer. In 2013, it became the first German library to launch a makerspace based on the US model. Others soon followed suit. Among them was the Saxon State and University Library Dresden (SLUB), which is associated with the public research university TU Dresden. One of the aims of the library initiative is to generate interest in STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – and motivate visitors to experiment together.
Cologne City Library’s mobile makerspace. Cologne City Library’s mobile makerspace. | Photo: © Marco Dreyer / Stadtbibliothek Köln “We offer people a chance to discover and try out tools and technologies that they would not normally have at home,” Cologne City Library director Hannelore Vogt explains. The focus is on robotics, virtual reality, coding, 3D printing and music software and apps. Sewing machines, cutting plotters and photo scanners are also available. The Cologne makerspace is accessible throughout library opening hours and offers flanking online tutorials on the Lynda learning platform. “The aim is to strengthen the library’s role as a place of knowledge transfer and active exchange and to create a community engaging with technology as a hands-on experience,” says Vogt. “‘Explore, Create, Share’ – that is our motto.”

Guiding creative chaos

There are around 250 makerspaces in the German-speaking world. Most of them are in schools and universities, some are in companies. Only a few public libraries have opted to launch makerspaces of their own. Many trialled the concept but then decided against it, researcher Karsten Schuldt points out. The idea of creating a self-organising community worked only in a few cases – he says – because it is not enough just to provide premises and equipment. “Communities will only form if someone works to create them. Establishing a makerspace at a library calls for dedicated staff.”
 
The requirements are met in full in Cologne and Dresden. Activities in Cologne are curated and supported by a team of specialists. Apart from the know-how put across in regular programmes, expertise is also shared by members of the public, many of them volunteers. In Dresden, Jonas Tiepmar of the SLUB Makerspace similarly appreciates the importance of professional supervision. “Groups that organise makerspaces know from experience that a maker scene can profit significantly if the ‘creative chaos’ is guided,” he remarks – adding that the Dresden makerspace profits particularly from networking with the educators and researchers of nearby TU Dresden.

“There is huge demand”

Both library representatives confirm that the makerspace programmes are well received. Tiepmar points out that the Dresden makerspace is used largely by students. For some of them, it is actually part of their curriculum. Under cooperative arrangements with faculties, for instance, architecture students use the facilities to make 3D models for semester assignments and medical students have made vertebrae models for practising spinal anaesthetic procedures.
Students are a major user group at SLUB Dresden’s makerspace. They come, for example, to make 3D models for their semester assignments.  Students are a major user group at SLUB Dresden’s makerspace. They come, for example, to make 3D models for their semester assignments. | Photo: © Fanny Hauser / SLUB Dresden The user group in Cologne is very diverse. Vogt reports that the adult courses are often attended by parents with children or grandparents with grandchildren. “We perform post-course feedback surveys so we can evaluate and fine-tune our programmes. They are very popular; workshops tend to fill up fast. And the maker kids courses are invariably full. There is huge demand.”
 
So the makerspaces in Cologne and Dresden are certainly set to continue: “The SLUB Makerspace started out as a special support project; it is now a strategic unit and will continue to be expanded and upgraded,” Tiepmar explains. And Vogt in Cologne sums up: “Our makerspace is not just a space. The entire library has undergone a paradigm shift – in line with a philosophy of learning by discovering and doing.”

Infobox

Makerspaces are the inventors’ dens of our time – public spaces for DIY projects that are a bit more challenging than making pottery ashtrays, either because they involve digital technologies or because they require the use of high-tech hardware such as 3D printers or laser cutters. All of this is available to the modern Gyro Gearloose in a makerspace – generally free of charge.

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