Moving Past Start-Up: Supporting Library Makerspaces Over Time

June 13, 2017
By Educator Innovator

A group of YOUmedia makerspaces band together to innovate and support library makerspaces facing the opportunities and challenges distinctive to the middle, “post-emergent” years.

The start-up phase of any project is often the most heady—long hours, innovative breakthroughs, visionaries with big ideas. But it is often the next stage—the maturing and growth phase—that makes or breaks a new project or idea. Library makerspaces are no different.

Libraries that launch a makerspace encounter a set of common start-up issues, from identifying appropriate staff to purchasing equipment. Luckily, they can turn to the rich network of YOUmedia Learning Labs for help. But four or five years later, the libraries often encounter an entirely different set of issues and problems, and this “post-emergent” stage is still new to many.

Typically these problems are more nuanced and not easily solved. Library makerspaces struggle with issues such as how to nudge teen patrons to move on from hanging out to geeking out, or how to get buy-in from staff who work in other departments in the library, or how to develop an institutional memory amid high staff turnover.

Since December 2015, five library makerspaces have been joining forces to create supports for this phase of the development of library makerspaces. This group included representatives from the Billings Public Library, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Lynn Public Library, Anythink Libraries, and the Free Library of Philadelphia. They worked together to identify common issues and possible solutions. Their findings were presented at the 2016 Digital Media and Learning Conference and will be presented at the American Library Association meeting in June, with a final web publication to follow.

Planning for Growth and Absorbing Change

Several common challenges surfaced in discussion between the libraries, including staffing, learning and leadership, administration, mission, and program structure. Several libraries in the group struggled with growth and expansion as the work deepens and broadens—and as many partners noted, you need a plan.

The Free Library in Philadelphia, for example, had started with STEAM programming serving five branches, but it lacked a strategic plan for what it wanted to impart and how. At first, the space was for whatever anyone wanted to do, “kind of a mess,” said Sarah Winchowky at DML 2016.

But as they evolved, it became clear they needed to step back and define their core mission if they were to successfully serve youth across libraries in five very different neighborhoods. Over a series of weekly meetings, the staff returned to a set of key questions:

  • What are the values driving the space?
  • What are the goals?
  • Why is this important?
  • What does program success look like?
  • What has worked in the past, and how can we do it even better?

From their answers, they developed a mission statement.

“It’s not rocket science, and it’s not like something we haven’t talked about,” said Winchowky of the eventual mission statement, “but we didn’t have anything before, especially for new people coming in.” Answering these and other questions clarified goals, boosted morale, and helped new staff, she told the audience.

At Anythink Libraries in Colorado, the question was also about defining mission, but as a solution to staff turnover. As Mo Yang said at the DML conference, “after several years, all the original staff were gone.” And with them, the institutional memory. Without written documentation of the philosophy, programming, and long-term goals of the space, new staff had no idea where to begin. The Studio risked being just “that shiny room in the corner,” the author of a YALSA blog post wrote.

“We needed a unified vision,” Yang told the DML attendees. They needed to agree on things like, What is HOMAGO (hanging out, messing around, and geeking out), what is experiential learning, and why is it important? More broadly, “What is connected learning and how does it fit into the organization’s values and programs?”

A first step, then, was to define and document all the programming they offered and then categorize each segment, ranging from passive experiences to fully immersive. They shared the document with key staff in the library “so they could fit their programming into the continuum of experiences,” according to the team. This allowed the larger staff to see how makerspaces fit into the wider scheme of things. Creating this “unified vision,” they reported, ultimately allowed for “a smoother rollout to other sites and age groups.”

Getting to Geeking Out

One goal of the learning labs and makerspaces in libraries is to help youth move from just “hanging out” to “geeking out.” As cultural anthropologist Mimi Ito and her colleagues have written, kids geek out when they “really dive deep into a specialized area of knowledge or interest.” But as some library staff are coming to understand, that transformation does not always happen naturally.

At the Lynn Public Library’s makerspace teens were “having a hard time making it through to the final phase of geeking out,” Katelyn Cole, the Head of Young Adult Services for the Lynn Public Library in Lynn Massachusetts told us. The large numbers of youth using the lab were making it difficult for teens to focus on their projects. Unable to expand the space physically, Cole said, they instead expanded it by adding another day of programming. Mondays became a day devoted to maker and STEM programming.

“By creating an extra opportunity for the teens we were able to expand our space without taking down walls,” Cole said. Mondays now allow teens to focus and move forward to the geek-out stage. “The staff in the space is able to work with the teens in small groups allowing more instruction and hands-on time.” They have also tailored the programs to teens’ requests, needs, and skill levels.

These are just some of the solutions and paths YOUmedia labs have adopted as they’ve entered the post-startup phase. As with any new venture moving past its adolescence, it takes time and hard work to ensure that the middle years are years of successful growth—to iron out what works, what doesn’t, and how to change. Getting past the start-up phase is to be commended, but the real work is only just beginning, and YOUmedia labs will continue to tap into the rich learning network that surrounds the labs to ensure that the makerspaces and connected learning continue to evolve and adapt to change successfully.

By Barbara Ray