Monday, February 02, 2015

Hackerspaces, Makerspaces, Fab Labs, TechShops, Incubators, Accelerators... Where do libraries fit in?

[ On February 1st, I gave this presentation the American Library Association Midwinter Conference in Chicago, Illinois as part of the ALA Masters Series. Thank you, good people of ALA.]

Today’s session is going to start out as a field guide but it’s going to end with a history lesson.

We’re going to start here - with a space station called c-base that found/ed in Berlin in 1995.

And then we are going travel through time and space to the present day where business start-up incubator innovation labs are everywhere including CBASE  which is the College of Business and Economics from the University of Guelph.

But before we figure out where libraries makerspaces fit in, we’re going to use the c-base space station to go back in time, just before the very first public libraries were established around the world, so we can figure out how to go back to the future we want. It is 2015, after all.  

But before we can talk about library makerspaces, we need to talk about hackerspaces.

This is the inside of c-base.

c-base is considered one of - or perhaps even - the very first hackerspace. It was established in 1995 by self-proclaimed nerds, sci-fi fans, and digital activists who tell us that c-base was built from a reconstructed space station that fell to earth, then somehow became buried, and when it was uncovered it was found to be borne with the inscription : be future compatible.

The c-base is described as a system of seven concentric rings that can move in relation to each other. These rings are called core, com, culture, creative, cience, carbon and clamp.

Beyond its own many activities, c-base has become the meeting place for German Wikipedians and it’s where the German Pirate Party was first established.

Members of c-base have been known to present at events hosted by the Chaos Computer Club, which is Europe's largest association of hackers that's been around for 30 years now.

So c-base is a hackerspace that is actually inhabited by what we commonly think of as hackers.  

Some of the earliest hackerspaces were directly inspired by c-base. There is story that goes that in August of 2007, a group of North American hackers visited Germany for Chaos Communication Camp and was so impressed that when came back, they formed the first hackerspaces in the United States including NYC Resistor (2007), HacDC (2007), and Noisebridge (San Francisco, 2008).

Since then, many, many more hackerspaces have been developed - there are at least a thousand -  but behind these new spaces are organizations that have are much less counter-culture in their orientation than the mothership of c-base. In fact, at this moment, you could say there isn’t a clear delineation between hackerspaces and makerspaces at all.

But before we can start talking about makerspaces, I think it’s necessary to pay a visit two branches of the hackerspace evolutionary tree: TechShops and Fab Labs.

TechShop is a business that started in 2006 which provides - in return for a monthly membership - access to space that contains over a half a million dollars of equipment, generally including an electronics lab, a machine shop, a wood shop, a metal working shop, etc. There are only 8 of these TechShops across the US despite earlier predictions that would be about 20 of them by now.  They have been slow to open because the owner has stated that the business requires at least 800 people willing to pay over $100 a month in order for a TechShop to be viable.

The motto of TechShop is Build Your Dreams here. But TechShops have been largely understood as places where members dream of prototypes for their future Kickstarter projects. And such dreams have already come true: the prototype of the Square credit card processing reader, for example, was built in a Techshop. I think it's telling that the Detroit Techshop has a bright red phone in the space that connects you directly to the United States Patent and Trademark Office in case of a patent emergency.

Three of out of the 8 TechShops have backing from other organizations. TechShop's Detroit center opened in 2012 in partnership with Ford, which gives its employees free membership for three months. Ford employees can claim patents for themselves or they can give them to Ford in exchange for a share in revenue generated. Ford claims that this partnership with TechShop has led to a 50% rise in the number of patentable ideas put forward by the carmaker's employees,  in one year.

TechShop's offices in Washington DC and Pittsburgh are being sponsored by DARPA, an agency of the Defense Department. DARPA is reported to have invested $3.5 million dollars into TechShop as part of its “broad mission to see if regular citizens can outinvent military contractors on some of its weirder projects.”  But DARPA is not just helping pay for the space, they supposedly use the space themselves. According to the Bloomberg Business Week story I read, DARPA employees arrive at midnight to work when the TechShop is closed to its regular members.

You might be surprised, but we're going to be talking about DARPA again during this talk. But before that, we need to visit another franchise-like type of makerspace called the Fab Lab.

In 1998, Neil Gershenfeld started a class at MIT called "How to make (almost) anything". Gershenfeld wanted to introduce industrial-size machines normally inaccessible to technical students. However, he found his class also attracted a lot of students from various backgrounds including artists, architects, and designers. This led to a larger collaboration which eventually resulted in the Fab Lab Project which began in 2001. Fab Lab began as an educational outreach program from MIT but the idea has since developed into an ambitious network of labs located around the world.

The idea behind Fab Lab is that the space should provide a core set of tools powered by open source software that allow novice makers to make almost anything given a brief introduction to engineering and design education. Anyone can create a recognized Fab Lab as long as it makes a strong effort uphold the criteria of a Fab Lab, with the most important being that Fab Labs are required to be regularly open to the public for little or no cost. While it's not required, a Fab Lab is also strongly encouraged to communicate and collaborate with the other 350 or so other Fab Labs around the world. The idea is that, for example, if you design and make something using Fab Lab equipment in Boston, you could send the files and documents to someone in the Cape Town Fab Lab who could the same using their equipment.

The first library makerspace was a Fab Lab. It was established in 2011 in the Fayetteville Free Library in the state of New York. That's Lauren Britton pictured on screen who was a driving force that helped make that happen.

Now we don't tend to talk about Fab Labs in libraries. We talk about makerspaces. I think this is for several reasons with one of the main ones being - as admirable as I personally find the goals of international collaboration through open source and standardization - the established minimum baseline for such a Fab Lab generally costs between $25,000 and $65,000 in capital costs alone. This  means that a proper Fab Lab is out of reach for many communities and smaller organizations.

I think there's another reason why we think of makerspaces before we think of Fab Labs, TechShops or hackerspaces. And that's because of Make Magazine.

Started in 2005 from the influential source of so many essential computer books, O'Reilly Publishing, Make Magazine was going to be called Hack. But then the daughter of founder Dale Dougherty told him that hacking didn’t sound good, and she didn’t like it. Instead, she suggested he call the magazine MAKE instead, because ‘everyone likes making things’.

And there is something to be said for having a more inclusive name, and something less threatening than hackerspace. But I think there's more to it as well. There is a freedom that comes with the name of makerspace.


One my favourite things about makerspaces is that most of them are open to everyone - artists, scientists, educators, hobbyists, hackers and entrepreneurs and it is possibility for cross-pollination of ideas that is one of the espoused benefits of their spaces for their members. In a world where there's so much specialization, makerspaces are a force that are trying to bring different groups of people together.

Here's such an example. This is i3Detroit which calls itself a DIY co-working space that is a "a collision of art, technology and collaboration".

There are also makerspaces that are more heavily arts-based.  Miss Despoinas is a salon for experimental research and radical aesthetics that hosts workshops using code in contemporary art practice. It is physically located in Hobart, Tasmania.

There are presumably makerspaces that are designed primarily for the launching of new companies, although the only one I could find was Haxlr8r .  Haxkl8r is a hardware business accelerator that combines workshop space with mentorship and venture capital opportunities and official bases in San Francisco and Shenzhen, China.

That being said, I can't help but note that most of these maker spaces that I've found that are designed specifically to support start ups has been in universities.  Pictured here is the "Industrial Courtyard" where students and recent graduates of the university where I work can have access for prototype or product development.

In some ways, this brings up us full circle because it's been said the originators of the first hackerspaces set them up deliberately outside of universities, governments, and businesses because they wanted a form of political independence and even to be a place for resistance to the bad actors of these organizations.

As Willow Brugh describes this transition from the earliest hackerspaces and hacklabs :

The commercialization of the space means more people have access to the ideals of these spaces - but just as when "Open Source" opened up the door to more participants, the blatant political statement of "Free Software" was lost - hacklabs have turned from a political statement on use of space and voice into a place for production and participation in mainstream culture.

For as neutral and benign makerspaces seemingly are ("everyone likes to make things"), there are reasons to be mindful of the organizations behind them. For one, in 2012 Make Magazine received a grant from DARPA to establish makerspaces in 1000 U.S. high schools over the next four years.

Now it's one thing if makerspaces simply exist as a place where friends and hobbyists can meet, work and learn from each other. It's quite another if the makerspace becomes the basis of a model to address STEM anxieties in education.

As much as I appreciate how the Maker Movement is trying to bring a playful approach to learning through building, it's important to recognize that makerspaces tend to collect successful makers rather than produce them. The community who participates in hackerspaces and makerspaces is pronouncedly skewed white and male.  In 2012, Make Magazine reported that of its 300,000 in total readership, 81% are male, median age is 44, and the median household income is $106,000.

Lauren Britton, the librarian who was responsible for the very first Library Fab Lab/Makerspace is now studying as a doctoral student at Syracuse University in Information Science and Technology and a researcher for their Information Institute. She's been doing discourse analysis on the maker movement and last year she informally published some of her findings so far.  She's already tackled STEM anxiety and I'm particularly looking forward to what has has to say about gender and the makerspace movement.

But there's no time to get into all of that now, because it is now time to hop into c-base and travel through and time and space to the time before public libraries. We are going to travel up the makerspace evolutionary tree to what I like to consider the proto-species of the makerspace : The Mechanics Institute.

The world's first Mechanics' Institute was established in Edinburgh, Scotland in October 1821. Mechanics Institutes were formed to provide libraries and forms of adult education, particularly in technical subjects, to working men. As such, they were often funded by local industrialists on the grounds that they would ultimately benefit from having more knowledgeable and skilled employees. Mechanics Institutes as an institution did not last very long - the movement lasted only fifty years or so - although at their peak there were 700 of them worldwide.

What I think is so particularly poetic is that many of the buildings and core books collections of these Mechanics Institutes- especially where I'm from which is the province of Ontario in Canada - became the foundation for the very first public libraries.

Although there are still some Mechanics Institutes still among us, like coelacanths evolutionary speaking- most notably Montreal's Atwater Library and San Francisco's beautiful Mechanics Institute and Chess Room.

Now, I have to admit, when I see some makerspaces, they remind me of mechanics institutes: subsidized spaces that exist to provide access to technologies to be used for potential start-ups. And if that remains their primary focus, I think their moment will pass, just like mechanics institutes. The forces that made industrial technology accessible to small groups will presumably continue to develop into consumer technology.  To live by disruption is to die by disruption.

This is one reason why I'm so happy and proud of the way so many libraries have embraced makerspaces and have made them their own.  Because by and large, libraries keep people at the centre of the space- not technology.

Librarians - by and large - have opted for accessible materials and activities in their spaces and have host activities that emphasize creativity, personal expression and learning through play. 

This is The Bubbler which is a visually arts based makerspace from the Madison Public Library. I have never been but from what I can see, they are doing many wonderful things. They hosts events that involve bike hacking, audio engineering, board game making, and media creation projects. I was particular impressed how they are working with juvenile justice programs to bring these activities and workshops to justice involved youth.

As long as libraries can continue to focus on building a better future for all of us, then we can continue to be a space where that future can be built.

This concludes our tour through time and space. Thank you kindly for your attention.

May your libraries and your makerspaces be future compatible.

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