The appearance of makerspaces in academic libraries is a growing trend, reflecting the use of new technologies and more collaborative approaches in active learning. In August, the heads of two makerspaces at university libraries—former CLIR postdoc fellow Justin Schell, who now runs the Shapiro Design Lab at the University of Michigan Library, and Amber Welch, head of Technology Enhanced Learning at the University of Texas Libraries—sat down to discuss their respective makerspace operations, how these spaces support the library’s broader mission, and their context within the university. The conversation was moderated by Boris Brodsky, manager of UT-Austin’s Foundry in the Fine Arts Library, for a podcast. A transcript of the recording is provided below.
Schell and Welch emphasize that makerspaces offer not just equipment, but—critically—expertise on the use of technology in an environment that is welcoming, inclusive, and encourages experimentation and learning. Locating makerspaces in libraries can enhance the advantages of each: like the library, makerspaces engage faculty and students from across departments and disciplines, and even from outside the campus. “That allows us to get a broad understanding of the ways in which people are starting to think about doing their research,” says Welch.
Makerspaces also support the library’s mission by connecting patrons with expertise elsewhere within the library—from the copyright office to liaison librarians.
Acknowledging the ongoing investment necessary to keep makerspaces useful, Schell and Welch discuss the importance of an institutional commitment to sustaining these facilities and ensuring the continued alignment of services with the library’s mission.
We hope you’ll listen!
Boris Brodsky: Hey, everyone. This is Boris Brodsky. I am here with Amber Welch and Justin Schell. Amber is from the University of Texas, and Justin is from the University of Michigan. And today, they are going to have a conversation about makerspaces.
Justin Schell: Thanks, Boris. As you mentioned, I’m Justin Schell. I run the Shapiro Design Lab here at the University of Michigan Library. We’re a peer learning, engaged learning, project design-focused space and community. We focus on a variety of kinds of projects, from community science to 3D printing for accessibility and disability, and have a number of different spaces and equipment that are available for everyone to use here on campus and throughout the larger community of Ann Arbor.
Amber Welch: And I’m Amber Welch. I’m the head of Technology Enhanced Learning, a unit of Teaching and Learning Services, which is a department at the University of Texas Libraries. Our unit is responsible for providing internal and external support for digital pedagogy. In short, helping librarians, faculty, staff, anyone that’s interested in beefing up their teaching with technology skills, the unit supports that. We’re also responsible for overseeing a couple of technology-rich spaces within the UT Library System. And one of those spaces is called The Foundry. It is a makerspace which is located in the Fine Arts Library branch. And it is a makerspace that is accessible to anyone on campus, irrespective of their departmental affiliation. And, of course, in addition to supporting faculty and staff, we also support students. The context for this conversation is that Justin and I participated in an informational exchange at one another’s organizations. So, I went up to the University of Michigan, and Justin came down to the University of Texas Libraries. And part of the purpose of that exchange was to share information with one another about our makerspace operations and to also allow each person while they were doing the exchange to explore the academic library systems at large. And start to understand a little bit more about the institutional context in which these spaces were starting to emerge or, in our case, have already emerged. Boris is going to act as a moderator for the conversation. And we are just going to cycle through some larger overarching questions that came to mind when we were doing our follow-up conversation after the campus exchange.
Boris Brodsky: Why do academic libraries need to have these staff, spaces, and tools?
Justin Schell: I think these spaces are really necessary for academic libraries because they provide an incubator and an experimental space to try out new things. The Design Lab and The Foundry, you know, have a lot of different kinds of not just equipment, but also expertise. So it’s not just, you know, “Here’s a 3D printer”, but it’s “Here’s how to use a 3D printer. Here’s how to connect with other people who are using this.” And so it offers a way for libraries to try out some different ways of engaging with tools, spaces, people that can inform larger service design strategies, decisions, and the like. It’s been great in the Design Lab to have the flexibility to try out different kinds of things that a lot of people in the library would like to do. They would like to have more experimental development programs, but the staff in our library IT Department doesn’t have the capacity. We can hire some students to work on that and put them in this interdisciplinary learning environment of the Design Lab and explore those things and test them out and see whether or not these kinds of tools and sort of the larger questions that undergird them are viable or how they could fit into the larger institution.
Amber Welch: Yeah. So I agree with a lot of what Justin said and one of the things that came to mind when he was talking about this idea of, you know, connections is that academic libraries and the people that work in them are traditionally known as connectors on campus. We are lucky in that we are constantly engaging with faculty and students from across departments, colleges, schools, and disciplines as well as with international and national visitors. That allows us to get sort of a broad understanding of the ways in which people are starting to think about doing their research as well as the ways that they are wanting to engage maybe outside of a more formal research context and just, you know, decompress and have some fun. Traditionally, creativity on campuses has been somewhat restricted to, you know, fine arts departments where people are engaging in creating or composing music or they’re studio art majors and they have access to a studio space. Or maybe they’re engineers and they can access a makerspace that’s more fully outfitted than what is actually needed for a broader population on the campus. And so here at UT, one of the things that’s unique about this space is that, again, it’s open to anyone on campus and because of that, that means that we get patrons that are both experienced with these tools and inexperienced with these tools. And we also have faculty that are using the space. And so by virtue of the space being open, we’re creating this interdisciplinary environment that’s welcoming. And that’s another one of the key reasons why I think it’s important for academic libraries to start investing in spaces like this, because makerspace equipment and access to makerspaces—it can be exclusive and it can be somewhat clubby. And it can be intimidating if you don’t have someone that’s willing or able to talk to you in very plain language terms about the potential application and use of these technologies in the real world.
Justin Schell: I definitely agree with you about the creativity element of it. I think that’s something that we try to foster within the learning community that we develop with the students who work in the lab. But also having that community be very porous in that it is not just a club of people who get to be in the Design Lab. Fostering that sense of, “Here’s something you can try without a lot of stakes to it, without a lot of pressure, without a lot of fear of failure and things like that.” And that’s not just for people who are sort of technically working for the Lab. It’s like, “Oh, you want to 3D print something? Come on, we have a little tutorial we can go through in 10 minutes. Like, let’s just go do it.” The Design Lab name was sort of given to us. There were two other design labs within the library that are no longer part of the library, but I resisted calling this a makerspace for some of the reasons that you mentioned. Whether it’s the exclusiveness, often very unbalanced gender representation, mostly male within makerspaces. So how do we overcome that? I thought one of the first things was to not call it a makerspace. When we do tours I say this is sort of a makerspace-y kind of environment to give some touchpoint for people who are familiar with that, but not defining it as such.
Justin Schell: One of the things that I continually sort of think about and I think a lot of us who working on these kinds of spaces, these kinds of projects, is why is this in a library? And how does this connect to the broader mission of the library besides getting equipment for people who may not be able to afford it. And so part of it is the access for everybody, but I think it’s also how to use this as an “in” for other parts of the library. And so if we’re talking about a patent for a project that someone’s working on, we can connect them to our copyright office and to different kinds of services we have available. Or if someone needs some help looking at what’s already been done, we can connect them to a liaison librarian for their department if they don’t know them already. And so there is the question of accessibility, the question of making this available for everyone, but continuing to think about how this fits into missions of the library that have been around for a very long time, but not necessarily being defined by those missions that would prevent this kind of experimentation within the library.
Amber Welch: Yeah. I know exactly what you’re talking about. We’re starting to see some of that same sort of outreach happen internally within the organization. The Foundry opened in the fall of 2016, and I would say that we didn’t really start being fully operational until 2017. And just now, I think, this semester are we starting to see liaison librarians really start to think about the space as a supplement to the existing resources in the organization. So we’re starting to have more liaisons that reach out to us and they say, “You know, I have a faculty member that’s interested in having students do a more complex multimedia project.” Or they’re assigning a little bit more of an open-ended project where the idea is that the students will create or make something. And they’re leaving that up to the students to decide. “Can you help talk to the students about what that might look like in your space?” And a big part of that is, at least on our end, not only defining for students what types of things they could do and expanding their understanding of what making is, but it’s also starting to talk to them about service expectations, right? So it’s important to also not only expand their idea bank of what they can do in a library, but it’s also starting to talk to them about what the limits of the library are.
Boris Brodsky: What are the needs of the community that your institution is trying to address?
Amber Welch: I think that the original vision and the need that had been identified by the community here at UT was that there was a new program coming online called Arts and Entertainment Technologies, and they envisioned needing a lab space for students to help bring their ideas to fruition and practice what it is that they were learning in the classroom environment. And that program has expanded and there’s now in fact a new school and it’s called the School of Design and Creative Technologies. That school is focused on things like game development and virtual reality and all sorts of things that require students to engage with resources that they may not have access to anywhere else on campus. Geographically, there was also a need because the school is located in sort of this portion of campus that’s outside of the central area. And so, there are geographic mobility issues that presented a need for this space. But also, you know, the library really wanted to partner with the College of Fine Arts and wanted to create a makerspace for students. And I think that the original vision for the space versus what happened are perhaps slightly different. But I think more important than that is the ongoing evolution of needs. And I think we’re starting to discover more now about the campus environment. And we’re starting to develop a better understanding of the services of other makerspaces on campus. So we see ourselves most often not in competition with those other makerspaces, but as supplements to those spaces. And that’s been, I think, a really productive mindset shift for us to engage in. Because there is a tendency on large campuses to sort of, you know, engage in land-grab practices. And that’s not really productive for any of us. But what we’re seeing is that students from engineering, for example, use our space as a backup whenever their space is at capacity. Students in the Textiles Department have told us that in fact they just like hanging out in our space because there’s a lot of light, it’s open, it’s airy, it feels welcoming. It doesn’t feel competitive. And a lot of the equipment that they have access to there are limitations on their access to it based on perhaps the level of the student or based on what time of day it is. So there are lot of barriers in place just for accessing resources that are needed for classes. Within the College of Fine Arts there’s a FabLab and it’s open to studio art students as well as other Fine Arts majors. And they’re a wonderful partner for us because they have some of the same equipment that we do, but it’s slightly different, and sometimes they need to send students over to our space and vice versa. So what we’re starting to see emerge is more of a healthy campus ecosystem where the majority of students’ needs can be met, and I think that it’s important that the library’s playing a part in that.
Justin Schell: Yeah, definitely. We didn’t really have a distinct need that we were trying to fill when we started. It was more like, “Here’s a model of a couple of other places that are sort of doing this on campus.” And it was developed with a Provost’s grant around engaged learning, But there are specific elements that we took from that: community-engaged learning and public scholarship and things like that, and so we sort of spent the last three years sort of honing this into three tracks. The first one is more of the service point aspect of it. So: “Here is the 3D printer, here is the letterpress, here is the recording studio.” People can—if they know exactly what they’re doing, they don’t need to work with us at all. They can go through the training that’s online and use the space and we may never see them. And that’s fine. The second element of it is the learning community that we’re trying to develop within the students who work in the lab but also how do people who are using the lab in that sort of service point way contribute to that community? So “Okay, I’m not going to charge you for this 3D print, but just write a blog post about it and tell us how you got this idea. Why you chose this. What kinds of project does this involve and what are your next steps” etc. As way to sort of share this learning, share what they’ve been able to accomplish with others. And then finally, is that sort of programmatic focus. And so we’re working on specific projects that we develop within the lab in partnerships with other units on campus, whether that’s faculty, grad students, centers, different committees and things like that. And that we can work on what we feel like are some of the most important needs on campus, whether that’s around accessibility or data preservation, community science, citizen science, things like that.
Boris Brodsky: Great! So this segues nice into our next question which is, how do you create a learning community versus just a place to go and, for example, print things out on a 3D printer?
Amber Welch: I definitely think that, you know, Justin, what you’ve been saying about the development of a learning community is so important, and as is starting to draw boundaries around things. And it’s really hard to set those expectations with faculty. But one of the things that we have come to value most, and I think Boris, you can probably speak a little bit more to this, is just how invested our student employees have become in advancing the mission of our space, which is to create an inclusive making environment, an inclusive creative environment that’s open to anyone. And so I’m hoping that you can maybe share with us a little bit about what you’ve observed.
Boris Brodsky: Our students are always coming to me with new ideas on how to tweak our classes. How they would make more sense for the people that they’ve been teaching. Because our students are ambassadors, shall we say. They are doing all the certifications for just the walk-ins that come in. And so we, you know, just keep testing and trying out new things and they’re the ones who are always coming to us and saying, “You know, hey, this would make my job easier and it would make more sense for these folks who are coming in. And it would be more meaningful for everyone if—let’s try it this way.” Like recently we broke out our sewing certifications into a sewing certification, a general sewing, and an embroidery workshop. Because a lot of people were coming in just wanting to do the embroidery and not wanting to learn about sewing, or they already knew about sewing. Which we were trying to do like a general catch-all. And our students were saying, “This wasn’t working.” Or not working, it would just make more sense to do it this other way.
Amber Welch: Yeah. You know, our space is seemingly small. It’s around 4,000 square feet, but we have a lot of services in that space. We have a recording studio, we have 3D printers, we have a laser cutter, we have a textiles area which includes both traditional sewing machines and programmable embroidery machines. We have a printer/cutter and we also have milling machines. And so as you can imagine, every patron that comes in, they kind of have their own idea in mind of what sort of service they expect. That’s helpful in one way because, you know, sometimes someone comes in and they just have a specific goal in mind and we can help them achieve that goal. But at other times, people come in and they just want to do everything. And they are interested in this idea of open exploration. And that’s where our student employees really come into this idea of the learning community ecosystem. Because we can help one patron cycle through and learn about different things and the connections between those pieces of equipment in the space. And really, the students are the most enthusiastic advocates for our space. They have the time and the expertise and they’re willing and motivated to help other students. So they’ve been key to helping our learning community grow.
Justin Schell: Part of the emphasis on the learning community came about because we weren’t getting a lot of traffic. And so it was like, well, let’s figure out how we want to develop this in some way and sort of model this and build outwards from whether it’s students as ambassadors or partnerships with faculty and grad students who are teaching classes with podcasts or more broadly, just sort of other kinds of projects that their students could do. People will ask me, “What do you design at the Design Lab?” And I say, “Well, learning? Projects? Stuff? What do you want to design at the Design Lab?” But now, I think we now have more of a solid focus in terms of the equipment, these themes that we develop that sort of organizes the more programmatic work of the Lab and then we hire students to work on projects within those. And then, you know, with all these classes and workshops that we’re doing with faculty and graduate students and staff, it’s giving us some future directions. How much of the Design Lab is going to be in the future about the learning community? How much is going to be about this piece of equipment versus this piece of equipment?”
Amber Welch: Yeah. And on our side, that means sometimes saying emphatically to people, primarily faculty, “No.” We don’t a) have the capacity to do this particular thing that you want to do. For example, let’s say a faculty member with a class of 100 wants all their students to get certified. One, we have a capacity issue there, but more importantly, the thing that I usually emphasize whenever I’m talking to them in that moment is that, that sort of blanket approach to just having people get certified en masse to do stuff isn’t meaningful. And that’s not going to contribute to the type of environment that we’re trying to create here. The type of environment that we’re trying to create here is one where there are need-based interactions that relate to specific classes or, you know, an independently motivated student is coming in to learn on their own. We’re not interested in force-feeding anyone in any class makerspace equipment or creativity. We really want to, just like, you know, when you’re working with faculty on a research instruction session, we want to partner with faculty, classes, and students at a point of need where it’s going to be meaningful and valuable. You know, it can be difficult to say no to someone that wants to bring in a lot of business, but at the same time, it feels really good, because I can explain to them why we want to wait until there’s a point of need. And in my case anyway, what I have seen is that a lot of faculty are really responsive to that and they understand that if we’re serving everyone with this sort of blanket approach and we’re certifying hundreds of students to use our equipment at the beginning of a semester, that’s denying our resources and our expertise, that’s denying access to other students who are really motivated to get access to that expertise.
Boris Brodsky: So how has your makerspace or Design Lab helped your organization change?
Amber Welch: I think that the makerspace here at UT Libraries has helped the library expand into and respond to the next phase of needs with respect to digital projects and, you know, digital humanities, and just research that is integrated with, in some way or the other, a digital technology. Part of that is just exposure, right? So exposing our patrons to the possibilities. But it’s also allowing for patrons to actually create stuff. So, two, three, four years ago libraries were, and still are, supporting digital humanities projects. Or we are supporting faculty in their efforts to become more proficient around digital pedagogy. So, you know, a faculty member for example wants to utilize the collections and they want their students to create a website or to create some sort of a digital exhibition that incorporates not only visual images but also text, and perhaps some personal narrative. So using tools like Omeka or WordPress to create these online experiences for people. You know, we were doing that several years ago and that’s great and we’re still doing it, but now there are different needs. For example, if a faculty member goes on a research trip and they take images of ruins, they want to put those into a specific application and they want to try to recreate those ruins. Well now they can go to Step Three, and they can actually print out a model of what formerly they would have probably just kept on their computer and, you know, given people virtual tours of. And more importantly, now students are able to take one research idea through multiple modes of exploration. So they can explore them not only in 2D environments, but they can create something that’s 2- or 3D in the real world, and then maybe they decide that they want to create a virtual environment of that same thing. And so we’re just expanding their horizons of possibility as far as creativity is concerned.
Justin Schell: There’s always been a focus for me on sort of the Design Lab as sort of a library lab, this internal experimental space that we can try things out, so it’s not just trying to explore these projects because faculty want to do them, but because librarians and library staff and anybody else who works in the library wants to try something out. Cool, come talk to us. Let’s figure out what actually is involved in that. The most immediate changes we’ve seen is just having the space where people can try this, having someone who can say, “Yeah, let’s explore.” And even if it doesn’t go anywhere, it was meaningful because now they better understand what’s actually involved in something like this. And then on the other side, changing how the organization is viewed by other people on campus and outside of campus as well. The Design Lab does this; what other things does the library do that I don’t know about?” Let me introduce you to my colleague who does the mini-grants program. And here’s another person who teaches a course on fake news and things like that. And so being able to from both of these perspectives change the organization. But again, I think in sort of the near term we’re going to figure out where we want to invest more. And figuring out what kinds of changes on a larger scale we want to make within this institution and how a space like the Design Lab and a community like the Design Lab can contribute to it. So really thinking about this now in the longer term and how the lessons from three years of experimentation and reinvention can lead to something larger on a wider organizational scale.
Boris Brodsky: Why should innovative spaces be included in short- and long-term strategic planning cycles?
Amber Welch: I think about this from a very functional perspective in our organization and a lot of it relates to funding. Bringing a makerspace online can be part of a short-term planning cycle. Maybe it’s part of a two-year plan and that’s wonderful. You see the space come up online and maybe people have lofty ideas of what’s going to happen with that space in the future. Demand may or may not warrant investing additional financial resources in perhaps expanding the space, for example. But at any rate, the space is going to need to be refreshed. Virtual reality and 3D printers, they’re gonna continue to become more sophisticated and we’re going to need to replace all of this equipment in order to keep up with the demands and expectations that our patrons have when they come into the space. And that’s something that is sometimes lacking in academic libraries, a commitment to refreshing the equipment that you do have in a timely way. And what that means in a circulation environment for example versus a makerspace environment are two very different things. If we don’t replace equipment in a timely way, we are going to be behind. And we’re not going to be providing a service that’s meaningful to our population. And so I think it’s important for academic libraries from the outset to think about what they’re willing to commit to and for how long. Are you willing to pilot a makerspace for five years? Or for 10 years? And if so, I think that there should be a financial commitment there to keep the equipment fresh.
Justin Schell: I worry with some of that, that it becomes just playing catch up. Without a significant investment, the spaces and the technologies that a library has won’t match up to those that are in an engineering school where they are using this for their classes. This is part of their education, a direct part of their education. And so I keep coming back to, you know, how does it fit in with the missions and making connections and exploring different kinds of project ideas and developing critical relationships with these tools, with these ideas. And so I mostly agree with you, and I agree that there would need to be some level of commitment, but it’s really easy to get swept up in the latest things. And as very recently having fought with a bunch of VR stuff for a series of workshops and how so much of that technology is not designed for the sort of communal use that we value in libraries and also are just sort of practically need to have in libraries where we want to have multiple people using this over a period of time. How to balance out core missions and the development of these communities and these sort of thoughtful and critical engagements with these kinds of tools, technologies, ideas. And understanding limitations of what we have. What we really need to stay fresh on and how much of that is less about the tools and more about the staff who will be available to show people how to use them and be able to troubleshoot and really know the equipment so that it’s not just, “We need to buy this thing and buy this thing and then we’ll be sort of better off.” Having that more sort of critical engagement and relationship with that technology.
Amber Welch: Yeah, I agree with you. I do think that it’s important for the people that are running these spaces to have an understanding of what the real needs are on campus. And certainly I wouldn’t advocate for just a “keeping up with the Joneses” approach to purchasing technology. And I think that that’s one of the real value adds of the library is that we do understand the needs of the faculty on campus. And so we can make more relevant suggestions when we’re thinking about purchasing equipment for spaces. And that’s one of the challenges with starting one of these spaces is that I think that there is just a throwing the blanket approach to purchasing technology. But it’s only after you’ve been managing or running one of these spaces for a couple of years that you start to have that more critical mindset about what it is that you’re purchasing and why. And also, what can be eliminated from the refresh cycles, which we certainly have some of that equipment.
Justin Schell: Most academic libraries are not very good at owning our own awesomeness. And so really owning what we can offer and not being afraid of success is crucial, and I think these kinds of spaces are part of it. Now, that also means a significant investment in expertise and new expertise. So it’s not just … you know, you’re going to put a space and then everyone will flock and, you know, love the library even more. But I think it’s a way to better respond to the changing environments on university campuses, you know, within specific fields like you mentioned, Amber, with sort of digital humanities, digital scholarship. But also I think, how can libraries not just respond to some of the most pressing problems that we face today? But how can we lead? You know, having not just the funds and the vision to create a space like this but see this in service of a wider engagement of academic libraries to the most important issues, problems, challenges, opportunities that are out there today. And so in the long term it allows for projects to be incubated in this sort of safer space than would be normally in a library. It allows for faster iterations than might normally be possible in a library. And can really gather information about the usefulness of it. So not just that, “We know best and this is what you should be doing”, but what actually is necessary for the library to do. And what is the library not need to be doing anymore? And responding to those sort of changing currents here on campus and across academic libraries more generally.
Amber Welch: I would also like to thank Mark Doroba today for his support in helping us record this podcast. We would not have been able to do this without him. And we very much appreciate his services.
Justin Schell: And I’d like to take a minute to thank Nicco Pandolfi, who is sitting outside of the booth that I’m recording in. He is one of the program assistants in the lab. And he’s been, you know, making sure everything sounds good, everything’s coming through clearly. So I greatly appreciate his help and I greatly appreciate Mark’s help as well in making this happen.