In praise of the library Makerspace: why accessible tech is more important than ever

In a time where we’ve been more online than ever, one thing has been made abundantly clear: access to technology isn’t just a luxury anymore, it’s a need. We’ve seen pushes across the globe to increase tech literacy in schools, create new technology, and even a UN resolution that classifies access to wifi as a human right. And yet tech remains pricey, tricky to learn, and inaccessible for many parts of the population. New Zealand libraries are aiming to fix that. 

A typical library Makerspace includes free wifi, 3D printers, robotics tools, photography equipment, sewing equipment, computers with creative software, music recording studios, and more. Not to mention, the expertise and technical guidance of a trained librarian.

Speaking to The Bit, the Auckland Central City Library said that they “get a wide range of demographics who use the Makerspace, from beginners to professionals. Our sewing machines attract a large number of regulars working on personal projects…Our photography lightbox gets usage from people who want to document sculptures, plants, or other creations they’ve made, as well as people who sell products online…who want the best product photos for their stores.”

“Our 3D printers get the most use of all our equipment. We’ve got our regulars who are prototyping and refining objects for their own unique hobbies, we’ve had a young teenage boy who was printing parts for his homemade drone, we’ve got folks who are printing figurines for Dungeons and Dragons games. We get a fair few people printing objects to modify or repair things they have at home – from a shock-absorber for an electric scooter to cupboard latches to planters for flowers or herbs”. In short, a Makerspace allows the public to use technology for the things they need it most for. Rather than restricting the use of a 3D printer to the technical, a Makerspace allows it to play a role in everyday life. 

Libraries are an institution uniquely placed to address the growing need for accessible tech. Few other spaces are both open to the public and free to use. Libraries demand no dress code, entry fee, or prior knowledge, providing technology to the exact groups which otherwise would not have access to it.

As the librarians say, “at Auckland Central City Library Makerspace we’re all about helping people learn creative, technical, and sustainable skills, and as part of a public library in the center of Auckland’s CBD, making our services accessible for people from all walks of life is at the heart of everything we do!”.

Access to technology is a social issue as much as a scientific one. The 2018 Census found that 211,722 households across New Zealand had no access to the internet, barring them from participation in online work and education. The paywalls of photo editing software or coding platforms further lock out certain groups from participating in the tech industry. As more and more of us become familiar with digital technology and integrate it into our workplaces, lacking technology access doesn’t just mean not being able to keep up with the latest viral trend anymore, it means that you will be at an economic and social disadvantage.

The Makerspace tackles this issue head on, noting that “financial means can be a big barrier in accessing tools and technology, to the detriment of personal growth and development. Equipment like 3D printers and photography lighting can be a great gateway into future careers, but often the initial investment of purchasing this equipment and the ongoing costs of maintenance and materials prevent users from giving it a go. We offer all our services at minimal rates (often free!) to ensure that everybody has an opportunity to grow”.

This is especially true of a city, where “for apartment-dwellers, it can be very hard to find room for a sewing machine, a 3D printer, or a creative workspace. By offering access to a range of creative and technical equipment (as well as free training from our skilled staff), we help ensure visitors can learn the basics or hone their skills using this technology, regardless of their home situation”. 

Institutions like Makerspace shape the way people learn in their communities. Staff on the ground are trained both to assist people in learning these programs, and to respond to community demand by updating the library with tools people need. As the Makerspace says, “connecting with our community is very important to us…we like to bring in expert members of our community to help deliver workshops and programmes whenever possible.

We’ve had local business owners come in to teach library users the basics of brewing home-made ginger beer, sustainable community groups have taught our customers how to build planter boxes and birdhouses from recycled wood, and we’ve even engaged local educators to run a top-notch coding, animation, and game design course for girls!”

When the internet first launched, global media predicted that it signalled the end of libraries, but instead it has made them more vital than ever. Libraries exist to provide the resources necessary to meaningfully interact with society. While in the past, the main store of knowledge lay in books, our increasing dependence on technology means it is essential for libraries to pivot into technology-lending programs.

It’s notable too that these programs bring in younger demographics, a group whose library membership has otherwise been declining. Makerspaces create a space for them to freely innovate, supporting STEM-learning.

Makerspaces are an invaluable asset to New Zealand, promoting widespread technological literacy, bolstering numbers of STEM graduates, reducing issues of unequal access, and, more simply, strengthening a vital public institution.

Makerspaces “help our inner-city dwellers live more sustainably, creatively, and give them the passion to develop their skills even further”. While not a total solution to the issue of technological inequality, Makerspaces are certainly a much-needed first step.

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