July 21, 2024

The Makings of Maker Spaces, Part 3: A Fabulous Home for Cocreation


The Fab Lab helps Fayetteville users build and play

Over the past year , the Fayetteville Free Library (FFL) has enjoyed the successful rollout of its Fabulous Laboratory (Fab Lab), a Maker space that resulted from the library’s commitment to community engagement and innovation. During this time, the library’s staff have been honored to speak about the Fab Lab and to explain not only its success but also the variety of challenges and assumptions that most libraries will face when developing a similar space.

One of the most important contributing factors to FFL’s success is its culture of innovation that requires the team to think beyond the limitations of the past and to imagine a new vision for the community. As part of this culture, FFL has developed a staffing model that takes advantage of our close proximity to Syracuse University’s iSchool, one of the most renowned library and information science schools in our nation.

The FFL frontline staff is made up entirely of iSchool students, who are not only empowered to provide traditional services to our community but also to participate in the identification, development, and execution of new services and opportunities, along with our professional staff. This staffing model creates an incubator that allows all members of the FFL team to dream big, take risks, make mistakes, and succeed through collaborative brainstorming and execution.

The skill sets and the interests of the individual students are pinpointed and then used to move ideas forward. The mutual benefit of this dynamic relationship is evident in the success of FFL and in the success of these students as they graduate and move toward the next step in their professional paths. The professional team at FFL is made up largely of librarians who were once student support staff members or interns at FFL. The community benefits each time one of these librarians is able to develop and launch an innovative idea.

A CULTURE OF INNOVATION Fayetteville Free Library (top rt.) attracted lots of children to a recent Maker space open house (top l.) Their 3-D printer has created a buzz, but there are many activities from which to choose (bottom l.-r.).

The Fabulous Laboratory

The Fab Lab is a perfect example of the staff’s impact. The lab was dreamed up by Lauren Britton, a coauthor of this article who at the time was a student support staff member working on her LIS degree at Syracuse University. The idea was presented to Executive Director Sue Considine, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The Fab Lab is a Maker space designed to facilitate and encourage creation in the community, starting with 3-D printers and quickly growing to incorporate a full spectrum of Making activity. Initially, we had planned to launch the Fab Lab in an unused space that needs significant renovation. However, once it was determined that this would take a number of years, we changed course and made the lab mobile.

Once a month the community room became a Maker space, and eventually we converted a small tutoring room into a creation lab to enable access any time the library was open. Instead of purchasing more shelving, the staff decided to focus on more mobile furnishings that support our effort to bring the community in the doors and to work together. As the technology, tools, and equipment were mobile, our programming reflected this mobility. The monthly open houses in our community room introduced our patrons not only to the technology, like our 3-D printers, but also to the concept of Maker culture. The open houses were designed to promote exploration and curiosity; the focus was on play, not instruction.

The 3-D printers are certainly a great addition to any library, but they are by no means required to develop a successful Maker space. The 3-D printers are exciting and have created quite a bit of buzz here. However, through direct experience we have learned that our low-tech Maker programs are equally popular. Many of these low-tech options, like Take-a-Part, BristleBots, and Make Your Own Book, are easy to execute and can be performed economically.

Transliteracy Task Force

To facilitate the launch and support the ongoing mission of the lab, FFL created a Transliteracy Task Force (TTF). The TTF was charged with rolling out Fab Lab–related programming as well as training the staff and the community. The TTF was initially staffed with three librarians and a student staff member who either had an interest in or knowledge of digital fabrication and Making. These staffers were the impetus for building interest within the larger organization.

The introduction of the Fab Lab challenged assumptions and was disruptive. Introducing a new, innovative idea is always risky. Challenging convention and tradition can be at the very least uncomfortable for some and downright scary for others. Some questioned whether this type of service development was appropriate for a public library. The TTF noted that the introduction of these new technologies into the library’s service was simply creating another form of access to opportunity for our patrons. After all, free and open access to ideas and information is our library’s mission; this was a natural progression.

Staff buy-in

Throughout each phase of the rollout, Considine tried strategically to plan the most effective way to work with staff in order to build trust and buy-in. It is necessary to communicate with all stakeholders, beginning with the staff and the Board of Directors and provide a forum for discussion, a place for everyone involved to share thoughts, ideas, and fears. We listened carefully in order to identify the challenges; we worked to inform; we looked for help and inspiration outside of the organization when the message started facing resistance, reluctance, and trepidation.

The concerns were not all philosophical. Members of the FFL team were worried about having to learn new skills in addition to their ongoing responsibilities. We acknowledged the concerns that innovative ideas can unleash and assured staff that not everyone had to be a digital fabrication expert. It is essential, however, that the staff working directly with the Maker space are fully versed—whether that means operating a Makerbot 3-D printer or being handy with a toolkit.

All staff members are given the opportunity to learn how to use the equipment, and as of this summer, almost every librarian has elected to receive full training. The ultimate goal of the TTF is to assist every area of the library in incorporating creation and transliteracy skills into day-to-day activities. By creating access to the experience and establishing it as a natural extension of our work, we were able to move ahead as a team, enthusiastically committed to this development of Making in the library.

Lessons learned

The end result of any new innovation will fall flat if your team and leadership are not on board and have not demonstrated their buy-in; FFL had firsthand experience with this issue. The developing idea of the Fab Lab was intriguing and exciting to so many, and we had early success with very visible fundraising efforts. We began reading about our development out in the blogosphere before we had secured the confidence of our own community of stakeholders. It was necessary to go back to the drawing board and identify those stakeholders whom we needed more fully to engage with in order to build local support. We reached out to gain that support and to form partnerships with Syracuse University, while interested experts nationwide offered their assistance, time, and advice on working with our staff, Board of Directors, and community to foster understanding. FFL explored capital funding from multiple arenas and has received a Library Construction Grant for $260,000 from New York State.

Since the inception of the Fab Lab in spring 2011, the Fayetteville Free Library has had some truly remarkable experiences. The community is engaged with the library in a different way, creating their own library-supported content. The lab has brought new members into the library and facilitated networking and knowledge sharing that reaches across all ages. Along the way there have been obstacles, some small and some extreme. However, because of the culture of innovation and supported risk-taking, the entire FFL team was able to respond immediately and work tirelessly to empower the community.