Last week, Sean, the Saylor Foundation’s Archivist, forwarded me NPR: Libraries Make Room For High-Tech ‘Hackerspaces’, an article that covers how some public libraries are innovating for the digital age by incorporating hackerspaces into their offerings. Now, I realize that I work for a Foundation that is focused solely on combining education and technology to make education free – but, this was the first time I’d heard of hackerspaces. This article made me wonder: What are hackerspaces?  What have public libraries done to innovate away from the traditional book lending service? Why might these developments be important for students (and other open education users)? I did a little research – and here’s what I’ve found.


Even though the term “hack” is commonly used in the DIY education space to describe creating your own education, it always makes me think of scenarios when friends send out a shocking email, only to follow it up with “Sorry, friends, my email account was hacked.” So, upon first hearing the word “Hackerspace”, my mind immediately went to this situation in which an individual or group might be breaking into someone else’s information account.

This couldn’t be further from the truth.

A hackerspace, as defined by Wikipedia, is “a location where people where common interests, often in computers, technology, science, or digital or electronic art (but also in many other realms) can meet, socialize, and/or collaborate.” In other words, a hackerspace can be thought of spaces in which people come together to make things. The concept of hackerspaces goes back several decades, and while they started out as alternative cafes, farming cooperatives, communes, and so on, they are now focused on programming.

Innovative Public Libraries

I repeatedly read a common criticism of the digitizing of education, which is: what will happen to institutions like universities and libraries if their primary offerings become available online for free? Will they close or become irrelevant? What should they do? The answer is: innovate! And that’s exactly what some public libraries are doing.

For example, last year we saw the British Library sign a deal with Google to digitize 250,000 out-of-copyright titles in order to make them freely available online. Countless libraries have started offering digital readers and tablets to their users, and many allow users to borrow digital books.

The libraries mentioned in the NPR article have taken the concept of innovation a step further. These libraries, including the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and the Fayetteville Free Library in Upstate New York, have begun to include room for hackerspaces within library walls. For anyone who questions this type of innovation, Allen County Library director, Jeff Krull says that hosting such spaces is within a library’s mission: “We see the library as … being in the learning business and the exploration business and the expand-your-mind business.”

Minds will certainly be expanded at these locations, as theses spaces are complete with 3-D printers. As explained in this video by Meg Backus (who teaches a course in “Innovation in Public Libraries”) and Thomas Gokey, 3-D printing and hack labs are the “next big thing”.  Individuals who go to these spaces can create and print just about anything! (Need proof? Check out this video where someone has printed working wrenches.)

Benefits for students

Now, you’re probably asking yourself, “Ok, Camie, this is really cool, but what does it have to do with me?”

The neat thing about these spaces is that they allow students who’ve studied design or programming to go and actually build what they’ve designed or created in their courses. For example, as Sean pointed out to me, a student who has taken ME104: Computer-Aided Design (CAD) or ME403: Student Design Project, could find one of these hackerspaces at the culmination of their studies to build and print their projects. Neat, right?

So, what are you waiting for? Find a hackerspace and go build something!


Image Credit, snowmentality