Conversation with Re-Thinking the Library Makerspace editors, Maggie Melo and Jennifer Nichols with Eric Mooney

This is the third installment of our Author Interview Series with Library Students where prospective information professionals meet with authors to discuss the research process and engage in a deep dive on important topics of the field from concept to publication. 

Conversation with Re-Thinking the Library Makerspace editors, Maggie Melo and Jennifer Nichols

This interview was conducted by Eric Mooney, a dual degree student in Irish Studies at New York University and Library and Information Science at Long Island University. 

Beginning in the mid-aughts, a new movement swept Silicon Valley tech developers. The maker movement began as a way for developers to research skills and experiment in an environment that combines the methodology of a computer lab with the creative potential of a workshop or studio. It wasn’t long before this idea of hands-on, DIY research was applied in a library environment. In their recent publication, Re-Thinking the Library Makerspace: Critical Theories, Reflections and Practices, editors Maggie Melo and Jennifer Nichols explain the largely overshadowed drawbacks to the maker movement and how the incorporation of this movement into library settings has forced makers and librarians to re-think these spaces for equal accessibility. 

Eric Moody: And I’ll jump right into it. It’s probably evident from the questions that I sent to you in advance that I don’t really understand library makerspaces or the critical issues surrounding them, but what is a library makerspace?

Maggie Melo: Makerspaces are these collaborative environments where folks come together to make things, but it’s evolved. It’s an idea that came from Silicon Valley. Not only is it making, but it’s a specific flavor of making: DIY making with technologies. So many times you’ll see makerspaces outfitted with 3D printers, laser cutters, electronics. And that’s not to say that’s only what a makerspace is, but from that movement, that’s kind of how the space has achieved its legibility. When we see these things, we recognize it as a makerspace. And so when thinking about what these environments are doing in libraries, we can point to how libraries reflect and interpret the evolution of scholarship. One of the major things that we continue to see is that yes, researchers are writing papers, reading articles, but they’re also creating and producing information in different ways.

Eric Moody: That’s fascinating. So makerspaces can actually serve as a workshop if a researcher is studying a trade or a craft. It doesn’t necessarily have to relate to technologies at all.

Jennifer Nichols: Yeah. I’m in a makerspace now and right behind me; all of our sewing machines and all of the 3D printers are back there. Just to give you a sense of how it is a workshop space and that there are computers here and people working on things.

Eric: Okay. The makerspace originated in Silicon Valley so it was started by an upper-class, mostly white, male demographic. Is promoting accessibility for all how library makerspaces are being re-thought in this book?

Maggie: Yeah, I think what’s front and center is all of that tension, right? Of like the Silicon Valley thing. The tension I try to address with students who work in my space is that we are not here in service to the person who knows everything already when they walk in. We need experts in our community and we need them here, and we need to rely on them, but we’re not in service to them over anyone else, right? And so anyone who comes into the space is a maker and anyone regardless of experience is to be taken seriously. I don’t think that is the ethos of Silicon Valley or any startup culture in general. It’s very much a meritocracy and I’m dedicated to the destruction of that idea inside of the makerspace because I think it’s really dangerous. And it also is not, just not, what a makerspace is meant to be… It was born in Silicon Valley by a small group of affluent whites, super affluent, and this was their vision. How they envisioned what innovation is, how people collaborate and make together. We want that same thing, but we want it in our libraries. And so this copy and pasting of this environment wasn’t only copy-pasting of the tools, but also the ideological baggage that comes with it… The way that donors would see our space, or students would see your space. It’s this balance of inspiration, but also intimidation. And so having it situated within an institution like a university, it makes it difficult to think about how you would really be radical… I will say though, Jen has been exceptional and how she’s thought about hiring practices, programming, who’s in the space, who is represented in the space. And so, unfortunately, I feel like it’s more of like an anomaly than like what is the standard. It’s hard for different reasons because there are many people that are kind of behind the scenes working on the makerspace.

Eric: I get a sense of that tension and it’s fascinating. I feel like I’ve blown the lid off makerspaces and I had no idea that there were all these critical issues surrounding them. What started your research on these issues?

Maggie: Being truthful, indignation and anger can really get you pretty far in the beginning. That’s what got me through a Ph.D. program. But it’s just like I said: there’s a sense of no one’s listening or paying attention. There’s so much labor happening at the fringes and how do we center it and honor it in a way that people see as legitimate labor? And so I started at the University of Arizona’s makerspace, Catalyst Studios, with Jennifer. And yeah, we’ve experienced being in the space and working through all of the delightful parts of it… and some of the terrible things as well.

Jennifer: I agree about indignation and anger. They’ll give me a powerful engine. Yeah, I’ll say that I didn’t necessarily think all the scholarships that I would do as an academic librarian would be around makerspaces. I wasn’t hired to be a makerspace librarian then. I did deliberately interview for this job when we opened Catalyst Studios. I didn’t start out that way or just doing it because someone was like we have a makerspace; someone’s gotta run it; you should do it. So we negotiated the space. And now we’ll figure it out. We got lucky in that way. But it wasn’t because we inherited the desire to make one.

Eric: What do you intend for readers such as myself to learn from this book?

Maggie: I feel like as Jen and I were writing, folks would email us questions saying they were starting makerspaces, or they have a makerspace. How do we make it more inclusive? What do we do with this thing because it’s attracting a narrow demographic of users? Can you help us? And so I would hope that it gives both theory and practice and adds to thinking about how folks can do that… I’m hoping people get a sense of the next step out of this book. Maybe this is generative in a sense.