"Drawbot Action" by Pete Prodoehl via Flickr

Good things happen when you get a bunch of sharp librarians-to-be together in a tiny conference room to hash out emerging trends in the profession.

Above all, I loved the variety and creativity of this week’s one-shot workshops, a collection of team-led 20-minute discussions on topics ranging from the Patriot Act’s implications for libraries, to the ethics of makerspaces, to libraries as third spaces.

Even better, I learned something.

Last week’s in-class discussion of the ALA Code of Ethics provided an informative framework for several of the sessions, as we looked at where librarianship’s professional code might need to stretch or evolve to accommodate changes.

One workshop on libraries as makerspaces helped broaden my understanding of the larger context of content creation in public spaces. The workshop leaders asked us to revise the Code of Ethics to address the implications of transforming library spaces into places where creation is central. I found that discussing the practicalities of such a shift helped to anchor the usual day-dreamy talk of what libraries ought to be.

The workshop leaders offered four categories of potentially troublesome makerspace user to get us thinking about these implications:

  • The “bomb makers” — users who may want to build something that pushes the boundaries of acceptability in a public institution.
  • The pirates — users who use library technology and equipment to take or reuse intellectual property.
  • The bad influences — users who hang out all day and stir up social drama.
  • The profiteers — users who dominate the public equipment to benefit their own little cottage industries.

All of these examples demonstrate how bringing creation (of “stuff,” whatever it may be) into a more prominent role in libraries raises provocative and important questions about power and control. I have seen a similar discomfort with this shift of control in journalism. As newspapers migrated content online, they entered an often unfamiliar world where articles could be appropriated without attribution (maliciously or innocently) and commenters loudly challenged the authority, expertise, and performance of journalists who before had enjoyed a captive — and quiet, or at least mediated — audience.

Libraries, while they have traditionally played a gatekeeper role in some respects by choosing and maintaining particular collections to reflect their communities and patrons’ interest, also seem more comfortable with sharing control — whether that’s opening up the catalog for user reviews and tagging, or creating the modern tool library with 3-D printers.

Yet questions remain about how to balance libraries’ mission of equal access when technology becomes increasingly complex and expensive — especially in a makerspace setting.

Some questions generated in our discussion that deserve fuller review:

  • How could libraries maintain equitable access across communities and social classes if collections shift toward technologies and tools that cost more than books?
  • Related to equitable access is equitable use — do makerspaces require a level of skill, knowledge and even dexterity that excludes some populations who are traditionally served by libraries (children and seniors)?
  • What’s the balance between guarding against “advancing private interests” — as outlined in the Code of Ethics — and supporting entrepreneurs in your community? The “library-as-incubator” model seems to be gaining traction, and I think it’s an exciting direction when embedded in a local or even online community.
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