Public Libraries and “TechShops”

For the last few days, I’ve been mulling over this recent post on Make, and shifting alternately between frustration and inspiration. In a nutshell, Philip Torrone’s suggestion is to retool public libraries of the future as hackerspaces, tool-lending libraries, FabLabs, and TechShops, places where the public could have free access to the tools needed to acquire skills in science and engineering.

My frustration with his article is similar to what I’ve experienced with much of the discussion about the role of the public library among the various tech blog communities. Namely, that contributors to Make and similar websites not only live on the extreme front of the adoption curve, but they also tend to write and think from within a distorting fishbowl of economic privilege:

“Computers are cheap, and internet access is pretty good for most people. The majority of people do not get their online news from terminals at the public library. At one time the library was ‘the living internet’ — you went there to look up something hard to find, to do research — now it’s all at our fingertips through search engines, Wikipedia, and the web.”

I’m sure that’s true for Torrone and for most of his peers; I’m much less convinced that that’s true for the public at large. According to an NTIA study published last year, more than 30% of Americans don’t use the Internet at all, and many of those because they still lack home computers, affordable internet access, or the necessary technical literacy. And as several of the comments on Torrone’s post point out, public libraries can barely keep up with demand for public terminals and for instruction in even the most basic technical skills. I’m fairly sure none of Torrone’s friends would need a tutorial on basic mouse use, but that’s still a reality for a fair portion of the public that libraries serve.

All of which makes me skeptical whether, outside of major metropolitan areas, the demand for the kinds of spaces Torrone suggests would be sufficient to justify the public expenditure any time in the near future. I can’t imagine taxpayers would be thrilled to find out they shelled out for laser cutters and 3D-printers when there are still patrons queuing up for a sparse handful of public computers just to check their email or waiting months on a hold list to get their hands on a copy of a best-selling book.

On the other hand, impractical details aside, I think Torrone does get it: he understands and appreciates the fundamental vision of the public library as a place where the tools for community building and life-long learning are made available to everyone regardless of means, and the heart of his idea isn’t something we should readily dismiss. Librarians do need to think “outside the book” for ways they can facilitate learning and the social and cultural development of their communities. But the needs of the community need to ultimately determine what form that should take: in some communities, a hackerspace might actually be viable; in others, the demand may well dictate other kinds of creative and educational spaces.

In some communities, that might be something like the Beatbooth recording studio at New Zealand’s Palmerston North City Library. It might be something like the community garden at North Carolina’s Wayne County Public Library. It might be an art space, craft studio, digital darkroom, musical instrument lending library, video recording studio, teaching and demonstration kitchen, whatever local demand supports and the library’s budget allows. Spaces that permit not just for the passive consumption of information, but encourage active learning, innovation, and the creation of original community-sourced content.

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