NPR on Hackerspaces in Libraries

I was pleased to hear this morning on NPR this piece on a couple public libraries that have actually taken on the idea of hosting hackerspaces. I’ve commented before on the idea of introducing hackerspaces and FabLabs in public libraries, and I still believe what I said there: essentially, that the idea of hackerspaces and FabLabs per se in public libraries isn’t practicable or appropriate for every community; but the general idea, however, of public libraries as places not just for the passive consumption of information, but also for the encouragement of active innovation and DIY content creation, is definitely something that falls squarely within the public library’s mission of encouraging life-long learning, whatever form that might take. In any case, the NPR piece is definitely worth a listen.

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.

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