May 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Low Tech, High Gains: Starting a Maker Program Is Easier Than You Think

A busy day at Darien (CT) Public Library’s LEGO Club.

Has the maker movement taken hold in your library yet? Would you like it to? Fortunately, starting a maker space is actually much easier—and less costly—than you may think. Technologies such as robotics, digital video production, computer coding, and 3-D printing may garner the most attention, yet more traditional, hands-on activities can actually instill in kids the same spirit of invention, collaboration, and creative and critical thinking that’s at the heart of the maker phenomenon.

Take your pick: Anything from building with LEGOs to arts and crafts, gardening, cooking, astronomy, knitting, weaving, crochet, jewelry-making, sewing wood working, metal working, bike repair, button making, and even paper airplane construction can be offered in a maker space.

These low-tech experiences are an ideal way for youth services librarians to get their feet wet in the maker arena—and usually with very little investment in supplies, overhead, and outside technical expertise compared with their high-tech counterparts. “It’s not just about 3-D printing,” Rebecca Kane, youth services librarian at Ferguson Library in Stamford, CT, tells School Library Journal. “It can be simpler, like teaching people to knit or recipes. It doesn’t have to be a robot.”

In fact, most youth services librarians already offer quite a bit of hands-on programming that could qualify as “maker” even if it is not being marketed as such, Kane says. These activities might be overlooked when discussing maker spaces because they draw on the expertise of those already on library staff, she notes, adding, “Every library has a maker already—they just might not know it yet.”

Says Kane, “Library staff in any department have special skills and hobbies, even past careers, that the library may know nothing about. Simply creating a staff survey of people’s interest areas can uncover a whole range of possible programming with in-house expertise.”

Kiera Parrot, head of children’s services at Darien Library, CT—and incoming head of SLJ Reviews—agrees. At Darien’s recent KidLibCamp “unconference” organized by Parrot, during which attendees chose the discussion topics on which they wanted to focus, an afternoon breakout session devoted to maker spaces was packed with children’s and teen services librarians sharing best practices.

The big (and, to some, surprising) takeaway? In many respects, “maker” is largely a buzzword like STEM or STEAM, and libraries need to start marketing their hands-on activities to their communities in their calendars, flyers, newsletters, and programming materials as such. Thus, a planned kids’ arts and crafts activity session, for example, can be re-billed “Found Maker Art Afternoon,” notes Parrot.

A library can boost its maker cred at little cost, KidLibCamp attendees insisted. A few repurposed library tables or an activity cart stocked with supplies will do. ”With the advent of Core Curriculum and the focus on non-fiction with STEM, it can be fairly simple to start out with a ground-floor maker module, using found resources, both physical materials and staffing options,” Kane says.

The amount or quality of space is not important, nor is the level of technology and expensive equipment that the library provides. What matters most in the world of making is the spirit of DIY creation and discovery, says Dale Dougherty, president and CEO of Maker Media, the company behind both Make Magazine and the Maker Faire events in New York and San Francisco.

“Libraries have always been a place in the community for DIY learners,” Dougherty tells SLJ. “Many libraries are now considering how to develop maker spaces, where many people can find access to tools, materials, and expertise to learn to do new things.”

That community involvement is critical to the success of any maker program, confirms Lauren Britton from Fayetteville Free Library, NY, one of the first librarians ever to launch a dedicated library maker space and a 2013 Library Journal Mover & Shaker. She notes that community members are at the heart of any maker space, as is the focus on creation over consumption.

Another key component of a successful maker program, Dougherty and Britton say, is an experiential format that is open ended, not bogged down in rules and preconceived ideas about what kids will do or make. Provide raw materials and hands-on training. See what happens.

“Making represents a new kind of literacy, involving science and technology, but engaging us creatively in our community and around our own interests,” adds Dougherty.

What talents do your community members possess? Inviting those with expertise into your library—through something as easy as a newsletter query—to share their knowledge and talent with kids provides a unique opportunity to create an intergenerational creative space.

The library is also perfectly situated to benefit from kids’ original creations because it can offer those back to the community. For example, kids can scan family pictures and create a historical photo archive of the community; write their own biographies and create a valuable local genealogy collection; start a vegetable garden and donate the harvest to a local soup kitchen; or create giant Lego builds, which then become artwork displayed in the library.

Where to start? KidLibCamp attendees pointed to Make Magazine’s downloadable kids’ projects, as an easy entry into making. “We also have a free playbook written for schools and libraries interested in developing their own maker space,” Doughherty says.

Pinterest offers lots of inspirational project ideas, while Youtube is the place that KidLibCamp attendees said they turn to for free learning videos, on everything from crafts to building.

“We should not be afraid or intimidated by these new trends in education,” says Kane. “We’re an industry which has adapted along with several technological waves, in many cases with very little money. We can do this, too.”

This article was published in School Library Journal's October 2013 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Karyn M. Peterson About Karyn M. Peterson

Karyn M. Peterson ( is a former News Editor ofSLJ.

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