Seven Surprising Benefits of Maker Spaces

Noted experts Carrie and Alton Barron explain one of the single most important ways a librarian can point patrons to optimal intellectual and emotional experiences.
Carrie-AltonBarron-MakerSpace-TN“It is creative apperception more than anything else that makes life worth living.” (D.W. Winnicott, psychoanalyst and pediatrician) What purpose do libraries and librarians serve in a community? Knowledge, self-initiated learning, and a place to gather are just a few of the traditional offerings. But walking to the local library, picking out a novel, and curling up on the couch for the afternoon is a disappearing pastime. Many people do not have the time, inclination, or energy—and are nostalgic for the days when they did. Librarians can continue to point patrons to optimal intellectual and emotional experiences by incorporating maker spaces in libraries. When our hands engage in a repetitive task, such as knitting, the mind lets go. Unconscious material surfaces—daydreams, aha moments, creative impulses, and even hints about life direction.

The antidote to today’s lifestyles

We need this vitalizing full body engagement, especially now. Current cultural mores demand an excess of conscious, focused thinking, combined with sitting. We are under pressure to respond to everything, and fast. Devices have their purposes, but also serious drawbacks. Health problems ranging from poor posture to techno-stress—an umbrella term for correlated anxiety and depression—emerge when we are glued to screens. Even if the ping of a new message provides a dopamine rush, overstimulation saps us in the long haul. Paradoxically, it compromises cognition. Without rest periods to reflect and integrate, we become less able to engage with what we have learned.

The human element

Educator Rita Pierson emphasizes the crucial nature of the human relationship in growth and learning. I remember my elementary school librarian, Mrs. Rudd, fondly as a trusted mind-shaper. Each week she would help me select a new biography of a famous woman—until the day when she said, to my utter deflation, “I am sorry, dear, but all I have left are books about boys. Do you want to try Miles Standish?” In that spirit, let’s unpack the seven benefits of library maker spaces for your patrons.
  1. They keep them in the present. We have learned from extensive data on meditation that focusing on the present moment conjures a sense of peace, completeness, and satisfaction. In contrast, worrying about the future can cause stress. Planning is adaptive in moderation, but harmful in excess. Thinking about the past is also fraught. It might include ruminating, destructive longing, or being mired in regret. Some reflection and understanding of the past can mitigate against repeating mistakes, but again, too much can taint life.
  1. They keep their blood flowing. Once upon a time, we could sit and read for an hour or two because the rest of our day required walking, standing, moving in and out of cars, stores, homes, and classrooms. Now, the groceries, a movie, even a college course or a cup of coffee can be delivered with a click. This deprives us of those physical processes. Making, unlike computer work, incorporates body movement. You have to get up and stretch your limbs to reach for the glitter, paper, feathers, or scissors. My son and I made bird nests at a museum recently. We leaned over and stretched across the table to reach the bowl of glue. Then we broke from our task to look for more string, to study the instructor’s example, and to look out the window at a robin. Making keep muscles conditioned in a way that using your hands on a keyboard or screen does not.
  1. They foster independence. Projects are about independent learning. Studies show that one key to success is creating an environment that fosters intrinsic motivation. When passion, rather than compliance, drives the task, success is more likely. Inborn talent or a drive to master a shortcoming—some people just have to take the hardest option—might determine the choice of a project. Maker spaces are ideal for fostering independent learning, and librarians can be influential in the trajectory.
  1. They spark the brain boost that comes from using one’s hands. Research by psychologists Robert and Michele Root Bernstein indicates that tinkerers are thinkers. Arts and crafts—aka, making—develop such skills as observing, visual thinking, and pattern recognition. They develop habits that include practicing, persevering, and trial-and-error problem solving. The common denominator among many noted scientists, including Einstein, is that hand-based hobbies figured significantly into their personal histories. Making and tinkering expand intellect because a disproportionally large part of the brain’s somatosensory cortex is connected to the hands. Studies show that kids who take notes by hand absorb the lecture material in a deeper way. As philosopher Anaxagoras said, “The hand is the window to the mind.”
  1. They improve people's moods. Studies by neuroscientist Dr. Kelly Lambert, author of Lifting Depression and blogger, show that meaningful hand use elevates mood. Happiness expert and psychologist Dr. Sonja Lyubormirsky said, Find me a happy person and I will find you a project.” There are many options for purposeful hand use. If your library does not have gardens, sewing machines, or a supply of paint, you can suggest and guide home projects. Knowing the mind and inclinations of your seeker, as my librarian of long-ago, Mrs. Rudd, did, helps you help them.
  1. They offer them a sense of community. Nearly a third of the population suffers from a sense of loneliness, according to The Foundation for Art and Healing. Deep connections to others are the single greatest source of the “good life,” according to a recent TED Talk by Harvard psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, based on a decades-long study. For many people, a community library can offer so much, from casual conversation to shared purpose. Just showing up can be psychologically healing. One might sew quilts, make sculptures, weave rugs, or participate in another activity, as an individual or as part of a group. Having retired folks teach younger people hand-based skills such as carpentry, crafting, or cooking is a win-win.
  1. They break the habit of wastefulness. One of the perks of making is that by repurposing what’s readily available, we conjure a sense of resourcefulness, creativity, and empowerment. My father-in-law once said, "I love to take some old broken thing and see what I can do with it.” Combining old elements to bring something new into being is psychologist Rollo May’s definition of creativity. Patrons can bring in broken objects, material fragments, abandoned toys, etc. One person's junk is another's treasure, after all.

Responding to resistance

Patrons may say, “But I'm just not creative.” Not true! All people are creative one way or another, because creativity is just a mindset that allows for alteration of existing things in a positive way. By bringing your deeper self to the task, you will naturally be creative. Writer Brian Aldiss defined creativity as a solution to a problem. Steve Jobs called it “just making connections.” Picasso said that all children are born creative; the task is to help them stay that way. Making is crucial for happiness, health, and mind expansion. By providing maker spaces, librarians can empower people and communities. By helping patrons dig in and get immersed, by providing projects as well as books, librarians boost moods as well as minds. As Willa Cather wrote, “That is happiness, to be absorbed in something complete and great.”  
Carrie Barron, MD and Alton Barron, MD are co-authors of The Creativity Cure: How to Build Happiness with Your Own Two Hands (S&S).            
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