Library as maker and informationspace

The library of the future puts users in the very heart of its services, both as knowledge makers as well as knowledge consumers.


Recently a Dutch documentary Digital Amnesia aired on public television in The Netherlands in a series titled Tegenlicht. The episode featured among others Brewster Kahle (director of the Internet Archive), answering the question if we’re paying enough respect to our cultural heritage and our collaborative future by massively closing down libraries and archives. A week later Tegenlicht featured an episode about the maker movement, The New Makers, focussing on the rise of digital fabrication. In my opinion the future library lives right between the contents of the two episodes.

The question what role digitization plays in the development of the Library of the Future builds on classic thinking about cultural heritage. How do we preserve? What do we preserve? Who do we preserve for? How long do we preserve? Numerous technical, logistical and ethical answers to these important can be expressed, but these, in my view ignore the most important role of the public library though: providing access to knowledge & information and facilitating our users to contribute to knowledge production themselves.

We (I speak from a position at a provincial public library service in The Netherlands, Bibliotheekservice Fryslân) are tasked to support library users in this process. The result should be an open library where it’s users are knowledge makers as well as knowledge consumers.

The mobile library FabLab FryskLab present at an open day of Philips in Drachten, The Netherlands

Earlier this year David Lankes tweeted:

Libraries are about building knowledge in any, ahem, medium. The communities are the collection, not the books.”

Lankes puts the axe to the roots of what is usually seen as the most important task of libraries: making books available for their users. In addition the monopoly of the book as the main knowledge vehicle gradually begins to crumble. The internet and online information services are prevalent everywhere and are part of the personal domain of the traditional library user. Libraries themselves are part of this domain too, for instance with the development of ebook platforms, but commercial providers (think Spotify or Netflix, or the ebook platforms of some major publishers) are incredibly strong contenders.

At the same time, the Internet is a platform for other forms of distribution. This is reflected not only in platforms for the exchange of (often right bearing) music, movies or literature. The Internet also allows users to be successful producers and entrepreneurs with a strong link to the physical world. Think of online marketplaces for man-made craft items (Etsy for example). But also of web environments where digital design (whether or not for a fee) will be made available. Examples are Thingiverse or Instructables. These last two are online manifestations of the maker movement, a phenomenon that is built on the foundation of digital manufacturing combined with a holy belief in sharing based on open principles. Do you see the link with the library already?

Fascinated by the 3D printer.

Fading boundaries

The interesting thing about the Thingiverse’s of this world is that distribution and use / production go hand in hand. Gradually the distinction between user and creator disapears in the sense that a user is also a producer. Looking at successful Youtube-acts this is a purely online phenomenon. The interesting thing however is that it is now also manifest in the physical realm. First of all by the creation and offering of physical products. Secondly by the need to learn from and work with people in real life. And, very importantly, to be able to make use of shared resources for produce or use.

In the latter, libraries have always been trying to provide.Of course with books, but also by providing acces to computers and the Internet. However, the concept of knowledge-making is also eminently applicable to maker spaces and FabLabs. Barbra Stripling, president of the American Library Association, therefore expresses her support for the merger of libraries and maker spaces:

It’s enabling libraries to transform their relationship with communities and to empower community members of all ages to be creators of information, not just consumers.

This position is fully in line with the approach of David Lankes who is well-known as one of the advocates of the philosophy of Library as Platform. In this approach the library should support knowledge creation of its users, and everything (ranging from books to services) has value as long as it’s valued by the user. David Weinberger, in addition to Lankes also an advocate of the platform theory, articulates the approach as follows:

It focuses our attention away from the provisioning of resources to the foment those resources engender. A library as platform would give rise to messy, rich networks of people and ideas, continuously sparked and maintained by the library’s resources. A library as platform is more how than where, more hyperlinks than container, more hubbub than hub.”

Beautiful said. It’s knowledge sharing in it’s purest form, both in the physical and digital domain, and always centered around the user.

Making in FryskLab.

Project FryskLab

The motto of the FryskLab project, the first European FabLab which was set up by a library (Bibliotheekservice Fryslân), isn’t without reason knowledge-making and sharing of the future. The role of the library is that of facilitator, both in terms of physical capabilities (machines, tools, etc.), but also in the development of training and support. The principle here is that we look at FabLabs and makerspaces as the place where physical and digital use and knowledge-sharing converge. After all, users have the obligation to document their projects, after which they become available to others.

In this development the Netherlands seems to be a frontrunner, following the United States. Besides Bibliotheekservice Fryslân (BSF) also the Brabant provincial library service Cubiss and public library CODA Apeldoorn took the initiative to initiate library FabLabs. Currently the Zeeland provincial library service Zeeuwse Bibliotheek is also working on realizing this. CODA and Zeeuwse Bibliotheekworks closely with BSF which, supported by the Dutch Institute for Public Libraries, developed a special module, Fab the Library!, to support setting up library makerspaces. From the library standpoint BSF also works on realizing a truly open platform for knowledge sharing which will be available later for everyone. From the MIT FabLab Foundation Newsletter:

It allows the catalogues of FabLab projects to speak to each other via meta-data — a similar approach to how library catalogues are linked up.

FabLab and library are thus as much a maker space as an information space: a physical space where data is contextualized.

The importance that Lankes et al. assign to the role of the library community is perfectly in line with a far-reaching way of digital knowledge sharing. Actually one that the beyond the digitization of physical media. Libraries manifest themselves as contemporary centers, not only for unlocking cultural heritage, but also as knowledge-producing entities.

Brewster Kahle is therefore quite right that it is currently a wonderful time to be a librarian, though it may not be quite the way he has in mind.