Setting up a Frisian Library FabLab: a personal story

A TEDxFryslân talk (September 17, 2015) turned into an article.

I was invited to do a TEDxFryslân talk about the FryskLab project, a mobile library FabLab in The Netherlands. Since I normally don’t prepare for presentations by putting them on paper, but this time I diverged from that habit, I thought it would be nice to present it as a article as well.

“When I’m on my bike I’m in a place where I can bring something and get something in return. In that respect it’s exactly what I think is the perfect library: It’s not only a place to consume, but to work and create as well. Another analogy between cycling and libraries is the need to set out a course. Libraries face major challenges, but I do not believe that there is just one way we have to take in order to achieve the right solutions. We must be honest and dare leaving behind the slow ones. It’s not something I’m happy about, but it’s time to be decisive. Finishing outside of the time limit puts you out of the game, but this doesn’t mean the race is over. Or as cycling afficionados like to say: the Tour waits for no one.

On my bike.

I work at Library Service Friesland (Leeuwarden, The Netherlands) and although I am not trained as a librarian, I very much do feel like one. Today I want to tell you about the beautiful link between libraries and the maker movement. In daily practice I bring both of them together within the project FryskLab, the first mobile library FabLab in Europe. It turns out to be an international inspiration for both visitors and library professionals.

The project officially started in November 2012, but the steps and confidence that led to the project I collected unconsciously since 2003. I would like you to be part of that personal ride, and about the the ride of the FryskLab project in particular. I will finish with some dreams I have.

Some history

So. Where does my drive come from?

In 2003 I worked at the Frank Mohr Institute, the Master of Fine Arts course at Minerva Art Academy in Groningen, The Netherlands. In a conversation with his students the professor of new media arts, Arthur Elsenaar, who is also an acclaimed media artist himself, dropped a little bomb. He asked the students.

Who works with closed software?”,

Most of them raised their hands, to which he replied.

“From this moment on no longer. I expect from you that you have real ownership of your art. This also means that you must have control over the tools you use. That’s why I think you should explore the possibilities of open source software and learn how to make your own tools. Do you think that the classic painters also bought their paint in a store?”

Unsurprisingly this led to much protest and resistance, but at the same time he offered the students guidance in learning how to code and work with computer hardware by hiring specialized personnel.

In the end most students were able to get along with their own tools and made great progress in their artistry. Looking back on it, I first learned that initial resistance often leads to something good. And second that open programs and an open attitude are fundamental elements of maker culture.

The event in the classroom made a big impression on me. Arthur’s approach to break out of established patterns in order to achieve the best results serves as a personal guide in the things I do today.

Another moment that proved to be very important for my awareness was a lecture and TED Talk by Lawrence Lessig: Laws that choke creativity. Lessig is the father of Creative Commons, a flexible copyright system in which ownership is given back to the actual creators of content. In his keynote he talked about his concerns regarding online creativity, youth culture and new forms of expression versus traditional copyright protection.

So, what’s better than to remix Lessig’s talks, right?

Lessig told his story during the kick-off conference about media literacy in Amsterdam in 2007. It was the first time the concept was recognized and supported by the Dutch government. The public needed to learn about the challenges and opportunities of the Internet and digital developments in general.

Lessig said:

In my view, the most significant thing to recognize about what this Internet is doing is its opportunity to revive read-write culture. […] The importance is that technique has been democratized. These tools of creativity have become tools of speech. It is a literacy for this generation. This is how our kids speak. It is how our kids think. It is what your kids are as they increasingly understand digital technologies and their relationship to themselves.

Back then I worked for a center for arts education and was responsible for setting up projects besides the traditional music-, theatre- and visual arts courses. Excited because of Lessig’s talk me and my colleague Peter ‘t Hoen came up with an idea to drive around with a little van filled with computers, camera’s, sound equipment etc. We almost succeeded, but the project fell apart due to unforeseen budget cuts.

I hope althought that the link between Elsenaar and Lessig is clear: the principles of open source and open knowledge sharing are essential to innovation. Creators need to feel free, both in their own practice, but also in relation to the world around them.

A Frisian library makerspace

Roughly two years later, September 2009, I started working for the Frisian Libraries, first at Leeuwarden Public Library and three years later at Library Service Friesland. From the beginning it was clear that this was the setting where I could develop my ideas. I felt at home from the first day on.

Leeuwarden Public Library, December 17, 2009. Photo Credit:

I also got to know the inspiring work of Cory Doctorow: novelist, technology and copyright activist and a great lover of libraries. In his writings and talks he goes into the approaches of Elsenaar and Lessig and often translates them to the modern library. Doctorow also explains the strong link between maker culture and librarianship.

Doctorow’s point of view:

Damn right libraries shouldn’t be book-lined Internet cafes. They should be book-lined, computer-filled information-dojos where communities come together to teach each other black-belt information literacy, where initiates work alongside noviates to show them how to master the tools of the networked age from the bare metal up.

Doctorow also made me realize that the ideal librarian could make use of an healthy portion of activism. And not only when budget cuts are expected, but also when digital civic rights are at stake. Librarians should be at the center of the debate concerning privacy, copyright reform and information access. Or better yet: launching the debate, based on facts. What Dutch newspaper De Correspondent or Internet Archive’s TV News have elevated to an art is actually a legitimate task of the library: fact checking. I take the blame ourselves that we did not pick up on this, or at least not enough.

At the same time I learned about success stories of American libraries who decided to set up their own maker space. It prompted me to share my idea with colleagues. An idea to realize a Frisian library maker space. A maker space as a place where you put things together, make something new, meet new people, and share what you and others bring to the table. A space that should be peer-to-peer, hands-on, community-based, open and creation-focused.

Very important was the addition by my close colleague Bertus Douwes: the lab should be mobile. For if we wanted to reach young people we had to visit the places they’re at: schools, festivals, libraries and other events. And also because of the character of Friesland, a rural province in the northern part of The Netherlands.

This Frisian library makerspace was FryskLab, a library truck, but not in the traditional sense. So we don’t move books, but instead of those we move digital fabrication machinery. What doesn’t change however is the need for a physical person, being it makers, teachers or librarians. They are the most important element of a library as well as a maker space. Just like the ancient library of Alexandria it is a place where converstations are started.

So getting started really sounds fairly easy and in fact it is, but the process to get FryskLab on the road turned out to be less simple as we thought it would be.

Where Elsenaar met initial reluctance among his students, we met some reluctant policymakers and, I must admit, also some library colleagues.

“Where is the book? Stick to your traditional tasks!”, we often heard. In the opinion of some policymakers FabLabs were only about economics and businesses. Libraries should stay away from that. But we had the feeling of being on a mission, supported by a growing number of convincing best-practices. And also because we did not set up the project for our own benefit, but because we wanted to contribute to the innovative nature of Friesland. In that sense FryskLab was and is far more than a mobile makerspace. We just knew we were right and persisted in proving we were on the right track. Essentially: if we couldn’t turn left, then we had to turn right. No mountain too high.

But first: what is the essence of why I personally think this is all so important? Well, I work at a public library, in fact the only place where anyone can go to to learn whenever they want and for their entire life. Libraries are about knowledge creation. They must return to this core but have to make progress at the same time.

In my view connecting with maker culture, or better yet, be a vibrant part of it, is one of the ways to achieve this goal. As pointed out by Char Booth makers and librarians are essentially the same, except for the hands-on approach. This was the reason to start with FryskLab: to boost knowledge-creation in Friesland and therein facing a number of local challenges. This means we focus on water technology and sustainability and connecting those with maker culture. And we are initiating partnerships to make this work. And often these are partnerships that are completely new to us, which leads to a whole kind of positive dynamic.

Therefore FryskLab is as much about libraries as it is about education, innovation and maker culture. And on mobility in rural areas. This last element isn’t strange at all. The first Dutch library truck also drove in Friesland, back in the 1950’s. It’s primary function was to enable people to read.

Wonderful video of the first Dutch library truck, driving in Friesland, in fact in the village of Wirdum where I lived for a couple of years.

Seventy years later we do the same with FryskLab, although we transform literacy to digital literacy, knowledge consumption to knowledge creation and develop connections instead of maintaining collections.

And what’s extremely important is that we don’t only want children to learn how the devices work, since the machinery changes all the time. Instead they should learn why this is important to them. Why it is important to learn about open systems and about open knowledge. And being creative. Every solution starts with great ideas, so the concept of design thinking is very important to us.

FryskLab is not an exotic temporary gadget circus, but should be normal for anyone who goes to school in Friesland. Therefore we aim to realize a lifelong-learning cycle where Frisian students are introduced to making and digital fabrication. This is the reason we started an official partnership with one of the Frisian schools for vocational education and one of the Frisian Universities for Applied Sciences. And I’m sure we’ll add new partners to this network in the near future.


But as I said earlier we also met resistance. Initially we couldn’t make use of our normal budget of library funding. It was in fact forbidden to realize the project with use of these resources. Basically this meant that we were faced with a fundamental choice. Normally this would mean a project wouldn’t happen. But this time we wouldn’t go for that ride.

So we decided to go on within our professional library function, but were not paid to do so, at least not through our paycheck. We did get paid by lots of positive feedback though. From September 2013 onwards we managed to do roughly 200 activities, ranging from school visits to festivals to library events and conferences. But please note that nearly 80 percent of our time spent on these activities was personal time. So evenings, weekends or regular work days were used to make our project come to life. We just had to see how we could do our ‘regular’ work as well. But it was our own choice, we weren’t pushed into this. It was pure dedication to make it work. And we succeeded in pulling it off.

The positive feedback we acquired was also a result of communicating by it on social media and because of writing articles about our plans and visions. I am convinced that this openness and effort helped to receive a number of project grants. For example, we were able to develop our own educational material with money from a private bank. And the municipality of Leeuwarden made it possible to buy the truck. We could buy our first equipment thanks to a small but hard-fought donation of the province of Friesland. And the National Library of The Netherlands supported our program Fab the Library! with which we make it possible for other libraries to set up their own FabLab. Being out there also resulted in a couple of nice publication, for instance being featured in Intel’s The Maker’s Manual and the NMC Horizon Report.

From that moment on there was no turning back. Our approach was getting recognized outside of the province and outside of the Netherlands as well and we started receiving an increasing number of invitations. This increased visibility would eventually pay off. When Education Minister Jet Bussemaker publicly supported the project in Dutch Parliament in June last year the provincial perspective also took a positive turn. All of a sudden FryskLab was something to be proud of and deserved support. At first it felt like a bittersweet victory, but after the dust settled we were extremely happy we succedeed. Wonderful!

Thanks to the obvious public sector red tape it would actually take another year to receive the actual money, but that did not bother us. We could now be active wherever we wanted, often still unpaid, but we did it out of love and dedication. The biggest project we undertook was a European road trip in February this year: MakerTour 2015. Invited by OCLC we drove up and down to Florence during which we visited labs and libraries in 8 countries in 12 days, actively proclaiming our story and exchaning ideas about libraries and maker culture. And we collected input for a special assignment we received to find solutions for people with reading disabilities.

Preview of an upcoming documentary about the MakerTour, English with Dutch subtitles.

Very special was the fact our library truck crossed the Alps twice, driven by a retired bookmobile driver and a volunteer driver, whom’s highest elevated ‘mountains’’ were artificial dwelling hills, in Friesland better known as terpen, which are 15 meters high at the most. Magic.

And least as honorable was the personal request to write a book for American publisher Rowman and Littlefield, together with colleague Terri Willingham, about the powerful connection between libraries and the maker movement: Makerspaces in Libraries. It was proof that our vision was appreciated.

For us as a team (me and my colleagues Bertus Douwes and Aan Kootstra) it was extremely gratifying to receive the Library Initiative Award by the Victorine van Schaick Foundation in 2014. An award for best library innovation in The Netherlands.

Future dreams

So, what does the future hold and what are my dreams?

As of this school year we can start doing what we had in mind in November 2012: to let Frisian children and teenagers become acquainted with digital fabrication and maker culture in the mobile lab. We want to visit an annual minimum of 120 schools and also be available to other institutions, festivals and of course libraries. Regarding the latter, it is great that all larger Frisian libraries this Summer have indicated to want to have their own library lab. We will support them in realizing that, building on a provincial network of FabLabs. Besides this we are also heavily involved in the first non-mobile Frisian FabLab, which will be developed in Leeuwarden by one of the FryskLab partners: Friesland College. And we’re part of a network of maker educators with whom we’re working on a national platform for maker education.

As you might know Barcelona is the first Fab City in the world. Their objective is to be completely self-sufficient in 40 years. To reach this goal the city administration is supporting the set-up of many FabLabs in the city. The city of Boston declared this year they have the same goal. My dream is that Friesland will be the first Fab province in the world. I hope we can show that maker culture is essential for necessary innovation impulses. Any resident of Friesland should have access to these facilities to allow for personal and economic development. It should be wonderful to bring the International FabLab Conference to Friesland in 2018 and call it FAB14: FabLabs in rural communities.

It may be clear that I belief libraries are vital to make this work. Therefore my wish is that libraries are seen not only as cultural institutions and funded as such, but that support from sectors such as economic afairs should be normal as well.

I would like to invite you to help us reaching that goal. I assure you it will be an awesome ride.”

About me:

I work at Bibliotheekservice Fryslân (BSF, Leeuwarden, The Netherlands) as new media specialist.I’m a strong believer in open technologies and the way libraries can and should learn from maker culture. This is one of the main reasons why I’m on the board of the FabLab Benelux Foundation. One of the projects I currently work on is FryskLab, a Mobile Library FabLab. I write regularly on my personal blog and in professional (international) library magazines.

I give presentations about libraries, innovation and makerspaces at (international) library conferences. In 2012 and 2014 I was awarded with the BibliotheekInitiatiefPrijs (Library Initiative Award). In 2012 for SocialMediaCaster, an interactive kiosk with a touchscreen and RFID reader that bridges the physical library collections to the digital realm of social media. In 2014 for FryskLab, together with my two project members at BSF.

I am on the Advisory Committee of Internet Librarian International and on the Europeana Task Force Public Libraries. In 2015 I am nominated to become Librarian of the Year in the Netherlands, together with two other contenders.”