Changes in Libraries: Makerspaces in Academic Libraries

Makerspaces have been a popular trend for the past few years, with public libraries being at the forefront of their development. An ever growing number of libraries are now taking part in hands-on activities with their clientele, a move which has been looked at in a recent post by the ILN.

Makerspaces have many known benefits. Hands-on activities aid in the development of critical thinking and problem solving skills, and allow for ‘real-world’ application of theory. Learning becomes collaborative, self-directed and experimental. And of course, they provide an opportunity to use cutting edge technologies. But can this makerspace craze extend into the academic library domain? Many university and college libraries have answered a resounding “Yes!”.

One of the most well-known technologies used in makerspaces is the 3D printer. Some universities have found that 3D printers can be used with students who are doing industrial design courses, to allow them to build real prototypes of their designs. Other disciplines such as engineering, art, architecture, medicine and even chemistry have been able to utilise 3D printers to extend their educational pursuits. At the University of Nevada, the Chemistry faculty “printed prototypes of molecules they’ve been working with for years. In doing this, they’ve made new discoveries. Being able to hold the object and see it in 3-D has allowed them to make adjustments and then recreate them.” (Lisa Kurt, as quoted in ACRL TechConnect Blog). Laser cutters, drill presses and even key cutters have been added to the mix at some university libraries, creating spaces for students to work on class projects or ‘get entrepreneurial’ (The New York Times). Many argue that this ‘tinkering’ helps students to expand their thinking, share expertise and develop a deeper understanding of what they are learning.

Practical laboratories in the STEM fields can teach specific skills related to these areas of study. Coding and programming skills can also be developed in the hands-on environment of the makerspace, with technologies such as the Raspberry-Pi, Arduino, circuits and robotics kits, and other IT and engineering tools available. The University of Sussex’s pop-up makerspace within a two hour workshop is a great example focused around these types of skills and technologies.


When makerspaces are placed in communal areas such as the library they aren’t limited to any particular faculty, and so they also allow for “new types of rich cross-disciplinary interaction to occur”. (ACRL TechConnect Blog). John Burke’s paper, Katrina Schwartz in MindShift, and Sharona Ginsberg’s website provide an array of examples from US academic libraries who have implemented successful makerspace programs (as well as some great resources if you are considering starting one yourself). For a full report on the development of a student-run academic makerspace you can also read Jenny Wong-Welch’s paper ‘Build IT’ at San Diego State University.

The library is not an island, it is a wider part of the whole academic community. While the makerspace can support what’s going on within classes, it can also help bring people together outside of the classroom. Particular student groups at the College of San Mateo have utilised their makerspace for a variety of activities. “The Pacific Islander student group came in and led a workshop on how to make graduation leis. The Puente program did a Dia de los Muertos skull-making activity where [the library director] was surprised to learn that the holiday is celebrated only in some parts of Mexico” (MindShift). This spirit of play is a large part of the makerspace concept. Rutgers University Art Library in the US have diverged their program from a purely academic focus to emphasising “outreach, engagement, creativity and innovation” by instigating a Lego playing station (Megan Lotts, 2016). This library argues that:

“These ideas are crucial to the future of academic libraries and makerspaces are one way for academic libraries to realize these ideas. Makerspaces can be affordable, don’t need to take up a lot of space, and have potential to be catalysts for creating partnerships within one’s community. Engaging making events can stimulate broader conversations among library patrons and library employees as well as a way for library liaisons to connect with their faculty, students, and staff.”

There are of course, constraints and struggles that can go along with the establishment of the academic library makerspace. How does the library manage to convince the faculty to ‘buy-in’ to the use of the makerspace? Without this collaboration it can be hard to obtain the funding required to advance the idea. In addition, how does the library ‘measure’ a makerspace and sell it as an academic venture? The benefits of makerspaces should be justification enough, but getting this across may be difficult “because their definition and purpose is murkier than the traditional and clearly defined library mission of storing and retrieving books” (MindShift). As university libraries build makerspaces, they will have to develop ways to counter these issues if the space is to succeed and expand.

I believe Erin Fisher from ACRL TechConnect sums up this topic brilliantly:

At the heart of academic libraries lies a commitment to growth, learning, and exploration. Academic libraries in particular strive to be the intellectual hub of campus—a place where students, faculty and staff from all disciplines can gather to explore, create and gain new knowledge. Libraries are perfectly positioned to fill a gap in our education system and expand our reach by providing materials, spaces and support for collaborative making. By bringing makerspaces into libraries, we can provide more options for self-directed, innovative learning; we can provide a space that acts as an incubator for ideas; and we can provide tools for the rapid prototyping of those ideas. Over the years, academic libraries have successfully adapted to cultural, technological and educational shifts in order to meet the needs of our campuses. Incorporating makerspaces into our broad mix of services, resources and technologies seems like a natural way to continue our evolution.

  • Do you think makerspaces have a place in academic libraries?
  • Has your library tried out a makerspace program? What were some successes and challenges you encountered? If your library is not an academic library, do you have any ideas of how this program would translate into a different context?

You can discuss with your ILN partner or join in the wider conversation here in the comments or on Twitter or Facebook using #interlibnet.

For in-depth research papers on this topic please read:

Megan Lotts (2016) Playing with LEGO®, Learning about the Library, and “Making” Campus Connections: The Rutgers University Art Library Lego Playing Station, Part One, Journal of Library Administration 56(4), 359.

John Burke (2015) Can Makerspace Work in Academic Libraries? Association of College and Research Libraries conference edition, 497.

Jenny Wong-Welch (2015) build IT @SDSU Library, Insights from an Academic Library Student-Run Makerspace, from the FabLearn website.

Michelle De Aizpurua, ILN Content Officer.

Posted in Discussion topics, Round 2016B and tagged , , , , .

One Comment

  1. This paper is very informative i belong to an academic library and my Institute is technical and engineering ,my institute offering four technologies BIOMEDICAL,Computer Info Technology,Electrical and electronics.
    How can i introduce makerspace in my library?provide guidance to plan for introduction of this term in my library.

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