Librarians know a thing or two about getting their hands dirty. Sometimes it’s in ways they’d rather not discuss (cleaning messes, ahem), but more often it’s in the name of learning. And these days, learning at the library is very much about making things.

In embracing and carving out room for the basic philosophy of the maker movement—in which people come together to explore, create, or do something, often aided by technology—librarians have added “makerspace” to the industry lexicon in recent years. But why is maker culture important for libraries? Those attending ALA Las Vegas will find a few sessions and exhibits on the topic (see “Showtime!” by Brian Kenney), as the maker movement surges in libraries.

“It’s definitely growing throughout the country, in all types of libraries—academic, public, and school libraries,” says ALA President Barbara Stripling of maker culture. “It comes out of the transformation of libraries from places of consumption to places of creation,” she adds. “We’re reimagining libraries as places to have experiences, to do active learning, to create and share.”

Making It

Sharona Ginsberg, the driving force behind MakerBridge, a resource-rich website designed to help librarians learn more about makerspaces, agrees, noting that libraries today “are changing the public image of what a library is and what it’s for.” She believes that more communities are getting interested in the maker movement in general and that the “library offers an opportunity to collaborate.”

In the broader view, maker culture is driven by people who want to make a difference by creating solutions to a range of everyday problems, and offer a response to the spread of consumerism and a “disposable” culture. “We used to repair something when it broke,” Ginsberg says. “We didn’t just throw it away.”

Ginsberg got on board with the movement a few years ago when she was earning her MLIS at the University of Michigan’s School of Information. “I did a practicum working in a 3-D lab and got really interested in exploring makerspaces and maker culture,” she says. She built a pathfinder on the subject as a class project. Soon after, Ginsberg recalls, “I saw a lot of interest, but not a lot of know-how.”

But the movement has grown, so much so that last year, the ALA launched its own website dedicated to makerspaces, Make It @ Your Library, in partnership with online DIY community, which provides a plethora of ideas and instructions for projects searchable by age level, tools and space, cost, and time per project.

Both of the sites emphasize Stripling’s point that any library can join in. “Makerspaces don’t require huge amounts of space, technology, or capital investment,” Stripling says. “Anytime you give members of the community the opportunity to do something hands on, you’re creating a makerspace.”

While librarians’ opinions vary on what exactly constitutes a makerspace (some believe its key focus is technology tools), the broader idea of making means that the range of definition is infinite. But Makerspaces are indeed where community members can learn about and test new technologies, whether a 3-D printer or an tablet app, for the first time.

One of the most frequently praised and imitated examples of a makerspace is the Chicago Public Library’s YOUMedia space, which was developed to provide teens with “engaging physical and virtual spaces” in public libraries and to offer them opportunities to explore and master digital media skills.

Of course, depending on space and budget constraints, a digital-technology-heavy makerspace is not always possible. Stripling is among those who stress that that’s okay—providing access to space, tools, and materials that someone may not have is how libraries can bridge other divides as well.

Just as libraries’ collections and programming are tailored to specific audiences, their makerspaces also reflect the needs and interests of the surrounding community. Knitting groups, gardening classes with seed-swaps, and the ability to check out a power tool, musical instrument, or electronics kit, are all library services that can be considered part of the larger idea of maker culture.

Everything Old Is New Again

Plenty of services now classed under the umbrella of maker culture will sound awfully familiar to librarians—crafting lessons, group activities, tech tutorials—have long been part of library programming. In its January/February 2013 issue, American Libraries posted a timeline showing a history of “making” that included two very early examples. In 1873 in Gowanda, N.Y., the Gowanda Ladies Social Society formed to quilt, knit, sew, socialize, and talk about books; by 1877, it became the Ladies Library Association and received a state library charter as the Gowanda Free Library in 1900. And in 1905, Frances Jenkins Olcott, head of the children’s department at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, established home libraries in working-class houses, where she organized lessons in crafts, such as sewing or basketry, for local kids.

“It’s not totally different from what librarians have always done,” says Stripling of the maker movement. “But there is a new vibrancy because we’re pushing it out with technology to allow community members to accomplish something they couldn’t do on their own.”

Some maker culture proponents believe the movement has grown so quickly and will have staying power thanks to that staple of technology, the Internet. In our connected age, the web enables large numbers of like-minded makers to connect in both virtual and physical venues.

Books and Publishers?

Author-illustrator Ashley Spires’s new picture book, The Most Magnificent Thing (Kids Can Press), is about a girl’s attempts to create something special. “I didn’t even know I was part of the maker movement,” she says with a laugh. But Spires was inspired by the children she saw during her school visits.

“We would do drawing sessions, and so often I would see children who were upset that their drawings did not match the image in their head—the dexterity is just not there yet,” she says. “I was that kid.” Her book, she says, is meant to convey the idea that “making things is never a waste of time, whether you know it at the time or it happens years later. I wanted to encourage people to keep trying. Even if it’s not perfect, it doesn’t mean it’s not a great experience or something valuable to someone else.”

Spires’s publisher, Kids Can Press, believed the book was an ideal tie-in to the maker movement and crafted a maker-based promotional campaign around it. It sent 100 Book Hack kits, which included craft supplies and a mini version of the book with selected text and illustration removed so that hackers could use their own, to librarians, reviewers, and bloggers. A limited number of VIP Book Hack Kits came packaged with a small circuit kit from NY company LittleBits.

Makers are encouraged to show off their projects on social media using the hashtag #makesomething. Spires provided her own example in a video, demonstrating how she turned a galley version of her book into a purse.

“We didn’t start out envisioning this as a maker book per se,” says Lisa Lyons Johnston, president of Kids Can, “but we could see how it aligned with STEM and STEAM, especially for girls. But when we saw an interesting maker demonstration at the Ontario Library Association Conference and came to learn more about the maker movement, we knew that Ashley’s book embraced the concept. It’s a rare moment when the marketing department is able to find the perfect hook to take a title that is already wonderful in and of itself to the next level.”

The Most Magnificent Thing has 16,000 copies in print with one trip back to press so far, and Spires is taking her book hack presentation on the road, including stops at places like the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa. “It goes against everything we’ve learned: ‘Do not deface a book,’” she says. “But I love that it’s tied to the maker movement right now, which seems to be part of the North American lifestyle at the moment. And I think it will survive beyond that.”

Though maker culture appears poised to be a part of general library culture for the foreseeable future, communities should rest assured that their libraries will not be totally remade. “The library will always serve multiple functions,” says Stripling. “You can’t throw away reflective space for quiet reading and thinking in the name of makerspaces.

Stripling observes that the maker culture’s presence in the library empowers community members to be what they want to be, and to try new things. She notes that technologist Jaron Lanier, a speaker at the 2013 ALA annual conference and the author of You Are Not a Gadget and Who Owns the Future, has called libraries the “thinking spaces for civilization.” Stripling says, “Some people think better when working together, and libraries need to provide those opportunities to collaborate.”

Shannon Maughan is a librarian and regular contributor to Publishers Weekly.