A while back I ran across this MAKE blog post and bookmarked it to read when I found the time. This only happened recently because it’s a long article, and I may or may not have forgotten about it for a while. Now I’m not what you’d call a Maker by any stretch, but I’m really interested in 3D printing, prototyping, and working with like-minded people to build cool things. I’ve looked into local hackerspaces as an option, but they’re all kind of far away and have prohibitively high membership fees for the time I would be able to spend there. However, if one of the local libraries had a hackerspace, I would gladly both donate to it and attend regularly. It helps that my lady is a huge fan of libraries and would definitely go with me. I highly recommend reading the full post over at MAKE, but I’ll hit the high points here.
The author of the post, Phillip Torrone, points out that there are 9,000 non-school-affiliated public libraries in the U.S. that employ over 145,000 people. When I was a kid, libraries were amazing places. All the books you could ever want to read, plus convenient computer terminals with which to look them up, and eventually to access the internet, which was still in its infancy. As the internet has expanded and matured, libraries have become increasingly irrelevant. Why drive to a place that smells weird and makes you sneeze when you can get much better, up-to-date information by picking up your smartphone? Now my wife, who is infatuated with libraries and visits them several times a month if not more, will disagree with me, but not even she can deny the downward trend of library attendance over the past couple decades. There’s nothing to draw people in anymore except free books, but I’d bet that many people would rather pay $5 for an e-book than hazard a trip to the library. After all, FourSquare doesn’t let you check in to 801.955 on the Dewey Decimal System (Methods of Rhetorical Criticism: A Twentieth-Century Perspective by Bernard L. Brock, if you were wondering). At least I don’t think it does. Does it?
Back to the post. Torrone points out that the basic purpose of libraries is to be public places where anyone can go to learn. This learning has always been what I’ll call “passive” learning: reading, studying, discussing, writing. I only call it passive because I want to contrast it with “active” learning, which adds the critical component of doing. You can read a book about circuits all day, but until you put soldering iron to breadboard, a part of the learning process is missing. So what if libraries could change? What if they could be modified to provide tools that most can’t afford in order to spur innovation and creativity? If there were a place I could go to try out a 3D printer for only the cost of materials, I’d be there in a heartbeat. If I could sign up for a class to learn how to use a lathe, or program a CNC machine, I definitely would. I think other people would too.
I’ve browsed some of the comments on the original article, and there are obviously pros and cons to the idea, but if we as a nation want to, as President Obama puts it, “win the future,” education is the answer. Not everyone gets a good education at our schools, so why not make self-education easier and more comprehensive?
What do you think?