Jeff Sturges on libraries and makerspaces

By Caitlin A. Bagley |

On February 14, I talked with Jeff Sturges, Founder and Conductor of the Mt. Eliot Makerspace in Detroit, about makerspaces and libraries. Jeff and the Mt. Eliot Makerspace collaborate with the Detroit Public Library on their HYPE teen makerspace, featured in ALA TechSource’s December makerspace webinar. Here are highlights from the interview.

Caitlin Bagley: Why do you think makerspaces have suddenly become so important? Why now?

Jeff Sturges: Everybody is trying to figure out what libraries are going to look like in the future. With the advent of the Internet, people are beginning to realize that books are no longer the primary method of acquiring knowledge. These places are really about where we store knowledge, so now there is some questioning about the relevance of a library. A library is a known institution of importance. We’re trying to create a social infrastructure of gathering people together for culture production. That could be production of knowledge or it could be a physical artifact.

CB: How do you think makerspaces fit into conversations about gender and STEM?

JS: Once we have knee jerk reactions to crises like STEM, we’re not thinking in a holistic way. Think of how a creative and innovative person comes to getting exposure to many disciplines. If you get stuck on just one field, for example engineering, you’re going to end up as a person who leans heavily in one direction. Like the classic left brained/right brained example, makerspaces can offer a multidisciplinary space. As a country we have fallen off as a people who make things, and I think people want to get back to that.

To discuss gender, a makerspace should be an open space that breaks gender barriers down. Cooking doesn’t have to be done by one gender, and it may teach someone who was always focused in science to learn these skills.

Further, they might also learn that the sawdust from their other projects might not go so well in their cakes.

CB: What’s your favorite project to work on?

JS: Definitely electronics for music. Given my location in Detroit, I’m very aware of interfaces that create different sounds and am interested in the birth of techno, which took place in Detroit. This occurred during the 70s and 80s when economically things were very bleak in Detroit, but using drum kits, and various other tools, three men managed to create a new sound that would end up being techno. I also love things that move and preferably things that move fast. The two go together well.

CB: If you had to describe makerspaces to someone who’s never heard of them before, what would you say? What’s your elevator pitch?

JS: I like to describe them as a community workshop where people gather to build and strengthen things together with common materials.

CB: What’s the most important factor libraries should consider before creating a makerspace?

JS: The most important factor is probably how to integrate maker culture into the culture of a library. Many people think of libraries as a quiet space, and I don’t want to say that makerspaces are by default noisy, but makers are messy.

CB: That’s the most common issue I’ve heard about when speaking to libraries with makerspaces.

JS: Yes, and we need to think of noise as a design challenges in helping make libraries more relevant. In the HYPE Library, they had a lot of concerns about users making marks on desks, or dropping things on the floor. So we looked at ways to solve these problems by looking at insulated flooring. Perhaps the ideal way for libraries to create a makerspace while preserving the need for quiet is to have an enclosed glass space that is insulated, that still allows for it be visible, without disrupting others. We need to find ways to embrace the chaos.

CB: Libraries have only recently come to the makerspace movement. What role do you think libraries should be playing in the movement?

JS: I have a vision of libraries serving as important hubs for smaller makerspaces in a large network of makerspaces across the country. I think schools, libraries, and other large community institutions need to take up this role-- providing access to tools that others won’t necessarily have access to. Libraries are large physical structures where the community gathers. They can hopefully provide useful tools and knowledge. For example, a library could have the schematic spreadsheets needed for a project, or it might be that  the old guy with all the knowledge tends to hang out at the library all the time.

The significance of using libraries is on one point symbolic and on another highly relevant for it’s physical presence. Libraries should be seen as citadels of knowledge and as citadels of cultural production.