Libraries, Hackspaces and E-waste: how libraries can be the hub of a young maker revolution

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By: Cory Doctorow. Reprinted courtesy of: Raincoast Books

Every discussion of libraries in the age of austerity always includes at least one blowhard who opines, "What do we need libraries for? We've got the Internet now!"


The problem is that Mr. Blowhard has confused a library with a book depository. Now, those are useful, too, but a library isn't just (or even necessarily) a place where you go to get books for free. Public libraries have always been places where skilled information professionals assisted the general public with the eternal quest to understand the world. Historically, librarians have sat at the coalface between the entire universe of published material and patrons, choosing books with at least a colorable claim to credibility, carefully cataloging and shelving them, and then assisting patrons in understanding how to synthesize the material contained therein.

Libraries have also served as community hubs, places where the curious, the scholarly, and the intellectually excitable could gather in the company of one another, surrounded by untold information-wealth, presided over by skilled information professionals who could lend technical assistance where needed. My own life has included many protracted stints in libraries — for example, I dropped out of high-school when I was 14 took myself to Toronto's Metro Reference Library and literally walked into the shelves at random, selected the first volume that aroused my curiosity, read it until it suggested another line of interest, then chased that one up. When I found the newspaper microfilm, I was blown away, and spent a week just pulling out reels at random and reading newspapers from the decades and centuries before, making notes and chasing them up with books. We have a name for this behavior today, of course: "browsing the Web." It was clunkier before the Web went digital, but it was every bit as exciting.

(Eventually my parents figured out I wasn't going to school, and after the ensuing confrontations, I ended up at a most excellent independent/alternative school, but that's another story)

Later, I worked as a page at North York Public Library's central branch, in the Business and Urban Affairs department. Working at a library is an unparalleled opportunity to witness the full range of human curiosity, from excited students working on school assignments together to wild-eyed entrepreneurs pursuing their dreams to careful senior citizens researching where to invest their personal savings to supplement their pensions (and lots more besides). All these people were using the library as a place, a resource, and a community. Because that's what libraries are.

And we've never needed that more than we need it today. We've run out of places. What used to be public squares and parks are now malls. Places that used to welcome kids now prohibit them (in England, where I live, some smart-aleck invented a device called "the mosquito," which plays a shrill tone only audible to young ears, used to drive children away from semi-public spaces like the benches in front of stores).

What's more, we're *drowning* in information. Pre-Internet librarianship was like pre-Internet newspaper publishing: "select, then publish." That is, all the unfiltered items are presented to a gatekeeper, who selects the best of them, and puts them in front of the rest of the world. Now we live in a "publish, then select" world: everyone can reach everything, all the time, and the job of experts is to collect and annotate that material, to help others navigate its worth and truthfulness.

That is to say that society has never needed its librarians, and its libraries, more. The major life-skill of the information age is information literacy, and no one's better at that than librarians. It's what they train for. It's what they live for.

But there's another gang of information-literate people out there, a gang who are a natural ally of libraries and librarians: the maker movement. Clustered in co-operative workshops called "makerspaces" or "hack(er)spaces," makers build physical stuff. They make robots, flying drones, 3D printers (and 3D printed stuff), jewelry, tools, printing presses, clothes, medieval armor... Whatever takes their fancy. Making in the 21st century has moved out of the individual workshop and gone networked. Today's tinkerer work in vast, distributed communities where information sharing is the norm, where the ethics and practices of the free/open source software movement has gone physical. Such hackspaces play a prominent role in my own fiction (thanks, no doubt, to the neighborly presence to the London Hackspace, which is directly over my own office in Hackney). In my new novel,

Homeland (the sequel to 2008's Little Brother), my protagonist Marcus discovers the tools of personal and social revolution through his friends at Noisebridge, a real-world makerspace in San Francisco.

At first blush, the connection between makers and libraries might be hard to see. But one of the impacts of building your own computing devices (a drone, a 3D printer, and a robot are just specialized computers in fancy cases) is that it forces you to confront the architecture and systems that underlie your own information consumption. Savvy librarians will know that our access to networked information is mediated by dozens of invisible sources, from the unaccountable search algorithms that determine our starting (and often, ending) points, to the equally unaccountable censoring network "filters" that arbitrarily block whole swathes of the Internet, to underlying hardware and operating system constraints and choices that make certain kinds of information easy to consume, and other kinds nearly impossible.

In the automobile age, everyone was expected to know the fundamentals of how their cars worked. Even if you paid someone else to change your oil, it would take an act of will to attain adulthood in the USA without learning a bit about the mechanics underpinning the signal invention of your era. There were just too many ways that a car could go wrong, and too many ways that your life revolved around cars to rely on the rest of the world to understand them for you.

Now we live in the computer age, and if we thought we relied on cars, we hadn't seen anything. Some people spend so much time in their cars that it's like they live in them. But you literally do live inside a computer -- a modern house, car, or institutional building is just a giant computer you put your body into. And modern hearing aids, pacemakers, and prostheses are computers you put inside your body.

Every part of our lives have been permeated by computers, and these computers have the power to peer into our private lives, to compromise our finances, to shape our political beliefs, to disrupt our families, and to destroy our workplaces. That is, if computers don't serve us, they can (and do) destroy us.

But for people who master networked computers and make them into honest servants, computers deliver incredible dividends. A UK study compared similar families, some with access to the net and others without, and found that the families with net access had better education, were more civically engaged, more politically informed, had better jobs and income, were more socially mobile — even their health and nutrition was better. If computers are on your side, they elevate every single thing we use to measure quality of life.

So we need to master computers — to master the systems of information, so that we can master information itself.

That's where makers come in. One of the curious aspects of computers is that they evolve so quickly that they rapidly become obsolete. That means that our communities are drowning in "e-waste," often sent to developing nations where children labor in horrific conditions to turn them back into materials to be reintroduced into the manufacturing stream.

What if, instead of shipping our communities' "dead" computers to China to be dipped in acid by unprotected children, we brought them to our libraries. What if we enlisted our makers to run workshops at the libraries, workshops where the patrons who come to the library to use the limited computers there were taught to build their own PCs, install GNU/Linux on them, and *bring them home*? People who say that it's dumb to turn libraries into book-lined Internet cafes are right.

Internet at the library should be the gateway drug for building a PC of your own, from parts, learning firsthand how computers work, what operating systems are capable of, and what locked-down devices and networks take away from their users.

Making a PC isn't hard, especially when you get the parts for free. The easiest way to get good at stuff is to make mistakes ("to double your success rate, triple your failure rate"). The best mechanic I know learned his trade by buying $100 junkers on Craigslist and destroying one after another until he got good (then: *excellent*) at it. When you're building PCs out of literal garbage, you can do no wrong. Your failures just end up back in the same dumpster they were headed for in the first place.

Look, we've got more computer junk than we know what to do with and a generation of kids whose "information literacy" extends to learning PowerPoint and being lectured about plagiarizing from Wikipedia and putting too much information on Facebook. The invisible, crucial infrastructure of our century is treated as the province of wizards and industrialists, and hermetically sealed, with no user-serviceable parts inside.

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.

My young adult novels always feature kids who build their own tools, in part because the coolest, most curious kids I know are already doing this. But it's also because this is a hobby that's available to anyone. The information is online, free. The raw materials aren't just free, they're worth *less than nothing*, a liability and a nuisance to be rid of. And the dividends are stupendous. Only through understanding the tools of information can we master them, and only by mastering them can we use them to make our lives better, rather than destroying them.