Last week I had an interesting Twitter conversation regarding a popular rhetorical strategy surrounding maker-spaces, New Librarianship, participatory culture, and the other assorted “big ideas” for the future of libraries. Now, I think makerspaces are pretty cool and I certainly don’t want anyone to think I want to be slagging on making/hacking/tinkering but, even though makerspaces are rad, they’re being marketed with some pretty suspect rhetoric. Let me give you a few examples:
“We believe the library of the last century is the library of consumption, an institution that reflects the broadcast era of media, the place where you watch, read, and listen passively from an armchair. The library of this century is the place where new social relationships are forged and knowledge is created, explored, and shared.” (Nate Hill & Jeff Goldenson, “Making Room for Innovation”, Library Journal, May 16, 2013 [link])
“Librarianship is not about artifacts, it is about knowledge and facilitating knowledge creation. So what should we be spending our precious resources on? Knowledge creation tools, not the results of knowledge creation.” (Dave Lankes, The Atlas of New Librarianship, p. 43)
“So what does it mean for libraries to give our communities the tools, access, training, and permission to make, hack, and tinker instead of simply consume?” (Laura Britton, “The Makings of Maker Spaces, Part 1”, Library Journal, Oct. 1, 2012 [link])
“By bringing makerspaces into libraries, we can adapt to changing student needs and supporting knowledge creation in addition to knowledge consumption.” (Erin Fisher, “Makerspaces Move into Academic Libraries”, ACRL TechConnect, November 28, 2012 [link])
“Based on the idea that libraries are for creation, not just consumption, maker spaces don’t just upend the normal programming model—they have the potential to reinvent the public library.” (Brian Kenney, “Meet Your Makers”, Publishers Weekly, Mar. 29, 2013 [link])
“The consumption library, to me, is the library that sort of sits back and waits for people to come inside of its doors, to discover what they have, to take it home, to consume it in the privacy of their own home, to consume it one as a time as individuals. Whereas the creation library is the library that sort of embraces that idea of imagination and begins to redesign even its physical space in terms of creation.” (Ken Roberts, “The Future of Libraries”, Dec. 6, 2012 [link])
Did you catch it? The common thread and the favored tactic in the literature surrounding libraries and maker-spaces is to draw a sharp distinction between the consumption of knowledge and the creation of knowledge. By ‘knowledge consumption’ most writers seem to mean reading; by ‘knowledge creation’ most seem to mean hacking, tinkering, building, making, or collaborating. And the way the conversation is being shaped by this rhetoric, it’s clear that knowledge consumption is old and in the way and what we really need is to forge ahead into a bright future of knowledge creation. Yes, some librarians make the case that we need both creation and consumption (e.g., “…in addition to knowledge consumption”), but the rhetorical device is still in play: knowledge can be either consumed or created, and the library of the future is weighted towards creation.
And, so, I tweeted:
This sparked a long discussion of creation vs. consumption, but as is usually the case with Twitter, it was sort of all over the map. So, I figured I should explain my reasoning here on the blog. Put simply, the rhetoric of knowledge consumption versus knowledge creation equivocates over the concept of knowledge, forcing an adversarial false dilemma. What’s worse, if we try to clarify the equivocation, it quickly becomes apparent that it makes absolutely no sense to contrast knowledge consumption with knowledge creation because, in the context of a library, they’re the same damned thing. Allow me to explain…
First of all, there are two wildly different senses of ‘knowledge’ at play in the consume/create rhetoric. Start with the type of knowledge in “knowledge creation”: what is getting created? Well, makerfolk surely aren’t talking about printing knowledge on a Makerbot. At least, I hope they aren’t, because that would be some next-level craziness. No, makerbrarians are most likely talking about creating a certain type of new beliefs, which brings us to the first type of knowledge: epistemic knowledge. And all we mean by creating epistemic knowledge is something along the lines of coming to new justified, true beliefs. It’s like, “if you tinker with an Arduino, you will acquire knowledge” and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. We acquire new beliefs and new knowledge all the time: it’s called learning.
But, what about the type of knowledge in “knowledge consumption”? Can we consume beliefs? That is, can we consume mental states? Ummm, no; your psychic vampire otherkin friend is just delusional. But, we can consume recorded knowledge. Someone knows or believes something, they want to share it, and so they write it down, film it, paint it, and so on. That recorded knowledge is now something consumable: you can read it, watch it, view it, and so on. And we consume recorded knowledge/belief all the time: it’s called information.
So, when I hear makerbrarians proclaim that traditional libraries are about knowledge consumption and future libraries are about knowledge creation, I make a mental substitution: traditional libraries are about information, future libraries are about learning, and so libraries must move away from information in order to facilitate learning.
This may come as a shock, but libraries have been places of learning for quite some time. It’s kind of our schtick. On the flip side, it’s not clear what a pure creation space would be in the absence of information “consumption.” I’m pretty sure that you need to manipulate some information to make that 3D print of Chewbacca riding on a TARDIS, or whatever it is that 3D printers do.
Anyway, it should be pretty obvious that, when taken literally, the knowledge creation vs. knowledge consumption distinction is simply bad rhetoric. If anything, consumption and creation–understood as information and learning–are inseparable: you need one to achieve the other. So, saying that we need to replace one with the other is, for lack of a better term…dumb. But, of course, it’s just sloppy rhetoric; the participabrarians don’t really mean to imply that libraries have never been about knowledge creation. Perhaps they mean something more like this…
Traditionally, libraries have invested mostly in the collection, preservation, and provision of access to certain types of information and certain types of cultural objects (i.e., literature) all for the purposes of self-directed learning and/or enculturation. But, in the future, libraries will need to invest more heavily in providing their communities with the tools needed to create technologically-mediated cultural objects and information. It’s not that creation and consumption are opposed to one another, rather, the balance is simply shifting away from collecting information and shifting towards collecting the tools required to process information.
Is that better? Closer to the intent of the consume/create distinction? I think it probably is. But, even the watered down version is still problematic because it highlights a rather sizable lacuna in the maker movement manifesto: what makes learning to build a small computer or learning to design and 3D print a small plastic object a greater social good or more intrinsically valuable than the myriad other types of learning available in the library?* Is learning how to make your iPhone open your garage door a more valuable skill than learning a new language? Is there something available in the Thingiverse to help patrons study for finals? For the GED? For the citizenship exam? Is there an app for storytime? Sure, geek elites like Cory Doctorow will argue that making and hacking are absolutely critical to the future of information literacy (“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” [link]). But, we’re not all technological determinists like Doctorow and it’s a hell of a category mistake to assume that understanding a piece of hardware is necessary for information literacy. It’s like saying that you have to be able to make a paintbrush to appreciate art (or to be a painter). Other fablabrarians make vague pronouncements about improving communities, like, “instead of building better bombs, emerging technology can help build better communities” [link]. Again, I’m sure you can improve a community through tinkering, but you can also improve it through promoting literacy or providing information about sustainability or literally a million other activities. So, it’s still not clear how the future of libraries is in tinkering.
I’m not saying that the things you can do in a maker space aren’t cool, useful, and important. They absolutely are. I’m completely okay with saying that makerspaces have a place in the library because they do address certain, important information needs. But, I’m not sold on the thoroughly Whiggish rhetoric that makerspaces are the inevitable future of what libraries should be and, moreover, I am uncomfortable with rhetoric that pits makerspaces against other library offerings. Even if the makerbrarians concede that the consume/create distinction is just a catchy soundbite or elevator pitch to throw out when we need to show the “continued relevance” of libraries to potential funding sources, all that implies is that non-maker services somehow aren’t relevant. Put another way, not only is the consume/create distinction a false dichotomy, and not only does it avoid questions of social value, but it’s also unnecessarily adversarial. A library patron who wants to read a book is not “simply consuming.” Story-time can also “embrace imagination.” The “results of knowledge creation” are often cherished parts of a community. Let’s change the rhetoric and treat all of our community and patron needs with respect, not just the needs that can be met with ABS and LEDs.
* I should acknowledge that some makerspaces also include activities like sewing, crafting, bicycle repair, and other non-digital offerings. Some rent tools or guitars. Some will even show you how to butcher a hog. These are all awesome. Shoot, I’d love to be able to take a bike tech class. And, if you squint hard enough, you can probably come up with a story that all learning is, in a way, making. But, generally speaking, when librarians talk about makerspaces they’re talking about the 3D printing/hacking/app-building/Arduino programming sort of digital makerspace.