A hackerspace is people owning something together, sharing resources, sharing knowledge, valuing curiosity and creativity, engaging in productive inquiry. If one can see beyond the specific tools populating the traditional physical space, libraries and hackerspaces look a lot alike. The resemblance is more than a resemblance; a hackerspace is really just a library by another name.
There’s nothing scary or criminal about the term hacker. A hacker is a person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and stretching their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary. Using the science/engineering concept of a black box, where only inputs and outputs are visible, not the internal workings, the hacker wants to open the box. The hacker further insists that if you can’t open it, you don’t own it. So in the way that libraries have always existed to understand the world better, to explore how stuff works, to illuminate the inner components of any area of interest, they have always been hackerspaces. Furthermore, as institutions owned by the public, libraries should not be black boxes. We should all be able to look inside and collectively tinker with the inner workings of these places.
The message of the library is that we can learn, we can become aware. We are not forced to remain in the dark. And while becoming aware is an important achievement, I think the public space of a library affords much more; I think it can provide options for activity that can enhance human agency.
I first learned of 3d printing around 2005 from Thomas Gokey, a then grad student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago who showed me a house being printed in cement. I spent some of my time in my library grad program working on what personal fabrication and easily programmed microcontrollers like Arduino will mean for us, how the easy conversion between digital and physical ends the zero-sum economy and ushers in a system full of non-rival goods–we can think of it as turning the whole world into a giant public library. I was studying this technology in light of Hardt & Negri’s Empire and Multitude (Commonwealth wasn’t out yet even though that would have been the most relevant book in the trilogy for my purposes), Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks, and hunting for recent work on post-scarcity economics.
I never published a paper on it, but when Dave Lankes asked me to teach in SU’s library science program (and half-jokingly insisted I wasn’t allowed to say no), we agreed the class would make a good outlet for passing along some of the ideas that I’d worked on but not had a chance to implement. Students and I would get to work on them together, and this was attractive to me. When Thomas Gokey and I presented Fab Labs/maker-/hackerspaces and took a field trip to a tech shop at SU, Lauren Britton-Smedley was one of the students who really got it, and she was ambitious enough to suggest a home for it in the Fayetteville Free Library. This is exactly the kind of thing we were hoping would come out of our class. Every instructor dreams of having a student like Lauren in class, who trusts what she’s learning enough to risk acting on it. I think of projects like the LibraryFarm and the FFL Fab Lab as publications, only superior to traditional publications. They represent research and production and can function as rhetorical devices that contribute important new ideas and conversation to the field of public librarianship, but they’re not limited by text. They exist in the world as experiences and interventions; non book-like objects that can advance our understanding.
The main text we used for our class was Douglas Rushkoff’s Program or Be Programmed. Rushkoff’s thesis is that in the emerging highly programmed world if you are not creating software, you are the software. If you’re on facebook, you think you’re using Facebook but you are being used by Facebook: you are part of the program that has been written to generate massive amounts of data on consumers. Only once you understand how Facebook works, when you understand how its handling your bits, can you interpret what it’s really for, and make a decision about whether and how you might use it. We’ve got to learn to see the code running our society, not just the inputs and the outputs. That’s what an informed citizenry will mean in the 21st century.