Sunday, February 3, 2013

Archives, Libraries and Learning Labs

Learning labs and Makerspaces. What do these terms call to mind for you? They are new "buzzwords" for a path and purpose that many libraries and museums are planning for their futures. I believe that these spaces would be valuable additions in Archives as well.

Encouraging non-professionals to interact with archives
in a participatory / learning lab environment benefits the
participant and the archives.
The function of makerspaces and learning labs is to engage our communities and invite them to be participants in an experience rather than just an audience for it. These specialized spaces are a natural outgrowth of the Participatory Museum promoted by museum professional Nina Simon. Nick Stanhope and Nick Poole, respectively from History Pin and Collections Trust in the U.K., dscribe the future of a the participatory experience:

"When digitisation (and by extension, collecting) has considered the user, it tends to think of them as an end-user, an ultimate beneficiary. But we live in an age of participatory culture...What we believe we are heading towards is an age in which the user isn't at the end of the process, but is intimately written into every part of it - from selection, to assessment, to prioritisation, to digital surrogacy, to interpretation, distribution and use. It's a model that is already apparent in programmes like Historypin, which are re-coding cultural practice from an inherently user-focussed and participatory perspective."

Locally, participation is one key to the healthy future of the small community archives especially.  Beyond updating exhibits and focusing collections, I believe that dedicating a space to a "learning lab" will draw in visitors, encourage engagement and even increase volunteerism.

Collaboration has a role to play here too. The local library can team up with the historical society to encourage overlapping engagement experiences. In my case, as a high school librarian, I am working to bring the schools into the mix. We have begun cooperating with the local historical society and will help them digitize their materials. We will have a dedicated area in our library where students can learn about about archives. Our students will be essential in collection development and making plans to create a school archives that reflects our fifty year history in our current school building.

At our school library, I aim to establish workstations for data entry. Perhaps our lab will include a program such as PastPerfect to familiarize participants with classification. Additionally, participants will help design exhibits using mindmapping software. They will help us design marketing materials -- brochures to teach our classes about collections -- using photoshop and other tools. In short, they will learn about primary sources, have a chance to interact with them, have an opportunity to think about them, and make a difference in the protection of history in a way they would never have without a learning lab environment.

Of course, creating an archival makerspace invites many questions related to the safety of materials. Creating a digital environment for visible participation will ensure the security of items. The core volunteers will continue to be those working with unique items. Casual participants will usually be exposed to what is in the collection without actually handling originals. My hope is that many participants will develop enough of an interest to "move up" and want training to handle originals. If they never move beyond primarily digital interaction, that's okay too.

I am on the ground floor with my thinking about creating this space. I plan it to be just one area among many that makes information accessible and understandable to participants in my library. Other spaces could include building materials for robotics, enhanced by a book collection on engineering or a writing lab with blogging stations. The possibilities are endless. The future of archives and libraries is exciting.

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