Making Makerspaces: Culture, Traditions, and Community. Introduction (1/8 in Series)

I started my first makerspace when I was 23-years-old. At the time, I’d just quit my job clerking at a law firm that I’d joined out of college, and was working freelance making websites for institutions like McGraw-Hill and Johns Hopkins. In my down time, I’d post on a web forum called “Manrus” (our mascot was a walrus in a suit) that some old friends from my alma mater, North Central College, had started where we chatted about technology, art, video games… just about anything you can think of.
This was in 2008, and hackerspaces (as makerspaces were then known) had just become a thing some people in various corners of the Internet were talking about. I became aware of publications like Make Magazine and started poking around to figure out what this was all about. It was around that time that I wrote a post to Manrus with a subject line that read something like “Hey, have you all heard of these things called hackerspaces?” The contents of the post linked to a few things I’d read, and concluded with a call that, maybe, we start exploring starting our own hackerspace.
I had no idea what that meant, but in relatively short order there was a small group of us meeting in a coffee house at North Central College talking about starting our own hackerspace and getting projects off the ground. We began to call ourselves Workshop 88, after the I-88 corridor that we were located in near Naperville, IL. Bylaws were written, we incorporated, and I became the Vice President of a hackerspace that didn’t even have a home yet.
To raise money to buy a space while we were still meeting in the coffee house, people began paying paying dues ($50/member) just to be around each other and talk shop. We’d meet at the coffee house in Naperville, hold hackathons in my dining room in Mokena, IL, or go out on group outings at local breweries. We started a small international event that got some attention in its day called “Hackerspaces in Space,” where hackerspaces competed against each other by sending high-altitude balloons into near space. This was right around the time that the “Power Wheels Racing Series” got its start, and there was some talk early on of making a hackerspace olympics. The energy behind this movement was palpable. It was a very creative and productive time in my life.
Many of the first people who were coming to those early Workshop 88 meetings went on to become some of my best friends and collaborators. Others went on to launch products like the “Shapeoko” (Ed Ford), films about the maker movement, and their own maker companies. In fact, I discovered the people who I’d eventually join and co-own my first company with, Lunar Giant, while I was talking with some co-founders of Workshop 88 who were about to launch their first video game.
Notice that everything I’ve talked about up until now has nothing to do with the tools we had at Workshop 88 (none at the time), the space that we had (also none), or the cool projects that were coming out of the space (you get the picture, none). People were literally paying money to hang out with each other in a coffee house on a college campus, and there’s a powerful lesson in there about what these spaces are actually about.
Makerspaces to me have always been about the community first. Yes, the first question you get when someone walks into your space is “do you have a laser cutter,” but, in my experience, the laser cutter is broken half the time and may have been for quite some time. Makerspaces are about the common spirit that we all have to reject consumer culture, take learning into our own hands, and figure out solutions to problems that we didn’t even know existed.
Since starting Workshop 88 a decade ago, I’ve gone on to found another non-profit makerspace called Spacelab, and an academic makerspace at DePaul University where I teach called the Idea Realization Lab. And while the spaces may have many differences, both in culture and membership, they also share many of the same traits with each other. Makerspaces are a playground for a tinkerer, and as with all play, they help us learn something about ourselves, other people, or the world around us.
Much critical work has been written about these spaces since they first started. In academic literature especially, there has been a focus on the so-called frivolousness of tinkering, the idea that people at makerspaces rarely graduate beyond tinkering and into professional practice, and that makerspaces are just another form of consumer culture. My experience has been the opposite, as evidenced by the litany of companies that I’ve seen grow out of all of my spaces. But my main problem with this point of view is that it’s focused on the end result that emerges from the acts of making, and not the thinking process itself that happens when one engages with the physical world through the act of tinkering. As Tim Ingold says, thinking is making. This, I suspect, is a much more radical idea than some of us realize.
Making, then, is about the way of thinking that emerges from our engagement with physical material. More than that, makerspaces give us the forum to share the work that we create with one another, and learn from each other. This is precisely what Seymour Papert wrote about over three decades ago when he wrote on constructionism, and what others like Vygotsky touched on when he forwarded the idea of the “zone of proximal development.” Makerspaces are, in some ways, the culmination of educational theories that we’ve been discussing for quite some time.
This series is the culmination of a decade’s worth of experience in developing makerspaces. It does, indeed, dive into many of the technical aspects that you need to be aware of when starting a space, including what machines you need to buy, how to incorporate, who you need to talk with, and so on. It also talks about makerspaces in different contexts: schools (K-12), libraries, academic institutions, and plain old DIY makerspaces.
But more than that, this is a series that will show you the importance of setting up the correct political structures and cultures at a space in order to help its members thrive. It’s about how to engage with your community to help spread these still-radical ideas of making and tinkering that are so direly needed in many corners of education and professional practice. And it’s about how to keep a space like that alive and running day, after week, after month, after year. It’s not always easy.
You’ll hear from people in the maker community who have started their own makerspaces and maker events, their own companies, or use the things that they learn at these spaces to inform their professional practice. We’ll touch on the educational philosophy behind makerspaces, and “systems tinkering,” which is an idea I coined that changes how we think about the systems around us and how we engage with them.
Two years ago I stood in front of the Obama White House to take a picture after being invited to a national summit of makerspace organizers. After spending a few days meeting and talking with other organizers, I finally realized that the work we’d been doing was starting to get noticed by other well-respected institutions. The year prior, I’d been told by some of my colleagues that in order to develop my career in academia, I’d need to shift out of tinkering and develop a persona that had purpose.
Making, and makerspaces, are still to many crazy ideas that are anathema to the way we go about doing things. Let’s change that together.

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