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Some thoughts on knowledge production, makerspaces, and libraries

SEAD logoLast week, I had the privilege of participating in the conference “Networking Sciences, Engineering, Arts and Design to Confront the Hard Problems of Our Time,” held at the Smithsonian Institution, and co-sponsored by the National Science Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, and the Network for Sciences, Engineering, Arts and Design (SEAD). SEAD’s mission is to “operate in entrepreneurial, sustainable ways to identify and promote broader impacts for communities and individuals in new areas of practice, research and critical discourse, achieving creative excellence and intellectual merit.”

The extended luncheon session featured federal agency representatives of great diversity–including the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Department of Energy, National Endowment for the Humanities, Department of Education, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. One of the participants noted her surprise (and appreciation) at the use of the word “imagination” from each agency in the respective characterizations of projects and programs.

I first became involved in this general topic over a decade ago when I worked as a study director at the National Research Council. I was the lead staffer on a multi-year study that culminated with the report Beyond Productivity: Information Technology, Innovation, and Creativity, published in 2003 with my co-editors, the late William J. Mitchell and Marjory Blumenthal, and inspired and funded by Joan Shigekawa, then an associate director at the Rockefeller Foundation.

Beyond Productivity focuses on the opportunities enabled by the rise of the Internet and related technologies that promote the creation of innovative art and design. In collaboration with scientists and engineers, the work centers on both new forms of creative practices and outputs, as well as novel ways to engage the public in these new forms. One of the major topics in the study is exploration of venues for the new “Information Technology and Creative Practices.” Museums, art galleries, corporate R&D labs, and universities are among the likely venues, as well as cyberspace itself. In 2003, libraries were not identified as likely venues. It is interesting how some things come full circle, as now in 2013, libraries clearly are a venue for new information technology and creative practices, as libraries are rapidly evolving, incorporating larger roles in the production of information such as makerspaces, and shaping how libraries themselves fit in the evolving information ecosystem.

The American Library Association’s Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP), among others, emphasizes the increasing role of content production in libraries. In addition to makerspaces, libraries include video production studios, digitization facilities, book publication services, and other activities in support of an evolving vision for libraries. For example, consider the Library as Incubator Project, whose mission is to “promote and facilitate creative collaboration between libraries and artists of all types, and to advocate for libraries as incubators of the arts.” Of course, other libraries are pursuing various initiatives such as those at Chattanooga Public Library, which recently hosted Makerday: 3D Throwdown, and the Chicago Public Library is well-known for Youmedia, its innovative teen learning space.

I’m not sure yet how to systematically connect these efforts to paradigms at major research universities and art and design organizations with the library community, but there is potential for fruitful collaboration there. The possibilities vary with library types–school, public, academic, or other–and could provide benefit to library users as well as enable the development of new forms of art and design that incorporate participation from a diverse, potentially large, group of community members.

Contemplating such things is central to OITP’s mission: working to connect the dots to benefit libraries and the communities that libraries serve.

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Alan Inouye

Alan S. Inouye is the director of ALA's Office for Information Technology Policy. Previously, he was the coordinator of the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee in the Executive Office of the President and a study director at the National Academy of Sciences. Alan completed his Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley.

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