Technology has made accessing information more equal but as it develops we need to ensure that access to the software and hardware is possible for all and not just the wealthiest. Converting public libraries into hackerspaces might be our way to do that.
Library use is on the decline. Since 2009, the number of branches open in Britain has fallen by 8%. In the same amount of time the number of total visits have dropped by 40 million. The amount of titles available, number of paid staff and size of budgets have also decreased. Despite this, 8 in every 10 people still see libraries as valuable. Why is it that they can be both valuable and under-used at the same time?
It's simple, we value the principles they embody; a collective commitment to establishing a place where we can come together to share ideas and educate ourselves. We do not, however, place the same value on the services they offer. In other words, we like the idea of having libraries but we just don't care as much about using them.
The internet has revolutionised how we ascertain information. We no longer have to endure the ceremony of searching the library catalogues, checking if the book is in stock and then hunting it down in the labyrinth of shelves. If we need information today, we use Google, Youtube or Amazon. In an age where information is in the ether, we no longer need physical monuments to the sum of human knowledge.
There is still a place for libraries in the modern world, we just have to reimagine what services they offer. Modern society is dependent on computers and yet hardly any of us know how to code, animate, edit video, create a design plan or use a 3D printer. This is as true for the younger generation as it is or the old, in 2014 only 2.6% of students attempted a computing GCSE and in the past 10 years the number of A-level students studying computing or IT has nearly halved - from 24,594 in 2004 to 13,650 in 2014.
Enter Hackerspaces. A 'hackerspace' (also referred to as a hacklab, makerspace or creative space) is a place where people can readily access computers, technology, scientific equipment and tools to innovate. Common features of hackerspaces include plenty of tabletops and workbenches, a video projector for presentations, computers loaded with video editing software, small hand tools, benchtop power supplies, 3D printers and related goods, scientific supplies and equipment, a lending library of books and journals and of course, computers.
The value of hackerspaces is that they, like traditonal libraries, democratise educational tools. Developing an app or editing a video at home requires hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds worth of investment. This is an obvious hurdle for many people looking to innovate. By pooling our resource and making technology available we can encourage entrepreneurial activity and create a visable place for companies to showcase new products and recruit talented people from a diverse set of backgrounds. We can also help breathe new life into the high street by promoting a community of people, young and old, who can come together to share ideas, teach one another and participate in the use and development of free software.
Libraries are a valuable public institution but we need to accept that their days in their current form are numbered. If we don't soon reconsider how they can become more relevant to our modern needs then we run the risk of losing them and everything they represent. That would be a serious mistake. Converting some public libraries into hackerspaces would be a step in the right direction.