All posts by amberwelch

infrastructure

The library of the future starts with infrastructure

This commentary appeared in the Houston Chronicle, August 26, 2017.

Ask what the campus library does and many will say, “It provides access to books.” Looking toward the future, if libraries are to succeed, they will need to increase investment in services that extend beyond such user assumptions. Libraries should invest in virtual spaces that complement existing technology, unique collections, and content expertise, and library space as a concept will need to be redefined to accommodate work in new arenas.

In a 2015 AACU survey employers reported that they believe only 27 percent of recent graduates are proficient at written communication and even fewer are “innovative/creative”. When thinking about this in concert with student impressions of campus technology in a 2016 ECAR study, the library must contribute to both creative and deepened use of technology in the classroom. Leading students into virtual environments to create research products, utilizing classrooms designed with multiple screens for active small group work, and helping students manage work with the use of project management tools all present opportunities for rich collaborative teaching partnerships between librarians and faculty.

It’s also important for libraries to invest in infrastructure to support web publishing platforms, virtual reality, makerspaces, and large visualization walls that complement existing university resources. Integrating these technologies into the classroom experience will challenge us all to think in new ways about where and how learning occurs. Libraries can provide support to students and teachers as they engage with, critically examine, and build community in and around these spaces. But in order for this to occur, a shift in the way people conceptualize library spaces and services has to occur. By working in new environments, libraries can help students improve communication and develop critical thinking and digital literacy skills that will serve them in all areas of their lives.

In order for us to be successful, campus level administrators have to provide a seat at the executive table for library leadership. Increasing the visibility of challenges being faced by libraries sheds light on the complexity of our current operating environments. Sharing information about the value of library services, and about staffing and IT infrastructure needs, provides an opportunity for those that are invested in the library to ask questions about future directions and provide input on anticipated needs.

Libraries are increasingly becoming key testing grounds for innovative classes and research projects that take advantage of emerging technologies. Administration can demonstrate support for these innovative faculty-library collaborations by providing financial, administrative, and moral support for departments that are attempting to reinvigorate the curriculum. Libraries are not operating in the same way that they were five years ago, and it is imperative that administrators see and fully understand the ways in which our services are evolving, and the ways in which our services provide pathways for new ways of teaching and learning.

Library leaders, similarly, need to fully understand the challenges faced by library staff as they revise organizational and operational models to accommodate new working environments. By providing services in hybrid environments, libraries are demonstrating their capacity to play a key partner role in the teaching and learning process in higher education. This role can advance the critical inquiry and discourse skills of our students, and can contribute to student success post-graduation.

So much of what we think about when we think about our students after graduation is focused on success in the workplace, but at a higher level, many in academic communities are concerned with the development and evolution of civil society. As we expand library services more and more into virtual spaces, we will increasingly ask our communities to redefine their understanding and expectations of our role in developing capacity to engage in dialogue. By investing in the changing landscape of libraries, we are also inviting them to adapt to the ever-evolving landscape of communication and civic engagement.

Amber Welch is the head of technology enhanced learning for The University of Texas Libraries.

 

 

 

Building The Foundry

Texas Library Journal.
Texas Library Journal.

This article first appeared in Texas Library Journal, Volume 93, Number 2, Summer 2017.

Libraries have long been “third places” for community groups, students (both young and old), immigrants, national and international visitors, and members of the local the community. At their best, libraries provide patrons with safe spaces to engage with the written word, new technologies, new ideas, and new ways of thinking. Libraries expand the horizon of possibility in ways that are both emerging, and traditional. Library spaces are being transformed to include tinkering labs, community kitchens, makerspaces, and virtual reality rooms, all of which exist alongside books, newspapers, computers, and reference desks. These new ecosystems are ripe with the potential to connect people and create new communities.

As library administrators and staff consider what the new horizon will look like for patrons, it is important that we make that horizon accessible. When considering what an accessible horizon looks like in the context of emerging technologies, we should be mindful of our role as intermediaries and translators. Much like learning a new language, engaging with emerging technologies can be daunting. Without a framework for how to utilize or engage with new technologies in productive and enriching ways, our patrons could easily be discouraged, or worse, feel isolated in their learning endeavors. We can encourage and support patrons in their exploration by providing thoughtful programming, workshops and tours of our spaces, and by emphasizing jargon-free explanations of new technologies and their application in the real world. By providing an accessible framework for how to think about oneself in the context of emerging, technology-rich environments, we can empower patrons to move toward new horizons with confidence.

Lulzbot 3-D printer creating a Tower model.
Lulzbot 3-D printer creating a Tower model.

Libraries are the go-to place for knowledge-seekers looking to sharpen their intellectual capacity and understanding of everything from boolean logic to gardening in Texas soil. They provide books on the arts, and on creative practices like knitting, cooking, and photography, so why not provide a larger technical infrastructure that will enable patrons to integrate traditional creative practices with technology? Why not provide patrons with the tools and skills they need to move into new realms of possibility via the practice of making, and making alongside others? While creativity may come naturally for a large portion of the population, it isn’t necessarily a skill that is mastered overnight. Like many skills, creativity takes patience, practice, and a good support community. With many communities losing access to arts funding it is an opportune time for libraries to consider playing a role in the creative lives of citizens, and makerspaces are just one example of how libraries are rethinking their role.

A Brief History of The Foundry

The University of Texas Libraries’ exploration of makerspaces began in 2013 under the oversight of the former head of the Fine Arts Library, Laura Schwartz. During this time, a Special Interest Group (SIG) was charged with researching makerspace technologies within the scope of academic libraries.  The group’s findings provided insight into what services are typically made available through these spaces. Following this period of exploration, the Libraries began to pursue funding from outside sources in order to renovate existing library spaces to accommodate new technologies.

In 2014, the Libraries applied for a Longhorn Innovation Fund for Technology (LIFT) Grant  and an Institute of Museum & Library Services (IMLS) grant. Neither of these applications was successful.

However, even before funding was secured for the makerspace, the Libraries decided to move forward with a project to build a recording studio in the Fine Arts Library. In spring of 2015, the Libraries participated in the second round of the university’s project fundraising tool Hornraiser — a new crowdfunding operation launched by the university development office — which netted over $15,000 for the studio, and served as a kind of proof of intention to create a larger creative space.

Artist Tim Kerr and Jerry Hagins session in the new Recording Studio.
Artist Tim Kerr and Jerry Hagins session in the new Recording Studio.

In 2015, the university’s College of Fine Arts (COFA) launched a new program,  the Center for Arts and Entertainment Technologies (CAET) which  provided additional purpose and created a partnership for the development of the space.  The Libraries coordinated fundraising efforts with COFA and the Provost’s office with the expressed purpose of collaborating with CAET to build tools and services in support of the program. A proposal to the Hearst Foundations was rewarded with $200,000 in grant monies to create a makerspace that would be available to anyone on campus, regardless of major or departmental affiliation.

To supplement the Hearst Foundations grant award, COFA and the provost provided additional funding to support the Fine Arts Library renovation, the purchase of makerspace technologies, and staffing for the new space. Two key positions were established to support the program and new functionality in the library. The Arts & Creative Technologies Librarian is responsible for day to day operations and provides support to faculty across campus in order to integrate The Foundry into the curriculum, and the Media Support Technician provides support for the equipment and facilities.

With staffing and funding largely secured, the Libraries worked with designer Harmony Edwards (Edwards + Mulhausen) to seek input from campus stakeholders; faculty, staff and students were invited to provide feedback during design charrettes and focus groups. These discussions allowed the Libraries to better understand how faculty and students envisioned a makerspace, how they might engage with the technology in that space, and if they were currently using makerspace technology in their personal or professional work.

By early 2016, Libraries staff purchased multiple 3D printers, technology for a video wall, top-of-the-line Mac Pros, Bernina sewing machines, a 3D scanner, a large format printer/cutter, two mills, a laser cutter, and an array of additional tools based on feedback from earlier stakeholder conversations. This technology, combined with the high-end audio equipment that would reside in the recording studio, formed the foundation of what was to be known as “The Foundry.”

Construction took place at a fevered pace over the summer of 2016. In early September, The Foundry’s impressive grand opening was celebrated with overflow crowds from the campus community and beyond in attendance.

Vice Provost Lorraine Haricombe, Provost Maurie McInnis and Dean Douglas Dempster cut the ribbon on The Foundry.
Vice Provost Lorraine Haricombe, Provost Maurie McInnis and Dean Douglas Dempster cut the ribbon on The Foundry.

After the initial success of the launch and praise for the exceptional results had subsided, the difficult work of developing processes and a structure for use of The Foundry began in earnest. The following months were considered a rollout period and involved developing an assessment plan, workflows for equipment certification and use, bringing equipment online, and developing learning materials that would support student and faculty engagement with the space.

As of May 2017, The Foundry is almost fully operational.

Lessons Learned

There is always a learning process involved in doing something for the first time, and it was no different building a creative space full of machines in the middle of a library originally designed for quiet reflection and housing books. Here are a few bits of practical advice to keep in mind.

When bringing a makerspace online, it is important to develop effective and productive working relationships with campus departments. At The University of Texas at Austin, the Office of Environmental Health & Safety is responsible for oversight of campus facilities. This group is charged with developing safety training procedures for labs and shops across campus. New technology-rich spaces like The Foundry present a challenge when developing safety protocols. Makerspaces aren’t necessarily as dangerous as a wood shop with a large table saw, but the spaces do present safety challenges, and therefore need to have sufficient safety training procedures in place. Negotiating the terms of these procedures with institutional partners is a key component of a successful launch, and the time involved in this should not be underestimated. When considering a makerspace for a school, college, or university, relevant campus safety services should participate in planning conversations from the project’s initiation. Experts can advise on compliance requirements, and may even work directly with principals to develop safety procedures that are customized to the proposed space.

Aside from ensuring that patrons are safe, administrative procedures and workflows need to be addressed.  Depending upon campus size, seemingly small workflows could potentially take longer than expected to develop. Will patrons be paying for their 3D prints? Which pieces of equipment warrant safety certification, and which can be made freely available without training? Who should be teaching the certification classes? How long should a patron be able to use a piece of equipment? All of these questions help inform the workflow development, and will help inform the character and value of the makerspace.

Prioritizing the development of an assessment plan, or, at a minimum, a mission statement, will present the vision for a makerspace, and allow progress towards that vision to be monitored in measurable increments.  Makerspace technology can be intimidating to many students and faculty. Foundry staff are addressing this concern through the assessment plan, and by closely monitoring how welcome patrons feel in the space. Surveys are a great tool to better understand how patrons are engaging with spaces, services, and technical resources, and, in the case of The Foundry, assist in monitoring progress towards creating a welcoming space. Survey data can and should inform planning discussions, and can assist administrators in demonstrating an operational commitment to the mission.

Students get hands on with 3-D printing.
Students get hands on with 3-D printing.

Looking ahead to the next year, The Foundry will cross-reference data from multiple sources in order to refine existing workflows, and accommodate growing interest from faculty across campus. Increasing the number of strategic partnerships will hopefully open the door to interdisciplinary use of the space, with faculty from multiple departments partnering to teach workshops or courses that use Foundry resources. Additional funding and staffing will inevitably need to be pursued in order to accommodate these demands.

Even though The Foundry is in its infancy, it has generated enormous excitement across campus. Potential partners are continuously connecting with Foundry staff to discuss their ideas for collaborative use of the space. Faculty, staff, and students are demonstrating a vested interest in the space by submitting requests for new technology and services, and by sending positive words of encouragement, along with articles about makerspace projects that are inspiring to them. This type of excitement and willingness to stay engaged with a space can be difficult to find on large research university campuses, where competition for internal and external funding can be fierce. If the excitement, enthusiasm, and generosity of the campus community aren’t evidence of the value of a makerspace, then what is? When thinking about creating new communities, the final product may be less important than the process used to get there. Breaking down departmental and organizational barriers is not for the faint of heart, but with a willingness to collaborate and tackle challenges alongside one another, it can be done.

Amber Welch is Head of Technology Enhanced Learning at the University of Texas Libraries.