Hacking Away: Activity and Expectations at Museums and Libraries

A few weeks ago I participated at a Civic Hack day event at the Adler Planetarium here in Chicago (where I volunteer with teen groups). Civic Hack Day is a nation-wide event that lets groups come together and spend the day using technology to work on solutions to social problems. The event I was at had teams working on everything from ways to reach out to LGBT youth in Chicago to teen groups working on improving school culture.

Civic Hacking and hackathons in general definitely seem to be gaining steam – they’re happening at museums, at universities, at tech companies. And I really like the spirit of them – you work collaboratively, you share big ideas, you tackle problems, you use technology.

The traditional museum-going experience

That hacking spirit fits really well with museums and libraries, in their current form. Though, traditionally, museums weren’t really seen as active places. You went to an august cultural institution like a museum to look at things hanging on the wall, to look at things under glass cases. Museums have definitely taken the whole participatory, active experience thing and ran with it; you can still look but you can also play and make and, well, do.

When I worked at a museum, and people inquired about what I did for a living, the reaction I got from those asking was generally some sort of exclamation of “cool” or “fun.” When I tell people I work at a library, I often get something more along the lines of “do you like to read?”  Libraries are definitely changing and evolving, but stereotypes are stubborn and there can be a disconnect between what I actually do at my job (mostly teaching!) and what a lot of people think when they hear a word like librarian or library (it’s a bit of a marketing fail and Leslie Knope’s propaganda isn’t helping matters, of course).

But while libraries are embracing newer opportunities like maker spaces and hackathons and digital media labs and information commons and other cool, active learning opportunities, the fact is that libraries have always been active places, in a way. Libraries have always been places of intellectual creation, problem-solving, research (an active process of making something new), and learning – but these things are often cast as passive pursuits in contrast to the revolution of making and doing and hacking.  (Check out this great blog post by Lane Wilkinson over at Sense and Reference for more on this concept – Lane discusses knowledge creation and how libraries have always been places of learning.)

Museums, it seems to me, have managed to make clear their shift in purpose, from more passive absorption of information to more active experiences; libraries seem to have an issue with descriptive marketing sometimes and don’t always make clear, to a broader audience, what they do now and what they’ve been doing for a while in terms of active learning.

There are new and exciting developments in making and hacking and working with technology, and I think that hackathons, makerspaces, and the like can provide great and valuable experiences for visitors at museums and libraries.  But libraries in particular could also use these active, tech-oriented events as a platform to demonstrate how they’ve been doing a lot of active things for a long time by reframing the conversation. 

A hackathon involves using technology but it also involves collaboration, research, discovery, and sharing – things that aren’t specific to tech-oriented events, things that involve active learning, and things that have been happening at places like libraries for a while, albeit it in different forms. After all, if a civic hack event encourages people to look at social problems with a new angle, then that spirit can apply to the institution hosting such an event.

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