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.

Makerspaces with MacGyver

Let’s kick things off, 80s style. Because, why not.

Awesome to the max, says That Guy from Futurama

Confession: I kind of love MacGyver. The show is amazing. It features problem solving, engineering, SCIENCE (of a dubious nature), Richard Dean Anderson, fly 80s fashion, Cold War antics (darned Russians), and one of the best theme songs ever. It’s the best.

I’m always endeavoring to make my classes somewhat entertaining (I teach research methods which can be admittedly dry for the uninitiated), and, to that end, I’m always seeking out pop-culture tie-ins, hands-on activities, and the like. So I was pleased to see that LifeHacker has something called a MacGyver challenge. They give you an object (in true MacGyver fashion it’s something like a paper clip) and you have to do something cool with it.

I love stuff like this – encouraging people to be creative, have fun, experiment, and explore. This captures the spirit of making and hacking, which is increasingly making its way into higher ed and has already found something of a foothold in museums, public libraries, etc. (Check out this great post over at The Ubiquitous Librarian about Hackathons). I think libraries and schools would do well to have their students participate in the MacGyver challenge – it’s a ready-made STEM activity, delivered to your doorstep. Learning environments, whether they are in a classroom or a library, should be places of experimentation and innovation and wacky inventing and fun.

MacGyver did absurd things to get out of equally absurd situations, and he was pretty much always successful (unless he wasn’t for dramatic reasons; this was a TV show after all). But his counterpart, SNL’s MacGruber, couldn’t escape a paper bag.

To have a Maker Space, I actually think it’s important to embrace both. MacGyver promotes the use of engineering, science, critical thinking skills, and, dare I say, information literacy skills (MacGyver could take in a situation, assess the tools at hand, and synthesize things into a solution in like 10 seconds – he was like a literacy ninja) to solve problems.

But MacGruber can actually teach a valuable lesson about failure. Things don’t always (or even usually) work the first time and, in engineering especially, you often have to return to the drawing board. Problem solving (whether it’s building a device out a toothpick and a tic-tac or tackling a research question) is an iterative process and having open-ended engineering challenges in spaces like libraries, where you can create, experiment, and also fail, is a good thing.

The great thing about maker challenges is that even if you don’t do an actual hands-on challenge itself, you can still apply the creative spirit of making and hacking to learning, both inside and outside the classroom.

Also, can Maker Spaces with MacGyver become a TV Show? Someone call Richard Dean Anderson.