The demise of authentic makerspaces: From Dad's workbench to Angie's List

Makerspaces or hackerspaces are terms used to describe environments where people build or create with materials, to learn how to share resources and work together to make things.  In their current iterations they are often found in libraries, schools, or even community centers and people are invited to come into the environment to work on individual or shared projects.  Here is a picture of a modern makerspace:

Occupational therapists are becoming more interested in makerspaces, perhaps based on a seemingly genetic interest in the concept of a constructed milieu where people can come together to develop skills.  This is what early occupational therapy makerspaces looked like:

This is a picture of occupational therapy at the Trudeau Sanitarium in the Adirondack region of New York State.  Patients would come to this area of the country to 'chase the cure' for their tuberculosis.  Attracted by the cold and crisp and clear air of the region, when people were not sitting in their Adirondack chairs breathing in the fresh air they were often found in these makerspaces.  This particular occupational therapy clinic developed into the Saranac Lake Study and Craft Guild, which I encourage readers to learn more about by clicking here.  The Guild became a patient-driven and patient-controlled community.  Modern day lingo might attempt to apply the term 'client centered' but actually that descriptor would fall short of describing the actual community that existed.

The Saranac Lake Study and Craft Guild represents the type of project that Consolation House might have turned into - except that George Barton died while still in the early years of his occupational therapy experiment.  I have some additional materials about Barton's use of makerspace culture that I will be posting in the upcoming months.

At the turn of the century, occupational therapy makerspaces were created to meet an exigent need of convalescing tuberculosis patients. What drives the makerspace movement today?  Are these makerspaces properly located in libraries or schools or even in some DIY classes at Home Depot on Saturday mornings?  Here I want to wax nostalgic in a personal direction, because I think I have a cultural yearning for something that is dying. 

I am wondering if my yearning is related to the fact that I don't perceive authenticity in our modern makerspaces and that the modern makerspace contexts seem unusual to me.

In my personal experience, the only makerspaces that I knew about while growing up were in my Dad's workshop.  We didn't have these resources in schools or anywhere else.  Maybe not as many Dads have those spaces any longer?  Or maybe modern Dads are just relying on YouTube videos when they need to replace the broken float in a toilet so those cluttered workbenches with parts and projects all over the place don't exist?  Or maybe families are just working so much that there is less time for those activities?

I purposely use the descriptor 'Dad's workshop' because in fact that is the best way to describe what existed.  Maybe Dad's workshop is not as common because of evolving social and gender roles that impact division of labor responsibilities between modern parents.  Or maybe it has something to do with the high divorce rate and too many children only seeing a non-custodial parent on a constricted schedule?  Or maybe it has something to do with a modern notion that 'good' parenting means taxiing your children to endless organized recreational experiences and not on a child watching or helping as Dad works away on some project.

My own Dad didn't write a lot, but he shared some of his writing with me before he died, and it is so on point to this topic I thought I would share it here.  What I love best about this story that he wrote is his use of the word 'occupation' which he did independent of my influence.  He called this "My Hovel"

I can’t remember when I went to live in the cellar. In those days the seven of us shared 3 bedrooms. My brother and I had the bedroom off the kitchen and the girls and my younger brother shared the back bedroom adjoining my parent’s bedroom. I had occasion to recall the furnace room where I lived recently in a conversation with my son. There was a coal box beside the boiler and although the boiler had been converted to oil before I moved in, still the coal box remained. And because the area of the furnace room where I lived had been a coal bin, I think for many years after I moved in, still the coal dust remained. No matter how I swept or washed, the coal permeated the walls and floor for years after the coal bin was removed. That may explain why I was able to commander this darkened end of the furnace room without much opposition from any other family member. I just can’t remember the early years in the furnace room, like every occupation, I must of started off small and gradually expanded to fill the area of the old coal bin next to the boiler. There over the remaining coal box I placed an overhanging desktop and glass writing area. Later I built book shelves for the books I purchased from second hand stores in the city. I built a two by six plank workbench adjoining the coal desk along the back wall of the room and stored scrap wood for building under the workbench. I collected large dry cells from friendly telephone workers and made projects of simple electrical circuits. Years later it developed into a radio hobby, building power supplies and oscillators and studying code. Through grammar school I would do homework, work at the workbench and do carpentry work all through the evening hours. Every evening of the week was spent in my work area. The early years of photography developed in this area and I remember constructing an enormous lateral enlarger from a large bellows camera. While everyone lived upstairs, I lived in the cellar. And, I remember most how peaceful and quiet the furnace room was compared to the sometimes pandemonium upstairs.

My Dad created this makerspace and he carried that value and that mindset into his adulthood.  Of course I never knew about this space that he created as a child, but I remember his adult workspace quite vividly.  I remember spending hours sitting with him and helping on all kinds of projects.  We would do carpentry jobs, fix broken appliances, made our own ham radio equipment.  We would scour flea markets for 'treasures' and bring them back to the workspace where they would be put to use or saved for some future project.  That was the norm of my own experience.   It was a very typical childhood experience, I believe, but I am not sure if it is so typical any longer.

Here is another narrative that he wrote explaining his motivation and process for re-finishing the attic into a bedroom for my brother and I.  He called this "The attic bedroom"

You can’t imagine how dirty and dark the attic on Orchard Street was when we bought the house. A winter clothes storage room had been built in the south wing of the attic below the high window and the oversize beams supporting the slate roof were dirty and rough. A single light bulb hung in the middle illuminated the room and the upper half of the windows were colored glass which permitted little light to enter the room on even the sunniest day.
Yet, the staircase was well constructed and the balloon construction lifted the perimeter walls sixteen inches off the floor in such a way that the sloped roof attic walls never seemed constraining as attics often do. The center of the main section of the attic roof reached fourteen feet off the floor so that an eight foot ceiling could be constructed through the large section of the room. The new "Miami" windows were installed from the inside of the room because the height of the house could not afford safe installation by ladder from the exterior of the house. The electrical cable runs were over 250 feet of lighting and outlets and I used 1800 square feet of sheet rock over the insulation I installed. I think I taped the sheet rock for weeks. Before the floor was installed, my son wanted to move in, I think he was only five. I bought the large office desks from a moving company for fifty dollars each including the swivel chairs. I piped the sink and waste to provide some relief for the busy bathroom on the second floor which the six of us shared. Later I built the bookcases which we promptly filled with large library of collected books we loved. I remember how we loved to read the Readers Digest "Wonders of the World"

It became my favorite room, probably because I remember how dark, expansive and dirty it was and later how airy bright and comfortable it became.

What is interesting in this narrative is that you can see the carryover of his makerspace mindset, but also the repeated theme of taking a dark and unused space and creating something out of it.  In this second narrative, he was able to create something for his children in the attic that he was not really able to create for himself in the basement.  The attic bedroom was not a hovel!

I enjoy sharing this narrative because my Dad was not a writer and he was not purposely constructing allegory.  It is just folk intentionality.  Plain words - his words.  That is what gives authenticity to his story about the use of makerspaces.

I wonder sometimes if the makerspace context of a Dad's workbench is not as common as it used to be.  I have a workbench, full of all my father's tools - and I do in fact use them - but life is so busy sometimes I just use Angie's List and will find someone else to do a job for me.  Dad would never have done that.

Perhaps that is why the new makerspaces are not in our homes and not as commonly located in a Dad's workshop - and that is why we have the DIY Network and Bob Vila on the television telling us how to do a project.  Maybe that is why schools are creating these spaces because Dads are not doing it as much.

I think it is a good thing that the spaces are being created, but I have some nagging thoughts that it might not be the best way to meet those needs.  What meaning is created by going to a sterile hackerspace in a school every other Thursday for your scheduled time?  How does that serve our own narratives about creation and meaning that might fit into our own lives?

Would there have been a hovel and then an attic bedroom if my Dad didn't have his own makerspace?

I think these are important questions.


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