What is a Common Library? – know your onions!

What is a Common Library? – know your onions!

Childhacking - Maltmancredit

Common Libraries

  1. Recognise the value of local or ‘common’ knowledge and know-how;
  2. Enable library users to contribute knowledge and know-how to as well as access information from the library;
  3. Provide the encouragement, tools and support needed to transform libraries into community publishing platforms;
  4. Nurture peer-to-peer learning, collaboration and prototyping amongst library users to help them share their know-how and develop new ideas; and
  5. Go beyond the co-location of multi-media publishing or maker spaces within libraries to integrate related activities and outputs into the very functioning of the library and, with that, grow the common pool of knowledge and know-how it offers.

So, whether a library user would welcome help to write and publish their first book, share a family recipe, invite others to try out their hobby, or re-create an app they’ve developed, Common Libraries help them realise their ambitions whilst capturing and sharing some aspect of their knowledge and know-how to also benefit others.

Common Libraries appeal to creative individuals and enable a range of ‘hacking’ and ‘making’ activities to support community publishing.

What do we mean by ‘hacking’?

Ordinarily, the word ‘hacker’ is understood as a computing term and refers to people who circumvent security systems, apply innovative customisations or combine disparate elements in the course of undertaking computer programming activities; hence, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) interest in identifying and employing them. However, according to Wikipedia, hacking also refers to people who “combine excellence, playfulness, cleverness and exploration”; this goes some way towards explaining our own rather broad definition of the term – for example, you will find activities that range from ‘food’ to ‘place’ hacking at the Waiting Room. Hacker and Makerspaces offer access to tools (both contemporary and traditional), advice and support to use them, and opportunities to socialise and share related knowledge and know-how with fellow users.

Hackspaces first emerged in Germany during the 1990s and there are nowadays more than a 1,750 located all over the world. In simple terms, they are informal computer clubs, but a growing number are more akin to organized computer labs and offer AV equipment, access to hardware and games consoles, as well as sometimes benefiting from tool and component libraries. They are most commonly operated on a not-for-private-profit basis and are sustained by an independent community paying membership fees (although there are also commercial hack-spaces and “Tech Shops” operating in the US today). The majority retain their collectivist roots as well as their occasionally subversive undertones, and whilst they boast similarities and cross-over with the ‘maker’ movement, appeal to the ‘digitally minded’ as well as those with an interest in ‘radical democracy’.

Hackspaces function as centres for peer learning and knowledge sharing, provide a space for people to work on individual projects or collaborate to suit them, and ordinarily offer a range of social activities to help define and galvanise their respective memberships. This is well-illustrated by Hackanooga – a series of community-led events facilitated by the 4th Floor which enable digitally aware, civic-minded designers and developers to collaborate and make full use of Chattanooga’s gigabit fibre broadband network for the public good; for example, to address education and workforce development needs.


Making, by contrast, is more broadly related to the ‘arts’ and ‘crafts’ – definitions of which abound: see, for example, the Institute of Making and, on craftsmanship, Richard Sennett. As such, makerspaces tend to function more akin to “community workshops” and give rise to artisan businesses, as compared with hack-spaces that operate on more of a ‘digital edge’. Commercial maker-spaces have grown up in the US in the form of branded “FabLabs” where the mix of equipment on offer is prescribed for research grade facilities as compared with their grass-root counterparts. Like independent hack-spaces, community-led maker-spaces encourage shared access to tools, small group discussion, collaboration and participation. They are ordinarily project-based with an emphasis upon curiosity, inquiry, experimentation and play, but also encourage peer-to-peer learning, learning by doing and making – not by clicking. Ultimately, makerspaces are underpinned by a make-share-learn ethos, and although there are those who advocate for them in place of public libraries, there is considerable scope for their affiliation, co-location or, indeed, integration with public libraries where their role in relation to lifelong learning and enterprise support / incubation is concerned.

So, what has all of this got to do with libraries?

The scope for symbiosis between hackspaces, makerspaces and libraries is considerable, and we have identified three functioning models:-

1. Affiliation or partnership working can enable public libraries to tap into established communities of interest and pool resources and hacker/maker expertise. For example, at the Waiting Room, Essex Libraries has agreed to offer users access to the library catalogue on-site, whilst creatives have themselves agreed to incorporate pertinent reading lists in MakerBoxes. Elsewhere, in Gateshead, the library service has organised E-Days in collaboration with MakerSpace.

2. Co-location has the potential to reduce overheads for both parties (unless the library opts to manage the hack-makerspace itself), as well as increasing footfall for each; the 4th Floor has successfully demonstrated as much, as has Boston Public Library, but this is also something to watch where Exeter FabLab and Burnage Library are concerned in future.

3. Integration is, in many respects, the lesser known quantity. The term is used here to refer to activities at the Waiting Room, as well as in relation to our prototypes, that approach hacking and making as having the potential to evolve libraries in a more fundamental sense than either affiliation or co-location. Drawing upon the success of libraries that facilitate self-publishing on the part of the communities they serve, integrated library-hack-makerspaces are designed to invite contributions of knowledge and know-how from library users. Specifically, this is with a view to distinguishing the library offer, including the stock held, in one branch from another, such that they might underpin the development of joint ventures and library enterprises in the future in relation to a USP.

The Common Libraries Tool-Kit is designed to enable organisations to develop and manage an integrated library-hack-makerspace, but will also be of interest and use to those interested in affiliation and straightforward co-location. In particular, the How-To Resources are designed to help you develop a thriving hub that accurately reflects the needs and desires of your local community.



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    […] project represents an integrated library-hack-makerspace, to the extent that users are encouraged to contribute and exchange as well […]

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  3. […] ‘campus-based’ approach to establishing a Common Library from the outset (i.e. to explore an ‘affiliation’ or ‘partnership’ model, rather than consider integration of a makerspace within the library […]

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