The Waiting Room builds upon work undertaken by peer-to-peer and sharing economy proponents, and has transformed a challenging building in the interests of prototyping an integrated hack-maker-learning space in St Botolph’s – an area located at the edge of Colchester’s town centre. It is managed by the Creative Co-op and Colchester School of Art in conjunction with a wider group of stakeholders and creative professionals who live and work in or near St Botolph’s. The mission underpinning the project is to support creativity and enterprise by uncovering and supporting development of the town’s cultural heritage. As such, the Waiting Room proactively incubates and supports creative start-ups which have, most tangibly, included a Gallery, History Archive, Community Workshop and Bar/Café/Restaurant to date – and, all of this on a successful joint venture basis to aid the over-arching project’s sustainability in the medium to long-term.
Initial funding and support for activities associated with the Waiting Room was secured from: Arts Council England, the Government’s Portas Pilot scheme, the EU’s CURE Programme, Colchester Borough Council, Locality and the Carnegie UK Trust. Nowadays, however, a healthy independent income is derived from the bar, kitchen, café, community workshop membership fees, short-stop-shop units and resident studio rentals to propel the project towards sustainability in its own right. The Waiting Room also facilitates the exchange of ideas and promotes lifelong learning through, for example, its ‘give-get’ library, ‘Maker Wednesdays’ and the hosting of Men in Sheds with Age UK – all of which enable local people to share their knowledge and know-how in a semi-structured yet user-friendly environment. Hence, the project is properly termed a library-hack-makerspace, albeit that the library component differs from a conventional public lending library.
The first wave of activity focused on recruiting and organising around 150 volunteers to make the space safe, functional, and welcoming. The Waiting Room has from the outset sought to build its reputation mainly through its actions, by hosting a large number of activities which the founders hope will demonstrate the values and goals the project stands for. From September 2013 to February 2014, while the group of volunteer builders and decorators were still transforming the Waiting Room into a fully useable space, a programme of daily events and sessions began. There were over 200 recorded events or sessions between September 2013 and February 2014 – so, at least one every day, sometimes more.
The visit count for the same period was 6,326 visitors, and events ranged from the weekly ‘Maker Wednesday’ sessions, to monthly Town Team meetings of local councillors and community groups, to meet-ups for digital entrepreneurs to serving as a host venue for the Colchester Film Festival. In addition, the café bar attracted a growing footfall by opening as frequently as was practicable during the renovations, and the kitchen enabled the Waiting Room to host a pop-up restaurant – with local chef, Charlie Stocker, cooking for an average 50 people each evening until he recently moved on to pastures new. Extensive use of Facebook and Twitter continues to be used to promote and create a comprehensive record of activity, and these efforts have so far gained The Waiting Room 1,362 followers on Facebook, and 582 followers on Twitter @stbotolphs_.
The approach to the engagement and development of both online and offline communities has contributed significantly to the Waiting Room’s success thus far, to the extent that those involved are determined to build upon the fine grain, the inherent assets, of the creative community in Colchester in the interests of co-producing the project with them. There is, then, no activity or equipment hosted or housed within the space, without there first being an established desire or need and a commitment to help deliver and manage the same on the part of Waiting Room users themselves. In this important sense, the Waiting Room genuinely seeks to envision the library of the future from the ground up, prototype how that might work with its users, then build upon success as and when it is achieved.
The project represents an integrated library-hack-makerspace, to the extent that users are encouraged to contribute and exchange as well as consume knowledge and know-how in the course of using the Waiting Room. Specifically, a template MakerBox has been developed to encourage creative users of the space to contribute information about themselves, what it is they’re prepared to offer to other users (and on what basis), their inspiration, their craft and their contact details, as well as instructions for undertaking a maker project with which they’re particularly familiar. To help develop the ‘give-get library’ element of the project, Essex County Council’s public library service agreed to enable users to access the county’s catalogue from the Waiting Room; each MakerBox now contains a related reading list. Whilst the ‘give-get’ library remains very much in its infancy, the intention is to develop a library that is complimentary to the more traditional public library service delivered by Essex Libraries – one that is comprised of the local knowledge and know-how to be contained within the MakerBoxes.
In some instances, creatives are prepared to offer basic MakerBoxes so that others can borrow them at no cost, in keeping with the model of a free public lending library. Others are prepared to offer their time pro bono or on a barter basis, for example, in leading a Maker Wednesday workshop. Where the creative incorporates the materials needed to take forward a project outlined in the MakerBox, there are plans to charge users for the purchase of what are properly ‘MakerKits’, and where a user would prefer to simply order the finished item, the Waiting Room aims to facilitate peer-to-peer commissioning to further extend its business incubation and support offer to creatives in future. Some of those who have led Maker Wednesday sessions have also done so as part of testing an enterprise idea. For example, one session led to a designer making a simple computer game console using a Rasberry Pi. He has since prepared a MakerKit for the Waiting Room which contains all the parts; he has also produced an accompanying booklet of the instructions, based on the session he led, so that the Waiting Room can lend a related MakerBox. In doing all of this, he is eager to test the market for this type of game console kit.
This, then, serves to underpin the ‘borrow/barter/buy/bespoke’ business model upon which the Common Libraries project for Arts Council England is premised.
The Waiting Room opened in July 2013, and a full account of the origins, ambitions and inspiration for the Waiting Room can be found here: http://commonfutures.eu/on-the-origins-of-st-botolphs-libraryhackmaker-space/.
A more detailed case study about the project and activities organised since then can be accessed via the Carnegie UK Trust’s website – and, we’re grateful to the Trust for allowing us to reproduce extracts from the same here.