Making Your Makerspace Work | Part 2

The following is an abridged transcript of a lecture I gave for an ALSC online workshop I taught from 2017-2018.

Last week we discussed about selling the idea of a makerspace to leadership and various places to find inspiration for your own spaces. This week I want to briefly discuss launching your makerspace which includes staffing, training, and developing policies and procedures for your users.

Let’s start with staffing – even if you are not ready to hire any employees, it’s good to at least start thinking about it. Maybe it’s just you or a few select staff at your organization who have already been chosen for the task – great! You don’t have to worry about external interviews. Still, stay tuned because I think some of the following will still be helpful. Again, every organization is different and will handle hiring differently, but these are some helpful tips that I have developed over the years.

Hire for customer service, not technical skills. I wholeheartedly believe that tech can be taught, but customer service cannot. Employees either have good customer service skills or they do not. I wish more IT help desks followed the service-over-tech philosophy. This is usually simple to spot in a candidate just by how they interact with you. Are they pleasant and personable? Empathetic?

Keep the interview questions open ended and ask for specific examples. Here are a few of my interview questions – so act surprised if I ever interview you for a position:

Tell me about a time you dealt with an irate customer? What happened and what was the outcome?

Tell me about a time when you had to make a difficult decision at work and there was no one else, manager or otherwise, to consult. What happened and what was the result?

Not all of your questions have to follow this structure, of course. There are plenty of other practical questions. Why do you want to work at the library? This position includes weekends – do you anticipate any conflicts?

Now that you have hired your dream team, let’s talk a bit about training them. Again, I hire for customer service, which can potentially require a bit more employee training up front, but I think the payoff is worth it. If quality customer service is not present in the makerspace, the students won’t come back – or they will, at best, avoid the space until a teacher requires they use it. In order to build a culture of making, we need to encourage students to explore the space freely while we provide the support they need. Most students will not use the space on their own – it’s intimidating.  We’ll talk more about a culture of making and the intimidation factor in another session.

Every makerspace team member will have their own strengths and weaknesses. There is no getting around this, but you can use this to your advantage. Some might be better at 3d printing, others might be experts at wordworking. Try to identify these strengths quickly and encourage your employees to continually improve skills in areas they are most interested in. The more they are interested in a topic, the more willing they will be to learn more about it. You can figure these out informally through observation (or by asking), or more formally by using an interest survey or similar tool to gather data. It is part of your role as a manager to encourage your employees to improve. I only succeed when my employees succeed. That said, not everyone can only do the tasks that they enjoy – we all have to put the gloves on or stock golf pencils sometimes.

That’s why it is important that each of my employees can deliver the same basic levels of service – even outside of their strong areas. For sake of consistency, I require each of my employees to go through a 3 month training process that consists of 3 tiers. After one month, employees are required to independently do A, B, and C. After 2 months, they can do these more advanced things. After 3 months, they can competently operate every piece of equipment in the makerspace. In the spirit of making, I make the training self-guided. Although I am always open to questions, I encourage employees to work together to prepare for the monthly assessments. I schedule an hour with an employee for each tier, print out the checklist of requirements, and have them demonstrate each item. I do not offer assistance during the assessment.

You have hired and trained your staff – and you are almost ready for prime time! The last step of preparation is determining the policies that you will use to make sure your space is not only safe for use, but also appropriately aligned with your mission statement or institutional policies. Some policies will only become policies after something happens. For example, I had a student covertly using our 3d printers to start a fidget spinner business. Although I applaud his business sense, once discovered, we had to start charging him for printing filament that he uses to print his inventory. This policy is now reflected on our web site. There is no way we could have planned for this, but we adapted appropriately.

Other policies are more straightforward. If you charge for materials, how much do you charge? Do you have adequate insurance coverage? Do you impose a time limit on some of the equipment to maximize the number of people who use it? Do we require students to wear headphones when listening to music? Are snacks allowed? There are plenty of other considerations, but whatever you decided, make policies easy for students to understand and easy to enforce.