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Libraries As Vocational Shops?

techspace as a return to the voc shop

MAKE has an online article, floating the idea of turning public libraries into what it calls techshops and hackerspaces, but which look like the old-fashioned vocational shops of junior and senior high schools of my day — without the anvils. I am sure my old junior-high shop teacher, the late Hugh Caughall, would appreciate places like these.

But I don't. Apart from the obvious flaws in the article's statistics — comparing public libraries to Borders (the now-bankrupt bookstore chain), counting the number of public libraries and comparing them to commercial establishments, assuming that e-books will replace printed ones given the evident greed of the big publishing houses — the idea of public libraries being converted to vocational shops is ridiculous. Education is a buzzword, and public libraries are there to promote literacy, not technical skill.

If you want a techspace, there are plenty of empty buildings to buy cheaply off of sheriff's sales and to convert into hackerspaces. The author complains that [i]f the only public space where 3D printers, laser cutters, and learning electronics happens is in fee/memberships-based spaces …, that will leave out a segment of the population, who will never have access; but that is a non-issue. If the public is eager for techspaces, it can tax-subsidize that segment willing to learn to make things. And, as with any other tax-subsidized activity, this will create more makers.

who pays for this?

But here is the bigger problem: The public itself. I will diverge a bit to explain why putting techspaces in the hands of the public, no matter how good the intent, is a bad idea. My divergence deals with Indiana, where I live, but it may well be as applicable elsewhere in the country.

We in Indiana are a citizenry of low-wage earners, fixed-low-income retirees, and low-grade businessfolk. Outside of wealthy clusters like Fort Wayne, Warsaw and Indianapolis' northern suburbs, the emphasis is on the word low. The age of heavy manufacturing is over. Finance capitalists who once invested in big American companies no longer want to spend money on American workers, whom they see as demanding high wages or salaries, good benefits, good work environments, vacation time, and other job-related perks, while doing mininal effort and becoming violent when pushed. That is why there is offshoring, especially for high-wage jobs in engineering, software development and accounting. This, in turn, further degrades the American workforce: Who would want to train for jobs that they knew no longer existed or would soon cease to exist?

Such low-wage people as Hoosiers earn little, spend little and pay few taxes — whether on income or on property. In time the people migrate to better places due to job loss or foreclosure, leaving empty houses behind. Empty houses earn nothing in taxes, so in time the taxing authorities sell them at auction. The buyers are, more often than not, absentee landowners buying the houses as investments. The investment is a write-off of the falling value of the property as a loss on their tax returns, as the house falls to pieces due to neglect.

In Indiana social services such as police, fire, parks, schools and libraries are paid for with property taxes. We in Indiana have gone through a political fight in the mid-2000's to reduce raises in property taxes to a tiny percentage per year. This sucker-punches profligate cities like Indianapolis and Muncie (where the property-tax revolts began) and Anderson (whose school district has been compelled to close its famous Wigwam basketball stadium as no longer affordable), but the governmental pain is felt everywhere. Add this to the decline on the value of land throughout Indiana, and the pool of tax revenues shrinks.

The point of this divergence is that we now live in an age, where the budgets for public libraries are shrinking, and the requirements for libraries and their staffs are tightened in order to force the merger or closing of tiny libraries. (I can speak with authority here as secretary for my library's board of trustees.) If we are having a difficult enough time maintaining the services we have, there is no way on Earth that we will going to expend taxpayer funds on 3D printers, laser cutters, learning electronics and the like.

It does not matter how important techspaces/hackerspaces for our future. The public in Indiana will not pay for it. The public anywhere else would not pay for it. If you want one, you are on your own.


It is true that the taxing authority over the forsaken property will mow the grass and weeds when it receives enough complains from neighbors of the property. If the authority does so, it will then charge the absentee landowner for the expense. The absentee landowner will simply pay the charge and write that off, too. But as long as the landowner pays the taxes, the authority will leave the land alone — unless it becomes such a hazard to health and safety that it has no choice but to go through the long judicial process to seize it.

Grant County, Indiana, has the most libraries in the state with eight. But most of those are one-room jobs or based in former houses, as Fairmount's was until 2008. It is likely, given the conditions above, that those libraries will become branches for the bigger libraries or be closed within this current decade (2011-2020), at the end of which only those in Marion, Gas City and Fairmount will remain open.

Written by Andy West on 13 March 2011.