Having explained what the Thinkering Spaces project is about and how it works, I want to wrap up some thoughts on it by noting next steps. Using the MacArthur grant, the Illinois Institute of Technology Institute of Design folks are going to implement two installations in the Chicagoland area so that they can monitor them closely. While they hope to put one in Chicago itself, they’re also looking at putting the other in a nearby suburb in order to get usage data from a range of demographics. According to the grant’s timeline, this will happen around September and will last for a few months, as this is phase is a temporary one. Then project staff will analyze and publish the data in 2009.
We all agreed that there needs to be some starter content for users to play with from day one, and while the intent is to provide an unstructured, informal learning environment, I think there’s also some hope that students will be able to use it to collaborate on schoolwork, too. So they’ll need to find some content partners, especially for the long haul. One of the things I like about this project is that it’s another way for libraries to generate and provide access to local content. I’m thrilled that the trial will be in this area since Chicago has such great history. In fact, a meeting we had the next day reminded us that 2009 will be the centennial celebration of Daniel Burnham’s plan for Chicago, which is a natural fit from every angle — recreational, informational, and educational. In addition, residents could build resources about the community and attach to books information that, as TJ noted, can’t be found on the web or on Amazon when you look up a title online.
Personally, I wonder if teaching media literacy has more impact in this type of environment where users are mashing up content from disparate resources, and I think there are natural tie-ins for teaching both kids and adults about privacy, fair use (using Creative Commons licenses), and digital identity. Unfortunately, it may be too late in the cycle to plan a content module around politics and the election, but maybe the users will do that themselves (especially with a presidential candidate from Illinois). When there are more of these installations in libraries, it’s easy to imagine a network springing up where librarians curate content and post it online for other Thinkering Spaces projects to download and [re-]use. Imagine having something like this in place in New Orleans and surrounding states so that victims of Hurricane Katrina could record their stories and add to the body of knowledge that will be published in print. As the IIT folks said, the book becomes the patron repository, and it is no longer a passive object. It’s not just open source space, but open source content, too.
Obviously it will take time to scale this up in terms of numbers, so IIT is designing a plan. I would hope to start regionally, building statewide in Illinois, and then expanding across the country. In fact, with the right funding, a partnership with IFLA would make it possible to do this internationally and tie sister cities together through the installations to let users collaborate across geography. And maybe ALA’s Public Programs Office could integrate this type of space with its exhibits, and when it travels from one site to the next, user-generated content goes with it, available for users at the next site to remix. So many possibilities.
But right now the work is focused on getting those first two test installations up and running. I’m hoping to track this project very closely, visit the libraries where they are implemented, and report back periodically. I’m optimistic about the potential for interactions and partnerships within the community, although I’m worried that the short timeframe can’t possibly expose all of the possibilities. I think just seeing how users play with content in these new ways will be enough to spark our collective imagination (as it did mine) and give us a glimpse of the future.