I’m a regular listener to “The Life Scientific”, not because I understand science, I wish I did, but because I’m always interested in people’s stories, the things that make them what they are, the circuitous routes many great scientists have taken to get the places they are now.
Yesterday it was the turn of Mark Miodownik. I happen to know Mark, so I listened more keenly. He was talking about materials – he’s a material scientist, but he’s also a social scientist. He talked amongst other things about the importance of making things – about the progression of the human race not on paper but in 3d – how making things is part of our identity, national and human, and that we seem to have forgotten that.
He advocates that every town should have a public workshop. That possibly, the public workshop is more important that the public library.
Here – I paused. Wow – more important than a public library?
I spent the rest of the day thinking about it. My children have grown up with a house full of books – but they’ve also grown up with two workshops. One is the kitchen and the other is the real heavy duty scary tools workshop where my husband, a mechanical toymaker works. Things, metal, wood, and plastic come and go from the house all the time. They can find themselves at the mercy of an experimental parental workshop about creative writing, or equally they end up making a whirligig. They really do get it in both ears poor things.
I was lucky enough to grow up with a grandfather who made things, fixed things, invented things and a dad who was a writer AND an engineer. They valued things that were actually made by hand as did my mum. I spent 20+ years visiting other people’s workshops and then selling the wonderful things they made. I took it for granted that you could design and make something yourself if you really wanted it badly enough – or that you could find someone else who could – a real person with a workshop down the road somewhere.
And then came technology, and we, like sheep bought things from huge faceless manufacturies because we liked the way the smooth shiny lighty up things looked. We pilgramaged to IKEA. We kidded ourselves that these mass produced things made our lives easier, that we would waste less time.
I bet most of the things you buy, other than food, are made in the far east and are made in a factory.
Mark Miodownik questions this in his talk – and he’s right to.
My children used to make things. All the time. They used to make everything they needed in the workshop. They made doll’s houses, and guns, and strange structures to put Warhammer on. Inside the house they cooked and chopped and burned and sliced. They learned all about materials without opening a book. Unsurprisingly, they’re both rather good at science.
As well as producing things, it was a social activity. They sat in the house, in the workshop, on the beach, messing about, inventing, having a go, failing, succeeding, talking, listening, watching how we did things and learning from us and their extended family.
Sadly, now, screen technology seems to have grabbed them, but I hope that their elemental grounding in materials, their properties and their textures may yet emerge – and mingle with their inventive minds to help them become the engineers or artists of the future.
But I’m aware they’ve had access to everything Mark was talking about and millions of people don’t ever really get a chance. True, there’s been a resurgence in cooking, most 13 year olds can make a cup cake and enjoy making it, but there are so many more things out there that we can do and should do and yet lots of people only ever get to see making on screen – and never get their hands dirty after leaving school.
Of course, they may not visit a library either.
My feeling is that I don’t want to see libraries close, but after listening to Mark’s talk I can see another possibility a sort of brave old world, where communities are held together by their ability to create what they need from within themselves. I don’t think they can do it totally without books, but then, they can’t do it without tools either.
I’d like to advocate that the two share a space. That the public libraries that are under threat should be allowed to bring in workshops and practitioners to help people use those workshops. That schools that have workshops lying fallow during the evenings and weekends open their doors to adult learners, to children who don’t want to do Dt but do want to make stuff – and open their libraries too.
Because making stuff is as important as reading and writing stuff.
That’s what I think.
And here’s a link to a place where this is already happening: http://www.theliteraryplatform.com/2014/01/rubbish-tech-makerspace-hackerspace-maker-culture-has-arrived-in-danish-libraries/