Makerspaces in the U.S. and China

By TRobinson

Recently, I visited 3 libraries, on a tour of makerspaces in Northern New Jersey: Parsippany Public Library, West Caldwell Public Library, and Hillsdale Public Library. Parsippany’s makerspace was strictly high-tech (a scanner, Mac laptops, a laminator, a scan and cut machine, and a high-quality printer). Every piece of technology was purchased with funds from a $10,000 grant that was awarded by the New Jersey Library Association. The Head of the Teen Services Department informed me that most of their patrons use the makerspace to create “unique greeting cards.”

West Caldwell Public Library calls their $12,000 worth of audio recording equipment (packed away in boxes) a “makerspace,” as they work toward a community-based oral history project (participation by invitation only). This space was also made possible by a grant, from the Rotary Club of the Caldwells (RCC), a local association.

Then, there was Hillsdale Public Library, with the most effective implementation, the highest engagement, and, as you may imagine, the most inflated funding. Their makerspace includes the following:

  • High Tech:
    o Makerbot Replicator 2 (~$2,000)IMG_6272
    o Button Maker (~$300, Gifted from The Friends of the Library)
    o 27” iMac (~$1,800 plus accessories: Yeti USB microphone by Blue ~$115, JVC headphones ~$50, Logitech USB HD camera ~$100, and loads of expensive software, Gifted from The Friends of the Library)
    o Singer Curvy Sewing Machine (~$200)
    o Brother PE-770 embroidery machine (~$700)
    o Silhouette Cameo Cutter (~$300)
    o 4 Premium LittleBits Kits (~$150/each)
  •  Low/No Tech:
    o Tools: scissors, razor blades, needle nose pliers, wire cutters, rulers, cutting mats, screw drivers, glue guns, paint brushes, Rainbow Looms.
    o “Connectors”: Elmer’s glue, glue sticks, duct tape, masking tape, scotch tape, paper clips, magnets, wire, soldering irons, string, fishing line, yarn, thread.
    o Other: paper, cardboard, origami paper, corks, ping pong balls, golf balls, wood craft sticks, springs, fabrics, metal bottle caps, plastic bottle caps, polymer clay.

Most of these supplies were made available via the efforts of The Friends of the Library organization, who also donated funding to develop elaborate “Makercamps,” as well as library furniture, museum passes, all summer reading programs, and more.

Throughout the afternoon, I watched an elementary-aged child 3D print a superhero emblem ring, and an elderly woman make button magnets out of her watercolor paintings (under a sign that read, “Express Your Quirky Personality”). I was inspired by the creative energy, but I was also trying to imagine how a similar space would be achieved, and made useful, by urban, low-income areas like my own. It would not be possible for my community to pool seemingly endless funds from an organization like The Friends of the Library, and anyway, they have far different needs, and objectives, than those expressed through the creation of do-hickeys on a $2,000 3D printer. It just did not seem realistic.

Looking for guidance on how to adapt Hillsdale’s model to suit my own library, I asked David J. Franz (Director) about their policies regarding the theft of materials. He curtly said, “What do you mean? We’re giving this stuff away!” I was confused, but supposed that he was referring to supplies such as paper or, glue, and so, gave the example of LittleBits, of which they had several kits sprinkled across a table, any of which would be rendered useless with the absence of one, tiny piece. He stopped to think, and said, “Theft just isn’t a problem for us. I guess that you would have to consider your community.” Exactly. Once, my library tried to set-up a “Bookmark Contest” station, and within 8 hours, every pen, pencil, marker and cardstock template disappeared, without a single entry in the box. Now, my point is not that our patrons steal; my point is that I was struggling to imagine this type of makerspace in our community.


While on the bus (full of 30 white, female librarians… but that is a different blog post), riding between each library, I was reading Larry Diamond’s “Liberation Technologies,” and thinking about how publicly accessible technologies present new possibilities for social action. Diamond writes, “Liberation technology enables citizens to report news, expose wrongdoing, express opinions, mobilize protest, monitor elections, scrutinize government, deepen participation, and expand the horizons of freedom” (2010). Some examples of this “liberation technology” resemble offerings within makerspaces, including digital cameras, audio recording equipment, access to YouTube, etc. Also, makerspaces have emerged, and are utilized, in the same authoritarian states discussed by Diamond, including China. Knowing the larger realm of possibilities for makerspaces, and inspired to learn more about how they may be put to use in other areas, I did some reading about their implementation in China.

In 2010, China’s first makerspace, XinCheJian, was established, with 6 more to follow over the next 6 months. Each included 3D printers, laser cutters, and other machinery, but the similarities to Hillsdale Public Library stop there. Co-founder, David Li, says that, within XinCheJian, and even on the streets in the surrounding city, there is

“a real-dealing with e-waste. Not just this elite form where people promote reuse, because they want to feel good about themselves purchasing a new phone every 6 months. Here, people reuse on a daily basis discarded parts and fix broken machines rather than buying new stuff. It’s making out of necessity. It’s open source hardware in practice. This is different from the West where open source hacking only exists in theory. Here, the actual maker in the factory is involved, the workers, the repair guy on the street” (Lindtner, 2015).

In stark contrast to XinCheJian, Hillsdale Public Library’s “recycled” or, “re-used” materials were in such great quantity, that it did not seem likely that many of them were actually amassed via second-hand means (ex. thousands of clean popsicle sticks were considered recycled materials, and the metal bottle caps were all clean, seemingly unused, with a unbranded, silver finish). At XinCheJian, 9-year-old boys (Hillsdale’s largest group of makerspace users) are not connecting LittleBits to power a tongue-wagging teddy bear; these are adult innovators with access to industry, and a manufacturing mindset, born out of Chinese tradition. At XinCheJian, for example, a recent project was the construction of an aquaponic planting system, following a design that could be easily put into production.

This difference goes beyond XinCheJian; some driving forces behind China’s makerspace trend are two open-hardware companies, DFRobot and Seeed Studio. Both of these businesses focus on bringing China’s manufacturing culture into the hands of hobbyist makers and start-up companies. Compare this to Arduino and MakerBot Industries (businesses behind the U.S. maker scene), which focus on “hobbyist production, prototyping, and tinkering” (Lindtner, 2015).Lindtner emphasizes “that DFRobot and Seeed Studio, in taking manufacturing itself seriously as a source of knowledge and expertise, did not only develop a niche business but also performed important cultural work” (2015). With the introduction of these two companies, and the emergence of makerspaces in China, China’s reputation for cheap, low-quality production was suddenly challenged by expert-level innovation.

Clearly, regardless of physical location, the impact of a makerspace requires more than a button-maker, and a colorful entryway. As Diamond writes, “It is not the technology, but people, organizations, and governments that will determine who prevails” (2010). Despite having very similar technological access, makerspaces in the U.S. and China, have different cultural objectives, and thus, different outcomes, which illustrates the fact that the relevance of a makerspace relies on the development of a community, rather than furious grant-writing to acquire iMacs.


Diamond, L. (2010). Liberation technology. Journal of Democracy. 21 (3), 69 – 83. Retrieved from

Lindtner, S. (2015). Hacking with Chinese characteristics: the promises of the maker movement against China’s manufacturing culture. Science, Technology, & Human Values. 40 (5), 854 – 879. DOI: 10.1177/0162243915590861

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