In early September, the article “Libraries and the Art of Everything Maintenance” (Megan Cottrell, American Libraries, 9/1/2017) was the Library Link of the Day. The article featured a few public libraries that partnered with organizations such as Repair Cafe and Fixit Clinic to encourage the repair of broken items, and teach people how to repair their own things.
There is so much to love about this idea. Together, libraries and Repair Cafe/Fixit Clinic:
- help build a more sustainable world
- fight the “throwaway” culture of obsolescence
- encourage an interest in how things work
- teach useful skills
For the past several years, libraries have been talking about Makerspaces – and in some cases, carving out space and buying 3D printers. While I think that 3D printers are amazing for specific purposes (like making teeth), I’m afraid a lot of them are used for churning out cheap plastic junk. They may serve as an introduction to design and robotics, which is not to be discounted…but I think the repair cafe/fixit clinic idea is so much more useful. After all, learning a skill comes easier when you have a purpose: learning a coding language, for example, will probably be a wasted effort unless there’s something you want to make with it.
In this scenario, a broken item – lamp, toaster, necklace, scooter – provides motivation for learning, the library provides space and coordinates the event, and the Repair Cafe or Fixit Clinic provides the volunteers (who may bring the tools of their trade with them). In the AL article, Cottrell writes, “The goal of the U-Fix-It Clinic [is] allowing people to repair broken items instead of throwing them away, but also inspiring them to learn more about the products they consume and how they work. The event is part of a larger movement across the globe working to help keep broken items out of landfills and revive the lost art of repair.”
Knowing how things work – and how to go about fixing them – is empowering; it’s useful knowledge. In a piece for WGBH, “‘Fixit Clinics’ Help People Revive Their Broken Items,” Tina Martin interviewed the founder of Fixit Clinics, MIT grad Peter Mui, who said, “There’s a sense that [people] don’t have a choice when something breaks, there’s no repair people left anymore to fix this stuff.”
Mui wrote a guest blog post on ifixit.org, saying, “Once people start repairing, they start asking questions like ‘What went wrong?’, ‘Can it be fixed?’, and ‘How might it have been designed differently to avoid breaking in the first place?’ That last question is where we’re ultimately going with Fixit Clinic: to encourage products designed with maintenance, serviceability, and repairability in mind.”
As the things we use on a daily basis have become more complex (sometimes by necessity, sometimes not), design has become more opaque. I often think of Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things while I’m working at the reference desk, explaining the “hamburger menu” to a patron, or helping them locate the miniscule, hidden power button on our new laptops. They often apologize, and I tell them it’s not their fault – it’s poor design. But as more and more of our things have microchips inside them, instead of parts we can see and tinker with, we’ve forgotten how to open things up and explore; we’ve given up on figuring out how things work – or why they stop working.
The mentality behind the Repair Cafe and the Fixit Clinic addresses these problems in a tremendously useful way. The Repair Cafe “About” page explains, “We throw away vast amounts of stuff….The trouble is, lots of people have forgotten that they can repair things themselves or they no longer know how. Knowing how to make repairs is a skill quickly lost. Society doesn’t always show much appreciation for the people who still have this practical knowledge, and against their will they are often left standing on the sidelines.”
The Fixit Clinic’s mission has similar themes: “Fixit Clinic conveys basic disassembly, troubleshooting, and repair skills using peoples’ own broken things as the vehicle. By sharing these skills while transferring them to others we teach critical thinking through the lens of our relationship to consumption and sustainability. We strive to demystify science and technology so that we can ultimately make better policy choices as a society.”
A community learning experience that brings people together to share skills and tools, and repair items that would otherwise end up in landfills and be replaced with new things: this is a perfect program for libraries to host. The Cambridge Public Library has partnered with the Repair Cafe in Cambridge already; I’d love for our library to do this as well, and I’m keeping the idea on the back burner. (The front burners are already occupied: I’ve just launched a cookbook club this fall, which is wonderful but a lot of work. If only we had more staff…)