Fix It at the Library with DIY Repair Programs

Making is all the rage in libraries nowadays. But what if you want to fix something that's broken? Repair programs are an opportunity to teach patrons new skills while fixing technology, electronics, clothing, and other household items. Repair programs also help reduce waste by fixing items that would otherwise be thrown away.

These programs can be a great way to engage new community partners and volunteers, and they have proven successful in libraries in the United States and Canada.

At our November webinar, we heard from two repair programs taking place in libraries. Katrina Doktor shared her experience at the Brampton Library (Ontario, Canada), where she has helped to coordinate several RepairCafés over the past year in partnership with a local college. Maia Coladonato shared her experience leading the Mountain View Repair Café (California), which is entirely volunteer run. She had previously offered two programs in partnership with the Sunnyvale Public Library. Both of these are examples of Cafés, which are part of an international network of community-driven free programs.

What Is a Repair Café?

The Repair Café movement was started in 2009 by Martine Postma in an effort to organize locally around the idea of sustainability. The first Repair Café was held in Amsterdam, but since then the idea has spread around the world, with over 1,200 locations. The Repair Café Foundation provides support to Repair Café locations through a digital starter kit. Cafés are locally organized and run by volunteers who provide free repair services and instruction as a service to the community. Cafés do not compete with local repair shops and often do not have professional repair specialists.

From Makerspace to Repair Program

At the Brampton Library, their Repair Café grew out of their makerspace. It provided a unique opportunity for those who wanted not only to create new things but also to repair old things. Katrina described several criteria they used to determine if a repair program was a good fit for their makerspace and library. It turned out that the program idea met all of these criteria, and they were able to move forward with the program.

  • Would it be hands-on?
  • Would it help participants better understand how things were made?
  • Would it teach STEM skills (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics)?
  • Would it make people curious?
  • Would it be creative?
  • Would it encourage collaboration?
  • Would it be inclusive and accessible?

Volunteers help participants repair an item at the Repair Café at the Brampton Library.

Volunteers help participants repair an item at the Repair Café at the Brampton Library.

The Brampton Library repair program was offered in conjunction with the local Sheridan Community College, but all events have been held at the library. They have fixed items from bikes to breadmakers and have utilized maker technology like 3D printers to fabricate specialized parts for a variety of items. One of the primary appeals of the Repair Café at the Brampton Library is that it is a program in their makerspace that is not just "making for making's sake." Additionally, the fixing is collaborative and involves shared learning experiences. As Katrina said, "It's not just a repair service. … Often the fixer and the participant, and perhaps even a couple fixers, will all work together to figure out a problem."

Community/Library Partnership Opportunities

In Mountain View, the Repair Café has been a community-driven effort, started in 2013 by Maia Coladonato. Maia was drawn to the idea because of a passion for sustainability and a desire to organize and give back to the community. She cited that in 2014, Californians discarded 31.2 million tons of garbage. As a Repair Café organizer, Maia sought out various partners and venues to host the event. She found one partner in the neighboring city of Sunnyvale at the Sunnyvale Public Library. The library made an excellent partner because they already had a community space to offer. The library also hosted the Living Green Fair, which was in line with the Repair Café mission and values.

The Mountain View Repair Café has had many success stories, and they celebrate success by ringing a bell every time an item is repaired. They bring in young "fixers" as apprentices, which deepens community engagement. And they celebrate "graduates" once they have successfully learned to fix an item on their own. The Mountain View Repair Café sees participants of all ages and is proud to foster a younger generation of fixers into the future. When it comes to partnership with the library, Maia pointed out that the library "has and can expand resources for both makers and fixers."

Fixers at the Mountain View Repair Café successfully helped fix a robotic toy for a young participant.

Fixers at the Mountain View Repair Café successfully helped fix a robotic toy for a young participant.

Alternatives to the Repair Café Model

The Repair Café is not the only option for libraries. The Fixers Collective is a local club in Brooklyn that hosts some events at the Brooklyn Public Library. The Arlington Public Library (Virginia) hosts a program called the Make/Fix Anything Project out of their makerspace. Nonprofit Technology Resources, a computer refurbisher and job skills training provider, hosts a program called Bring a Computer, Ask a Question, which could also be replicated in a library setting.

This post provides only a brief overview of the information Katrina and Maia shared about repair programs in libraries. Watch the entire webinar here.

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