By Peter Nomeland
|Carolyn Bishoff, who has been with the Toaster since the very beginning, is transitioning to a role as a Liaison Librarian within the University of Minnesota Libraries. As the Innovation Lead, Carolyn has been the Libraries entrepreneur and curator of makerspaces since 2018. We’ll miss her very much at the Toaster! We sat down with Carolyn to ask her a few questions about her time here.|
Tell us a little bit about the beginnings of the Toaster and how you got involved
I got involved in the Breakerspace around the time it opened in late 2017. It was originally in a repurposed classroom on the 2nd floor of Walter Library. At first, I didn’t know how to use any of the equipment. I had never 3D printed anything, much less used a Cricut or the embroidery machine. I taught “3D Printing for Beginners” when I was a beginner myself! I also taught cross-stitching and knitting workshops.
I became the Breakerspace lead about a year after it opened. It was a crash course in community building, placemaking, visual communication, and of course, 3D printer repair! I made a practice of constantly collecting feedback from student users and folding it back into the space. I was lucky to have a team of folks (coworkers and student volunteers) who also loved the Breakerspace and helped me give it a heart and a soul.
The Breakerspace moved to the Toaster in February 2020. My job was to make sure the Breakerspace’s new home had everything it needed to sustain and grow. I had a LOT of meetings about tables, shelves, and where pegboards would go. Unfortunately, our big move and the Toaster opening coincided with a global pandemic! We came back together about a year later and got things rolling again. The Toaster has been one of the most interesting projects I’ve ever worked on, and I’m so grateful to have been a small part of it.
What were some of the initial challenges in opening and developing the space?
The Breakerspace was hard to find! It was off the beaten path on the second floor of Walter, so our team went into overdrive with promotions, events, and activities. We hosted over 30 workshops each semester to introduce folks to the basic equipment and technology. The most popular ones were 3D Printing for Beginners, Knitting and Crochet Meetup, Bullet Journaling, and Podcasting 101. Students were also asked to run their own workshops. At different times students ran a queer sewing circle, a biweekly zine-making meetup, and an avocado seed carving workshop. We set them up with supplies and helped promote the events.
I want any student, no matter their major, skill level, or ability to feel comfortable using the space. This is a challenge because people have all sorts of prior experiences and assumptions about makerspaces (it’s only for STEM majors, I don’t know how to use the equipment, so I’m not welcome). I focused on three things. 1) Make the space a comfortable, functional, and joyful place that people want to spend time in, 2) Give folks lots of opportunities to learn at their own speed, and 3) Be a responsive but unobtrusive observer of how people interacted with the space, noticing where there was the ease of use and where users encountered friction.
Everything in the space was free to use from day one and still is. We intentionally invested in equipment that was easy to teach and maintain. We also prioritized student suggestions and ideas for the space. Every semester our team would get together, order lunch, and do a big space update based on our observations. We added new materials from student requests, rearranged furniture, and implemented what we learned from our users. I was lucky to lead a team of creative and enthusiastic folks who were willing to experiment and learn with me!
My guiding philosophy as we developed the Breakerspace is that every user matters, and we build a community one person at a time. That means we have one shot with every person that enters our space. If we blow it, we’ll probably never see them again. If we do it right, hopefully, they’ll come back. They might even bring their friends.
What do you think a space like this does for a student community like the University of Minnesota?
There aren’t a lot of places where you can spend time for free outside of home, class, or work. It’s even harder to find a place where you can learn, explore, and make things for free! I love that the Holmes Center and the Libraries came together as partners because the library is one of those places for students. I hope that the Toaster and the Breakerspace have been a creative oasis for the UMN student community. I’ve seen lots of projects that inspire me, but it’s the simplest observations — students repairing backpacks, glasses, and clothes; friends coming together to make bracelets after a long week — that stick in my mind. I think having a space that celebrates all forms of creativity is really special for students. Sometimes you want to launch a business idea, and sometimes you want to make stickers for your student group! The fact that both things can happen in this space (and everything in between) is wild to me and such an amazing resource for students.
What is your favorite thing to do in the Toaster?
Honestly, I love teaching more than making anything myself. My favorite is teaching 3D Printing for Beginners. 3D printing seems like sorcery at first. But you can give people the key to a whole world of creativity with a 45-minute workshop and a little bit of time answering questions. It’s gratifying to pull back the curtain and show how easy the process really is. And being able to say “it’s all free!” is icing on the cake.
What is your favorite memory from your time at the Toaster?
The first Welcome Week after the long Covid year. When Covid shut down the UMN campus, we had to close the Breakerspace and stop all in-person workshops. It was heartbreaking to see the Breakerspace empty and all the equipment locked away. That first Welcome Week back had the best energy. It was raining outside, but we gave Toaster tours all day. We had tons of new students come for an interest session and stay to knit, fold origami, or just sit with their group and work on coloring sheets. It was delightful!