More than one member of the Hackaday team has significant involvement in a hackspace, as member, director, or even founder. We talk about hackspaces quite rarely on these pages though, not because we don’t have anything to say on the matter but because even when we write in general terms our fellow members invariably think it’s all about them rather than the hackspace world at large.
For once I’m going to break the silence, and not only talk about hackspaces, but talk about my own hackspace in specific terms. Because, fellow Oxford Hackspace members, this isn’t about you personally though I’m using our home to illustrate a point. The topic is a thorny issue that must affect all spaces, that of donations of physical items. People want to help their hackspace, they have a pile of what they consider to be good stuff, and when they’re having a clear-out they make a donation. But, as we all know, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” and vice-versa.
As a space, we’ve received a lot of donations over the years, and for various different reasons. Since we’re in a university city, we’ve been the recipient of more than one item formerly used in a laboratory, but we’ve also taken in things donated from the estate of someone deceased, and of course we’ve received a huge amount of stuff from members.
Some of the items have limited use, but are appreciated as curios. For example, the MakerBot Cupcake 3D printer (more of a permanent loan from a member than a donation) is a fully functional 3D printer, but as a comprehensively outdated machine with a relatively tiny print bed and rather poor software support it’s not a machine that sees much use. But it’s a talking point, and serves as a good illustration of progress in 3D printing. And it plays the Imperial March much more loudly than other printers when you hook it up to that software that plays music on 3D printer stepper motors.
Other donations have proven extremely useful, and enable all members of the space to work on their projects. The mass of beautiful tools we received after the death of a member’s elderly relative who had spent a lifetime scratch-building model railways for example, or the sewing machines that allow us to have multiple projects under way at once in our textile room. These are the donations that take our space forward, and make it a better place.
A lot of our donations are good things that have a use, but might not necessarily find that use. For example, boxes of surplus electronic components, a box of low-powered lasers and optical parts, the various conference badge boards and random other electronic assemblies that have found their way into our electronics stock, or one of our largest donations, a set of interactive whiteboards from a school that was undergoing refurbishment. It was in a discussion of this last item that we found the issue that prompted the line of thought that led to this piece, because in some ways we have a problem.
All hackspaces have a junk pile of some sort. Somewhere in which items of tech or maker significance are put when it’s time to get rid of them. Some spaces have a rigidly organised timing system, in which items move from a “3 months” bin, to a “2 months” bin, to a “1 month” bin, to eventual disposal. In our case in Oxford it’s still a little more anarchic, we have a bin that gets gone through and emptied from time to time. We’ll no doubt adopt something more robust as we grow.
It’s easy to get rid of a piece of junk. This motherboard is dead, it gets thrown in the junk bin. Someone robs it of a socket or a magnetic while it’s there, eventually it gets disposed of. But when the item that’s been cluttering up the space is a donation, things get a little more difficult. It’s tied to a person, a fellow member, and if you throw it out then feelings will be inevitably hurt. In the herding-cats environment of a typical hackspace management then it’s more likely that the item will be left to gather dust. Someone else’s problem, deal with it another day.
Not a problem if it’s a small box of bits, but not all donations are so convenient. Take those interactive whiteboards I mentioned. They’re something close to a huge wall-mounted trackpad, originally used with a ceiling-mounted projector. You can hook them up to a computer USB or traditional serial port and use them as a mouse. Awesome! you say, think of the things you could do with one of them! But the reality is that nobody has done anything with them in the couple of years that we’ve had them, and they take up rather a lot of space.Eventually they’ll become a sore point, and there will no doubt be the need for some extremely delicate diplomacy so soothe ruffled feathers as we decide their fate.
Every hackspace seems to pass through an uncannily similar set of experiences in its gestation from group of like minds meeting in a pub, into large and well equipped space with huge membership. We’re probably at the mid-sized stage now, having been going a few years and with a healthy membership count with room for improvement. We’ve then reached the stage of learning about how to handle donations, and no doubt as time goes by we’ll be a bit more careful about what we take on board. Or maybe, just maybe, we’ll find a use for those interactive whiteboards!
Does your space have an issue with donations? How did you deal with it?
[Jenny List] is a director of Oxford Hackspace.
Thanks to [Jamie] for the idea.