At the Makerspace Urbana Help Desk, You Have to Help, Too

This is the second in a series of posts profiling fixing communities around the globe—see our profile of the New York Fixers Collective here. Collaborative repair communities help make repair more visible and accessible. If you know of any fixing communities, send me an email and encourage them to make an iFixit Teams page.

Collaborative repair communities pop up in all kinds of locations: sometimes they’re in art galleries. Sometimes they’re in schools. And sometimes they’re part of larger makerspaces or hackerspaces—after all, fixing, creating, and modding share similar goals.

Fixing a computer at MakerSpace UrbanaMakerspace Urbana has a free community computer help desk, staffed entirely by volunteers who help people fix their stuff themselves. In some ways, the phrases “help desk” and “fixing community” seem contradictory—help desks are often top-down, Genius Bar-style places where customers bring in broken electronics and wait while an expert fixes their stuff. The help desk at Makerspace Urbana subverts this model by requiring that everyone who comes to the desk help with their own repair.

I spoke with Makerspace Urbana volunteer Brian Duggan recently, and he explained how he and other volunteers make the repair experience more communal:

We have a few rules at the help desk that are designed to get users involved. The first is that volunteers don’t work on a computer without the user present. Second, the volunteer encourages the user to “drive.” The volunteer can usually help users navigate their own computer and find the right setting or the button to click to run a virus scan. Even when the user can’t take control, they usually watch the volunteer perform actions on their computer.

Most of the users I helped this way took on many tasks themselves after they saw the process I was about to follow (either a repair manual or If the user doesn’t jump in immediately, they usually just need an invitation: “can you hold this bracket while I unmount it?” or “can you help me keep these screws in order?” Volunteers also much appreciate the help. LCD replacements go much faster with four hands!

When it’s time for the soldering iron to come out, we ask that users sit tight and watch, though.

(We don’t think soldering needs to be solely the purview of the “experts,” for the record. We teach people to solder every day.)

Some of the volunteers have extensive repair experience—Brian began working with the group as an AmeriCorps volunteer after developing software for a few years and doing Mac support while getting his computer science degree. Barry Todd, another organizer of the group, repaired PCs professionally for many years and is a Windows, home media, and home network expert.

But other volunteers learned about electronics repair less formally. Some are students at UIUC, the local university. Some, Brian says, “are local youth that we mentored. Some are other AmeriCorps members. And some are users that originally came to the help desk for support, but came back to volunteer and to learn more.”

Makerspace Urbana is located in Studio 16 of the Urbana Post Office. The computer repair help desk is open Tuesdays from 3-5 and Sundays from 2-4. Here is their iFixit Team page.