Year-round, Harvard’s libraries offer hundreds of research tools. But at least once a semester, they break out a different kind of “toolbox” to host a Fix-it Clinic at Cabot Science Library. Students, staff, and members of the public bring stopped clocks, staticky headphones, clogged vacuum cleaners, clothing with stuck zippers, and computers flashing error messages.
Community members and library staff serve as volunteer coaches, working on each item as they talk their respective owners through what they’re doing. They don’t guarantee a fix; instead, they’re focused on community-building and collective learning of how things work, said Technology Specialist for Libraries Susan Berstler.
“Fix-it Clinics are a small but important step toward reducing the amount of waste we create,” Berstler said. “The coaches teach critical thinking skills and hands-on engineering skills that are useful for Harvard students and campus neighbors alike. Perhaps most importantly, they inspire people to at least try a repair before throwing an item away.”
Amy Van Epps, Harvard Library’s director of Science and Engineering Services and a volunteer coach for the Fix-it Clinics, said she enjoys being able to interact with members of the public alongside the typical Harvard library users.
“It’s fun to see the students come in, and also to see people we wouldn’t typically see,” Van Epps said. “With community members, this is a way to let them know there are things at Harvard that are open to them.”
The concept of the Fix-it Clinic was created over a decade ago by MIT alum Peter Mui. Since then, the clinics have popped up all over the country, and are especially popular at public libraries. Harvard adopted the concept five years ago, when Berstler began running Fix-it Clinics out of the Cabot Science Library in collaboration with the Harvard Recycling & Surplus Center.
“The former head of Recycling Services came to me with the idea, and it really felt like something that fits with Cabot’s identity,” Berstler said. “As a library, we’ve always had a focus on wellness and DIY, and that element only increased after the 2017 renovation.”
The Harvard Fix-it Clinics have been going strong since 2018, holding at least one event a semester. They even continued virtually through Harvard’s year of remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While that allowed for participants far beyond the Cambridge area, it also eliminated the hands-on aspect of the event — which made things tricky, Berstler said.
“Picture being in a Zoom room with 10 people looking at an electrical component of a stove in England,” she said, adding that she was glad to return to in-person events last fall. This spring, they hosted their first Harvard Fix-it Clinic at the new Science and Engineering Complex in Allston.
Berstler attends all the Harvard-based clinics, as does Dailey Brannin, Harvard Recycling Services supervisor. They have many regular volunteers from around the community, as well as library staff members.