Access Space FAQ

What can I do here?

  • Learn the basics of free computing in an informal, relaxed environment. Gain transferable skills and break down your barriers to technology.
  • Create and exhibit artworks in Access Space and online, and develop new creative projects that we haven't even imagined!
  • Learn how to repair, maintain and upgrade computers.
  • Find out about the world of free, open source software. Learn how to install, configure and run free software on Linux, the free operating system.
  • Learn advanced skills like programming, 3D graphics and network administration.
  • Start your own creative project, online or in real life, for fun or for profit.
  • Help us as a volunteer - we have a range of roles from peer mentors to web developers to computer recyclers.

Who can take part?

You! Anyone can come and use the lab to develop new skills, pursue creative projects and participate in the community. Our participants range in age from 4 to 74, come from all sorts of backgrounds, and have a wide range of skill levels.

When Is Access Space open?

Access Space is open 11.00am-7.00pm, Tuesday-Saturday, throughout the year. We close for two weeks over Christmas and the New Year.

This “summer” we will be limiting our opening times while we carry out some maintenance, and generally have a bit of a rest. From the week commencing Monday 5 August, we will only be opening Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. This will be the case until the end of August.

What does it cost?

Taking part is free, but the community won't work without your help. We don't want your cash - we want your participation!

Who runs Access Space?

Access Space is run by “Access Space Network”, a UK registered charity with three principal themes: The Arts, Education and Urban Regeneration. We believe that nobody should be locked out of the opportunity to use digital technologies to learn, express themselves and gain new opportunities.

What arts activities do you run - and why?

We support arts workshops, performances, exhibitions and visiting artists. The amazing things you'll see and hear at Access Space may inspire you to discover new things, learn more skills and to express yourself in your own way. If you have an idea for an arts project in the space, talk to us!

Who will teach me?

You! Access Space isn't a typical education project, with tutors and learners - but that doesn't mean you won't learn. We all learn from each other. You're welcome to ask anyone in the space for help - and they'll be happy to spend a few minutes pointing you in the right direction if they know. But remember, what goes around, comes around - people may ask you for help - and if you can, you must!

How can I help?

Even if you don't know about computers, you do know other things. Access Space isn't just about technology - it's about anything creative that you can do for yourself. Your ideas could be really helpful to someone else. We'd like you to pitch in however you can - by advising other participants if they're stuck, inspiring people with your creative projects, welcoming newcomers, rebuilding computers, tidying up, and generally being friendly.

Where do I start?

First up, we suggest you log in and familiarise yourself with the computer system. This may take you a few minutes, or an hour or so. If you're a beginner we'll introduce you to another participant or a volunteer that can help you.

Next, have a think about constructive things you could do at Access Space. When you're ready to get started with creating, learning or building, tell us about it, and we'll know what sort of help and resources you need. You may want to fill in a card for our “skill wall” - tell people what you already know and what you want to find out.

What resources can you offer?

As well as your own login name and desktop for the network, we can give you web space for you to publish your own online project. If you like we can help you to register a web domain name and set up an email address.

You're also welcome to user the “Spacers” wiki system (, which allows you to publish documents and pictures very quickly and easily. Of course, there are lots of computers for you to rebuild and experiment with. But the most important resource of Access Space is you, and the other people that participate. Your willingness to share ideas, inspiration and knowhow is what makes the space work.

What is in the lab itself?

The lab provides a network of recycled computers which run the latest open source software. We continuously monitor, improve and upgrade the network with computers kindly donated by local people and businesses. At any one moment there are at least ten workstations available for participants. Each network user has their own password, and their own desktop space to save their projects. We have more than 750 registered users (but not all of them come in each week!). The computers run the Linux operating system and a suite of powerful, open source software. Access Space also provides web server space for participants that want to create their own online projects. We now host more than 250 web servers online.

Would You Like My Old PC?

If your PC belongs to a private individual, then yes, we'd be delighted if you'd like to give us your old PC. We'll try our best to reuse it, either whole, or in parts, at Access Space, or in another non-profit, public interest context. However, you should be aware of some caveats.

  • Unfortunately, we won't be able to collect it from you. If we did this, we wouldn't have time to do anything else!
  • If you bring us a screen we'll ask you for a contribution towards recycling costs. Typically, this is £5. Because screens have lots of toxic material in them, they're expensive for us to recycle .
  • If you have more than two or three items, you may want to phone us first.
  • If your PC belongs to a business then you should get it recycled by Lowtech Ltd (our friendly PC recycler) or by another PC recycler. We can give you advice on this. Please call!

Why does Access Space use Linux and Free, Open Source Software?

We like to share. All the software we use is free. This means that you are welcome to copy the software we use and use it yourself, for any purpose: at home, in education, in the community or in business.

Linux works well. The Linux operating system is incredibly versatile and looks very similar to other operating systems like Windows or MacOS. It is just as easy to use. It's also very compatible - it reads and writes the files that you'll be familiar with, like Microsoft Office documents and Photoshop pictures. The version of Linux we use provides a suite of powerful applications programs, including office software, graphics software, network software and much more.

We don't like viruses. Open source software is constantly being improved - much more quickly than with commercial software. Consequently it's very safe from bugs and viruses.

We like recycling. Linux is roughly twice as efficient as Windows, so we can run the latest version on machines that are three, four or more years old. This means we can use recycled hardware - which is cheaper and greener.

We don't like limits. We may want to tinker with our software, change its functions, or even start new businesses based on our new versions. Windows and MacOS don't allow you to do that.

We don't like fees. The idea of paying some of the richest companies in the world (that aren't even based in this region) for the tools to work, learn and create, and empower ourselves with skills to regenerate the city just doesn't sit well with us. We invest in IT by expanding our knowhow, not expanding their bank balances.

Does Access Space Work With Other Organisations?

Yes! Access Space is keen to develop partnerships with other charitable and public interest organisations. We've already had lots of experience in this area.

Access Space is enthusiastic to develop links with other community computer labs - particularly if they're struggling to renew their computers. Why pay for new computers when you can recycle locally, or re-use the computers that you already have? It's greener, and cheaper, and if you take the right approach, it can provide the very latest software and skills.

What Organisations Have You Worked With?

  • We've worked with eight community arts organisations across the UK, showing them how they can adopt our sustainable way of working, combining free, recycled computers and free, open source software with a creative, community based, peer-to-peer learning system. This project, called Grow Your Own Media Lab was funded by the Arts Council. Organisations we've worked with include The Media Shed in Southend, Folly in Lancaster and Futuresonic in Manchester.
  • As part of our Community Learning Programme, funded by the Big Lottery, we're working with community organisations in Sheffield to raise awareness of free, open-source software and computer re-use. We've worked with The Broomhall Centre, Sheffield Home Educators Network and Art in The Park.
  • We've developed and deliver OCN level 2 accredited short courses in free, open source software. We can deliver these in partnership with any OCN provider - recently we've run these courses at SPAT-C and The Sheffield College.
  • We've helped women to get involved with information technology skills, running “Computer Knowhow for Women” courses in partnership with South Yorkshire Women's Development Trust.
  • In Sheffield, we've helped media training provider SHIFT and the St. Aiden's Centre to build their own free software labs.

Open Source Software FAQ

What is software?

Software is the collective name for the tools you use to get jobs done with a computer. It encompasses obvious tools, like Photoshop and Word, which are called “applications programs”, and less obvious tools, like the things that move the mouse pointer, make the “start” menu, and create the icons on your desktop.

Those less obvious pieces of software are bundled together into an “operating system” - which is all the utilities you need to get your computer going and manage your desktop, and your files, but excluding any tools to do more complex work.

What is “Source Code”?

All this software is a little bit like food - there's the recipe, and the cooked meal. The recipe is called the “source code” - it's the part of the thing that allows you to see how it really works - you can even tinker with the source code, the way you can add new ingredients to a recipe, and cook your own meal!

How does the software industry work?

Usually, computer users have nothing to do with the source code. When you get a new copy of Windows you get the “object code” - the executable programs which you get to run. Meanwhile, Microsoft keeps the “source code” as their secret. In the normal run of things this seems to be fine, because you don't do computer programming - you just want to run programs - and quite right, too!

However, what this also means is that only your software supplier knows how your software really works - and if you want a new version, you have to go to them, and them alone. You can eat the Colonel's fried chicken, but you'll never know the secret blend of herbs and spices!

What does “Open Source” mean?

“Open Source” is a particular way of publishing software which requires that the source code is freely available to everyone. If you eat the meal, you have a right to have the recipe. It's a bit like home cooking - and as lots of people are starting to realise that just as home-cooked food is better for you than junk food, open source software is better for your computer than proprietary, “closed source” software.

Crucially, with an open source licence, you, the user, acquire the right to pass the software on to anyone else. So even if you've bought the software, you can give it to your friends.

Does it work with Microsoft Windows & Apple operating systems?

Yes. Many applications programs, such as the “OpenOffice” office suite, the “Firefox” web browser and is available for the Mac and Windows. As well as installing applications on your existing operating system, there is a whole open source operating system available, called “Linux”, which can substitute entirely for Windows or MacOS.

Who makes Open Source software?

Anyone can take the source code and make a new version of open source software and sell it or give it away themselves. In practice, this is a highly complex process, but even so there are thousands of open source software developers across the world, and new versions are emerging all the time. They include non-profits, academic institutions, volunteer groups and commercial companies.

Why do they bother to improve a free product?

Organisations improve and publish Open Source Software not because they want to sell it, but because they want to use it themselves. This means that the features they add tend to be useful, not just eye candy to help with sales. Many improvements increase efficiency or security and are quite invisible to the end user. So while Linux software can look clunky compared to Windows or MacOS, it tends to be more efficient.

Lots of companies make money out of using or supporting open source software - some charge to install networks, or provide support contracts, or something else, like advertising. Open source software powers Google - and they make lots of money!

I don't make computer programs, so why is this relevant to me?

  • Open Source Software is usually completely free.
  • The Open Source desktop is just as easy to use as Windows or MacOS. Some usability studies suggest it's actually easier!
  • New versions of it are becoming available all the time. They're free too.
  • A recent government report has concluded that, because open source software tends to include useful updates, not silly extras, open source software is more efficient and can double the working life of your computers.
  • Open Source Software is very resistant to viruses, to which Windows is very vulnerable. At Access Space we've never had an OSS virus.
  • Lots of different companies and organisations make and distribute open source software, so you'll never be relying on one supplier.
  • Recently the software has been widely adopted: it's in use by Google, IBM, NASA, The European Space Agency, The Scottish Police Service, Munich City Council, Birmingham City Council, The Indian Government, The European Union, The Chinese Government, the Brazilian Government and many, many more.

Where can I learn more about Open Source software?

There are a huge number of information resources on the web - but why not start close to home? Access Space has been using Open Source Software for more than eight years - making us a very early adopter of the fastest-growing type of software on the internet.


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