Mission creep – a 3D printer will not save your library

So you think your library needs a 3D printer. You’re going to be modern, ahead of the curve, futuristic, not-your-mother’s-library. Congratulations. But why exactly is it appropriate for a library service to provide 3D printing?

Cargo cults and technolust

“We have 2D printers, 3D printers are just the next step” you say? Not so fast. Printing and copying in two dimensions is about making a copy of the information. Librarians have spent the last decade talking about how it’s all about content, but three dimensional products are not content, they are containers. Whilst containers are important for the dissemination of information, they are only of concern to libraries for this reason – not in of themselves. If 3D printing was truly a useful technology for libraries, there would be serious  articles about the potential for information storage, discovery and dissemination. What the blogs, tweets and presentations of 3D printing enthusiasts are filled with is mostly stories about 3D printers that print in chocolate. Well, whoopee.

The harsh truth is that there is no business case for public libraries to provide 3D printing. What this is really about is technolust and the fear of being left behind. How many of the librarians clamouring for 3D printers currently provide their patrons with laundry facilities? Sawmills? Smelting furnaces? Loans of cars or whisky stills? I’m guessing none. All these services would be justifiable on the same grounds used to justify 3D printing – individuals would find the service useful, currently they are expensive to buy or rent commercially, and potentially they could be helpful to productivity and the economy. They are also nothing to do with the core business of libraries. As Brett Bonfield reminded us in July last year, when you confuse form with function it is easy to create a Cargo Cult instead of innovation.

Libraries could provide any number of services that look a bit like our core business, but librarians need to ensure that they understand why they are providing them and what the ramifications are. Yes, libraries provide access to information sources and creation tools that can be expensive to individuals, but that doesn’t mean that loaning or providing access to things that are expensive is what libraries are for. You might lend out ‘Guns of the world’, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to lend out a community gun. Your 3D printer might be used to make chocolate bunnies, or prototypes for local entrepreneurs, but what will your policy be on people printing dildos? (possibly NSFW).

Messing around with 3D printing is not a feature of modernity. It is a symbol of failure.

So Hot Right Now

As librarians we deal with intangibles. Tying your library to something like a 3D printer moves you in the wrong direction. It moves you towards manufacturing physical products. It leads you to the tangible – that’s not your job. It is the concept of the intangible that connects all the objects librarians have traditionally dealt with- books, records, photographs, magnetic tape and compact discs. It is this tradition of dealing with the intangible that makes librarianship such an exciting profession right now. Far from being a time of crisis, the times suit us. That’s why Forbes reports that Library Science is a really hot degree right now – pointing out that librarians should be good at data-mining and market research. Dr Alex Byrne, State Librarian of New South Wales, notes that Google has ‘turned people on to information’ like never before. Indeed, what’s holding back many libraries and librarians may well be a stubborn attachment to the physical. Once you start (honestly and wholeheartedly) thinking about ‘the library’ as a service rather than a place, opportunities abound. Betsy Wilson from the University of Washington has called this the ‘Flipped Library’.

The flipped library is why people like Tim Sherratt and Mitchell Whitelaw are the talk of library conferences and Twitter feeds lately, with their work on data visualisation and Australian History. It’s why you need to know about the new publishing project that Wired called ‘entirely Revolutionary’ and the potential of a product like Broadcastr for oral history. And it’s why the State Library of Queensland has created a mobile app called ‘Floodlines’ – an interactive exploration of the Brisbane River floods in 2010-11 using flood map data to create 3D models.

We’re living in a world where university scholars are in open revolt against Academic publishers and now publish papers and journals under open access rules. Where the very nature of those academic papers and books is in question, and projects like Pressbooks make it easier than ever for authors to self-publish and distribute works on the open web. There has never been so much to read. There has never been so much metadata. There has never been such an abundance of information, ideas and stories. It’s not enough any more for information to be organised – it needs to be made available in new and meaningful ways. It needs to be communicated and curated. After all, aggregation-only is just info vomit.

Projects like these take a lot more effort and thought than buying a new piece of equipment like a 3D printer. They require time and the learning of new skills. Much of it will be tedious background work before the exciting front-facing tools reveal themselves. If that  all sounds too hard, maybe you should be worried about your job after all.

55 thoughts on “Mission creep – a 3D printer will not save your library

  1. Pingback: Mission creep, hi-tech , another year to re-evaluate | the KSS Learning Commons

  2. Pingback: Mission Creep? Libraries and 3D Printers? What? | LiterateOwl

  3. I’m on the planning committee for LITA Forum 2013 and we expect makerspaces to be big (we reference them explicitly in our Call for Proposals); wanna propose a contrarian talk? Alternate perspectives & open debate are fun! http://litablog.org/2012/10/lita-forum-2013-call-for-proposals/

    I have no idea whether getting you from Australia to the USA (Kentucky) is feasible, but I’d be happy to advocate for your being able to do a talk via Skype or similar if we accept the proposal.

    (obligatory disclaimer, I speak for myself, not the committee as a whole)

    • Skype might be the only way I get out of the room alive 🙂 Not sure I’m passionate enough for that, but I’ll consider it. The responses (here and elsewhere) have certainly brought up a lot of interesting questions!

      • Hey, it’s not a successful conference without a risk of SOMEone getting thrown to the sharks, right?

        Hm. Perhaps I shouldn’t be the one writing the evaluation forms. Nonetheless, I believe in healthy and spirited debate.

  4. Pingback: Round up | Alan Gibbons' Diary

  5. Pingback: Library News Round-up: 2nd January 2013 | The Library Campaign

  6. Ok, I’ll bite. Libraries are not about the intangible, they’re about the combination of the intangible and the physical. They should be providing not just ebooks, but print-on-demand ebooks for people who need physical copies. A proper print-on-demand service, that could (for example) produce large fonts on request for the short sighted. Of course that implies that if they do have a 3d printer they should also curate a library of 3d designs for people to print. It’s the combination of virtual and physical that is the foundation; but if you want to ‘flip’ that and make your collection of 3d designs available to the world, why not..

    • Or even better, you see that the coding and building of the design mods for 3D printing are the research skills folks are bringing to the 3D printer. Certainly, libraries of AUTOCAD schemas created by users are wonderful ( I always wish we had more created work in our collections and on display!)

      But the thing is this 9and I;m an academic librarian, so keep that in mind!) The 3D object is, to my mind, the parallel to the written paper (printed out), to the powerpoint deck, to the uploaded video. It is the final product of research and knowledge and skill and talent, made manifest.

      How does that not have a place in the library?

      • Because that’s what museums are for. That’s why I called this post ‘mission creep’. I don’t think 3D printers aren’t wonderful, I just question whether they’re a solution looking for a problem when it comes to public libraries. (and note I’m talking publics here, I think the argument for 3D printing in academic environments is strong).

        Nobody is clamouring for something manufactured in a big factory in Shenzen to be included in library collections, so why is it different when it is manufactured by a 3D printer?

        The point about 3D designs is really what I’m trying to get at. I think a library of 3D design files is a great idea – Griffey gives us some examples below. Let’s talk about what value librarians can add in terms of making those design files easily findable, searchable and editable for people. Once we work that out we can start talking about printers in libraries.

  7. Pingback: New Debate: 3D printing – is it for libraries? – Stephen's Lighthouse

  8. Nicely said, but you probably knew I’d have a few bones to pick. 🙂 First up!

    “Librarians have spent the last decade talking about how it’s all about content, but three dimensional products are not content, they are containers.”

    I’d love for the artists, chemists, geneticists, anatomists, and mathematicians to know that they aren’t printing content. Visualization of abstract ideas _is_ content. It’s the production of content to be able to hold objects that you created.

    With that said, obviously 3D printing isn’t for every public library. No technology is for every public library. That’s because technology is a tool that serves a use-case. Public libraries should serve their patrons, and the patrons they wish to attract. 3D printers shouldn’t be everywhere right now. But they will eventually be far more ubiquitous, as the technology becomes cheaper and cheaper.

    I won’t argue with your list of things that are more important than 3D printing for libraries…you’re totally right. 🙂

    • Well I was hoping 🙂

      You’re right of course. Those examples you gave are great. And maybe the content/container distinction isn’t quite the right way to think about this. But how many chemists, geneticists, anatomists and mathematicians are going to pop into a public library for a spot of 3D printing (granted, artists might)? Let’s be honest, the most likely use for a 3D printer in a public library is to produce patent-infringing copies of Fast Moving Consumer Goods like lego pieces and action figures. Becoming Kinkos for plastic toys doesn’t really appeal to me as a value proposition. I can certainly see that 3D printing is a great tool in an academic or industrial setting, I’m just not convinced it solves any particular problem public libraries are trying to solve, and there are plenty of other things to spend our precious budgets on.

      It reminds me of Aaron Tay’s thoughts about librarianship being a ‘cut and paste profession’
      http://musingsaboutlibrarianship.blogspot.com.au/2012/08/were-copy-and-paste-profession.html#.UOY5gvD9FK8
      Sharing is good, but not if we start copying each other without considering *why* we’re doing it. If there’s a case for 3D printers it will be because there is an identified need, and the answer to serving that need is ‘3D printing’. I feel most librarians considering them are approaching it from the opposite direction.

  9. Pingback: Beyond the Bullet Points: Missing the Point and 3D Printing | Virtual Dave…Real Blog

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  11. Pingback: 3d printing, library missions, and things beside the point

  12. “As librarians we deal with intangibles. Tying your library to something like a 3D printer moves you in the wrong direction. It moves you towards manufacturing physical products. It leads you to the tangible – that’s not your job.”

    If my community decides that prototyping new ideas is part of the mission for the library, a 3D printer might well be the right tool for the job. As might be legos, design software, or a sewing machine. I mean, should I run downstairs to the children’s room and take away all the crayons and paper and say “Please stop using these tools to create!! We are in a library, where we deal with intangibles!”

    “Because that’s what museums are for”
    This is not directly related to the 3D printing issue but… The biggest difference between libraries and museums is that museums have collections for display and preservation, and libraries have collections they lend. Once content is digital, the lines blur between these activities. “mission creep” between libraries and museums is the future, and it is one worth embracing.

    • The difference is that you didn’t buy the crayons because you thought they were a shiny technology, you wanted a way to encourage kids to express their ideas and crayons seemed like the best way to do that.

      As for libraries vs museums, I’m sure the National Library of Australia, British Library and the State Library of Victoria will be delighted to know that they are actually museums because they don’t lend anything. More seriously, I also suspect ‘GLAMs’are going to merge at some point, but if that’s what we’re doing we need to be clear about it.

      • I hear you re: hipsterism & trendiness on 3D printers, but there’s no reason that tool cannot be applied as a solution to a problem the same way crayons are in my example. Different problems, different solutions, different tools. Done.

        Yes, operationally, structurally, and in terms of budget allocation for specific activities: the institutions you mention are remarkably similar to museums, don’t you think?

  13. I’m still thinking you are far too firmly attached to the idea of library as a container of physical things. As long as *thinginess* is your focus, then there is no good role for a 3D printer in your library. But libraries are really about facilitating the means of knowledge production. That’s not mission creep, that’s who we always have been. That’s why we have tables and chairs, and lights. And computers, with productivity software on them. And printers and photocopiers full of paper. The world of information exists. Libraries collect, organize, and facilitate access to that information. But we also have *always* provided infrastructure for using it to create new things. Not all infrastructure (no gene splicing equipment in libraries, as far as I know…). 3D printers are a new piece of infrastructure. A news item for facilitating knowledge production. They are the pen, the table, the lamp, the shelf, the computer. Not the paper.

    • I think you have this back to front. “Thingness” is precisely the problem I have with the obsession over 3D printers. Yes, absolutely libraries are about the production of knowledge and playing with ideas. I’ve written about this previously. But 3D printers are about the production of things. To my mind the production of things is a consequence of the production of knowledge, although of course things can inspire ideas. There’s a fairly robust argument about the nature of ideas over at David Lankes’ response to this post on his blog.

  14. Interesting discussion you prompted here Hugh. I have just finished reading Expect More by R. David Lankes and was going to quote his thoughts about 3D printers in libraries but I see you and he have moved your discussion on further. I agree with you Hugh in that 3D printers are just a new toy as far as public libraries are concerned – there are loads of free online 3D CAD software that a librarian can show to a inventive person if that is what is required. And as an ex Industrial Designer who has had my fun playing with plastics machines to create 3D designs (in plastics labs in an academic institution) I think that librarians in the public sphere should spend our precious time and money concentrating on some of our core expert tasks that you and Mr Lankes both highlight so well. Sure stick to the mission as “knowledge facilitators” and take that to the limits in our communities, but if the libraries supplied everything that our diverse communities wanted then we would be stretched and stressed beyond what we can and should do best.

    Thanks for the interesting thoughts Hugh and others.

  15. Pingback: “Information: A Very Short Introduction” (Essential Readings in the Philosophy of LIS) « Sense & Reference

  16. Pingback: Mission Creep and Mission Criticality | Peer to Peer Review

  17. Hi Hugh. We are currently scoping inclusion of 3D printers into a new site. For us it’s about literacies, the 3D printers are one of many vehicles providing an avenue to grow our communities’ literacies; as well as a valid mechanism for collaborating with a whole range of organisations and institutions to inspire, exhibit, share skills etc. For those familiar with 3D printing already, our printers could be handy at times. For those who do not know about 3D printing, as a concept or in terms of how to + results – they will provide a chance to play, to learn, to be inspired, to come to a library – which they maybe do not use or think of as anything more than “books”. As with public computing – we have found having that “service” available brings in communities who previously saw the library as irrelevant to their lives. They have since (in many instances) enjoyed all sorts of experiences as a result of one of our services. With 3D printing – maybe it will be a winner, maybe a failure – but it does provide an opportunity to actively bring the intangible and the tangible together for many people.

  18. I’m an academic librarian who is very skeptical about 3d printers – in fact, I think calling them “printers” instead of “fabricators” is actually framing the debate in a manipulative way to encourage a certain conclusion (like “pro-life” versus “anti-abortion” does). I was surprised to read your comment that you think there’s a strong argument in favor of 3d “printers” in academic libraries, and I’d very much like to read your view on that, given your analysis in this post.

    • ‘Strong’ may have been overstating things, but I think there’s a case. University libraries are obviously more education focussed than a public library, so you’re more likely to see an educational outcome from fabricators rather than simply printing out the latest bootleg Lego. This is the crux of my argument with R David Lankes – he sees the potential for learning through making, whereas I think the likelihood of that is quite small in public libraries so it is better for publics to focus on other things.

      I also see academic libraries as much further along in terms of dematerialisation of the collection. This means academic librarians increasingly are likely to be playing an ‘embedded’ role in labs and tutorial rooms, coaching students in information discovery and connection.

      In this context I can see that fabricators could be quite useful in some of the ways Jason Griffey mentioned in the comments above.

    • The term “3D printing” was coined in 1995 by two students at MIT, Jim Bredt and Tim Anderson, who developed a method of rapid prototyping now used by their Z Corporation business, which was recently acquired by 3D Systems. Jim and Tim originally created their prototyping technology by hacking an inkjet printer to release a binding solution into powder, allowing it to create 3D shapes (http://thenextweb.com/insider/2012/12/08/behind-the-rise-of-the-3d-printing-revolution/). 3D printers are referred to as “printers” not because of an attempt at manipulation, but because of the actual mechanics involved in the prototyping process. The term “fabricator” refers too generally to prototyping and manufacturing technology as a whole.

      • Thank you for the information – I learned something interesting. However, while I withdraw any implication I might have made that the original use of the name “3d printer” was intended to manipulate, I certainly sense that a lot of people eager to jump on this bandwagon have no knowledge or interest in the technical issue you explain, and are happy to use a term that supports their view. If “fabricator” is not appropriate, can you (or anyone else reading this thread) come up with an alternative, a term that has an accurate meaning without carrying along to non-engineering people a misleading analogy regarding domain of usefulness (rather than merely technical means of production)?

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  21. whilst I agree that a 3D printer won’t save your library, I believe that digital fabrication skills will soon be part of what we today refer to as basic digital literacy… 3D modeling skills might soon be similarly important as knowing how to create a word document today. Simply putting a 3D printer into a corner of the library won’t help the issue, but creating awareness, spark interest and engaging the public into a discussion around 3D printing and other digital fabrication methods has to be on a public library’s agenda, don’t you think?

  22. Pingback: 3D Printers Won’t Kill Your Library | Eduhacker

  23. Pingback: Do 3D Printers Belong In Libraries? : Nate's Broadcast

  24. Pingback: ACRLog » 3-D Printers

  25. Pingback: J. Lenington - 3D Printers and Techno-lust?

  26. Pingback: Mission Creep — A 3D Printer Will Not Save Your Library - 3D Printing Insider

  27. Pingback: 3D Printing in Libraries Around the World ← 3D Printing

  28. Pingback: My vision of the #hyperlib  | Jessica M's Blog

  29. Pingback: 3D printen in de bibliotheek: David Lankes trekt de discussie breed | Rafelranden

  30. Necropost time. While I agree with Mark Bilandzic above that promoting / enhancing digital literacy skills fall within our roles, I’m pretty much in your corner. I think for most of us (at least in the US) 3D printers are another stab in the dark effort to showcase our relevancy. Never mind that we have been and continue to be relevant, 3D printing is a fungible representation of that to Boards, city councils and outside funders. 3D printers are to 2014 grant proposals what plain old PCs were to 1998 proposals.

  31. 3-D printers are going to be everywhere. They’re going to be in my house and your house, in businesses, and airports, and libraries. In each location, they’ll have a use appropriate for that place. In libraries, our visitors will use them to do library-esque things – whatever that may be, according to your theory of what a library is supposed to be. Beware of saying that a new creativity-enabling technology is not applicable in a library setting! If kids can make origami birds in a library, then what’s wrong with 3-D printing?

    • Home bread makers are everywhere – I don’t see anyone carrying on about the amazing opportunities for creation presented by bread makers in libraries.

      Neither of your arguments makes sense. If 3D printing is everywhere then there’s no need for it to be in the library. But in any case, one of the great things about 3D printers (they *are* really cool) is that they remove the need to go to a particular place to produce/obtain an item associated with that place. If I have a 3D printer in my home why on earth do I need to go to the library to do ‘library-esque’ things with theirs?

      At the end of the day, libraries help us to make meaning. Workshops, studios and factories help us make objects. Librarians need to stop being embarrassed about libraries.

      • Why is the conversation st all about the gizmo, and not about CAD as a workforce skill set? And we haven’t broached the patent and trademark implications.

      • Books are everywhere, too. Why do we have libraries? Because there’s a special use case.

        Traditional libraries are packed with physical objects made by creative people. They serve as media for sharing the life of the mind. Often, people come to a library to make use of its resources for their own creative efforts. Their work customarily ends up as an object of some kind – physical, analog, digital. Students write papers. Start-up business people make brochures. Kids sing songs. Grandparents write emails. Such objects are usually intended to convey meaning, be it literal or symbolic. To assist in this endeavor, libraries provide pencils, copy machines, and computers. Or – could it be – 3D printers?

        The entire business of a library is people sharing the life of the mind – between authors and readers, reference staff and inquirers, presenters and an audience. For instance, a professional cook might present a program on the use of a bread machine. It is a learning experience, intended to broaden horizons. None of this is limited to any particular medium or instrument.

        I’ve read that the first public libraries in the US refused to put fiction in their collections. Novels and stories were considered beneath the dignity of an institution dedicated to the enlightenment of the populace. Now we have Minecraft, wherein users construct simulated 3D worlds. Next step – 3D printers?

        What if I use a 3D printer to make a plaque with raised letters spelling out “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Any objection to Socrates in the library?

      • I suggest you read the discussion we had about this over on David Lankes’ blog (pingback above). My concern is not the devices themselves – it’s the obsession/focus librarians writing about them have on the printers instead of how they have improved the lives of their communities through services/programs that happen to involve or rely on 3D printing.

  32. Pingback: 3D Printing at the Library

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