To 3D or Not 3D: That’s just one question

One of the most popular place in the #clanoise exhibits was the California Library Association’s own makerspace area, which came fully loaded with soldering stations and three-dimensional printers for conference attendees to explore through use. Libraries and makerspaces have been a trending topic at both library conferences and in local and regional initiatives. With today’s online-accessible Smithsonian X3D Conference underway, it seems a good time to talk about 3D printing in a way that contextualizes its possibilities in Califorrnia public libraries.

The Smithsonian presenters note: “We want to make sure any technology we bring in is in service of our mission” (at 2:25 of the Overview video linked above). This might be the begining point, too, for any local public library when considering including a 3D printer in their makerspace provisions. In your library, would three-dimensional printing, as a service provision, be about explorationand discovery of knowledge through access to information? Or, as lots of conference goers in Long Beach seemed to find, is the thrill of producing the driving force the library hopes to highlight?

Let’s take another step back, however, before analyzing what a 3D output experience might do for your own community. Public libraries didn’t “invent” makerspaces, in spite of the increasingly rapid adoption of them as a kind of plug-and-play program element…or a desirable program element. Themakerspace ethos grew up in a variety of communities and among several related movements. In its broadest terms, the makerspace is a publicly accessible collection of cooperatively held tools and experts in applying them to find project solutions. (Hmm, the public library’s print collection comes to mind, complete as it is with library staff (experts) who connect members to “solutions” to whatever their projects might be, from pleasure reading or listening to figuring out how to compute health insurance costs).

As well to consider is that makerspaces have developed “out” in the community, frequently with a monetary charge for membership. Bringing the makerspace into the public library does the same thing for access as the public library providing an alternative to fee-based services and experiences such as the newest books, live performances, and even classes in citizenship or test taking. So, maybe the first question would be: what are the demonstrated needs for a makerspace in your community? Followed by: where are the community-based experts who can shepherd the energy into the public library purview?

Now, back to 3D printers and printing. Revisiting the question at the end of paragraph two here: to what purpose would this investment respond? In a library context, there are some uses of three-dimensional printing that are definitely off the table: we aren’t going to provide access to printing dental crowns or other body parts, a technology now used in medical practice. We can provide access to printing out plastic bot-sized bits; will that be the occasion to teach children (and adults) about trademark infringement? Or we might want to put the 3D printer to use as an element of exploration that is less about reproduction and more about exploring; if that be the case, how would we fit it into our library’s larger program of service? Is it then a makerspace item or independent of makerspace-ness and instead in the suite of service tools that include software and hardware employed to deliver a wide variety of information and experiences, both mediated and unmediated by staff?

Now, here’s hoping you get some time in the next two days to peek in at the Smithsonian X3D.