(This story has been revised to show that the 3D printers in the Fayetteville Free Library were donated.)
The DeLaMare Science & Engineering Library at the University of Nevada, Reno, has become the first academic library in the U.S. to offer 3D printing and scanning services to all students and the community at large. Using specialized software to create 3D drawings, students can now print these objects on one of two 3D printers at DeLaMare—a Stratsys uPrint acquired in May and a 3DTouch, which can also produce multicolored objects.
3D printing is not entirely new in libraries: Since March, three MakerBot Thing-o-Matic printers have been donated to the Fayetteville Free Library in upstate New York, and other universities have them as well. However, many are attached to discrete academic departments or labs, typically in engineering, architecture, or design. Sometimes, even individual faculty members may have their own setups for their own use, and/or for students to use during a course. Cornell University’s Creative Machines Lab made the news for “printing” a human ear from silicone last year, while in Europe, a professor at the University of Glasgow has developed a 3D printing system to create chemical compounds, like drugs.
What is remarkable about locating 3D printing and scanning services in the DeLaMare Library, rather than in labs or departments, is the potential for collaboration and colearning across disciplines. For Lisa Kurt, Engineering and Emerging Technologies Librarian, acquiring these capabilities is part of a “natural progression”: “We could see this as an opportunity to bring departments together, which is huge.”
As Kurt said, “We’ve always been supportive of people doing things such as writing papers, writing books, writing in general, and critical thinking, of course, but part of critical thinking is also making” and exposure to these new technologies “could totally change their academic career and that’s really, really powerful.”
Choosing The Right Equipment
For the DeLaMare Library, the 14-month vetting process included outreach to the Reno Collective coworking space; a local makerspace Reno Bridgewire, and other specialized schools that had direct experience with different models of 3D printers. Director of DeLaMare Library Tod Colegrove advises, “Talk to the folk in the trenches, and ask, ‘OK, what goes wrong? What’s the market like?’ and so on and then go back and actually battle it upstream with the library administration to justify it.”
Colegrove warned that mismatch between specific patron needs and the available technologies can quickly turn the adoption of new technologies “from a success to an ugly failure.” One faculty member, for instance, had purchased a MakerBot Thing-o-Matic, a model priced competitively for individual use, but in a relatively short amount of time, it had broken beyond repair
Ultimately, the DeLaMare Library decided not to go for the more hobbyist, less expensive, MakerBot setups which form the backbone of the Fayetteville Fab Lab. The specific needs of faculty and students, especially in engineering, led Colegrove and Kurt to pursue a more robust setup.
Staff To Help Make Stuff
In addition to issues of patron needs and expected demand, the choice of equipment affected staffing and training considerations. As Colegrove put it, “Can you afford pay $1,000 dollars for a printer if you have to buy a position to support it? Or, would you rather buy a $20,000 printer that doesn’t require the care?”
Both Kurt and Colegrove are proud of the fact that all four full-time staff members can fulfill patron requests independently. In other words, there are no “gatekeepers.” But, importantly, the DeLaMare Library can tap into the resource of its dozen student workers, who in many ways facilitated the adoption of these new technologies. According to Colegrove, the staff operated from ”the core understanding that staff and faculty are probably the least informed people when it comes to the new technology, and our job is to find the kids that are good at it and have them train us.” Kurt added, “You also learn from the strongest, and the students like to learn from each other” creating further interest in the library.
If You Buy It, They Will Build
From the projects being made this summer at the DeLaMare Library, the decision to adopt robust, high-volume 3D printers seems sound. Colegrove claims that their first print job came within an hour of unboxing the first machine in May and that the printers have been running nonstop since. Already students and faculty at the University of Nevada, Reno, are building chemical models, moving part engine blocks, robots, fine art sculpture, and more. Since school is not even in session yet, who knows how the program will fare in the fall semester, when instructors start sending their classes to the DeLaMare Library. But Kurt is confident: “The buy-in is there.”
Dilemmas in 3D
With all the optimism that comes with 3D printing, however, there are limitations, as well as wider concerns about the role of the library. Joseph Sanchez, when he was Library Director at Red Rocks Community College, turned down the chance to host such a printer in the library because “I did not see an immediate use for the 3D printer that was available for me, because it could not render large enough objects that would fit any larger need. For example, a human brain model for our medical students, DNA and RNA strands, cells, etc.”
Sanchez is not optimistic about the use of 3D printing and scanning services in a public library setting: “Currently, I think 3D printing is an expensive distraction for non-specialized libraries. I would love to see engineering libraries, medical libraries, and other specialized ones getting a 3D printer as they can find high level professional uses…. But that does not mean that as the technology moves forward that we should not adopt and adopt rapidly. I just want to see librarians behaving and adopting in a proactive, rather than reactive way.”
More troubling for Sanchez, now an Instructional Designer at Auraria Library at the University of Colorado, Denver, and blogging at The Book My Friend, are the intellectual property issues and even moral dilemmas that 3D printing gives rise to. Does the ability to copy real-world objects place librarians in the position of facilitating copyright infringement? What about when a patron wants to use library resources to print, for example, the parts for a working firearm?
“I am not anti-3D printer,” Sanchez adds, “It seems like there is not a lot of long-term thinking behind libraries using 3D printers. They seem more like bells and whistles. Not that they have to be—I think they can and should play a large role in our future, but we should have clear plans for their use.”
When asked about how the Fayetteville Fab Lab handles patron requests that may result in copyright infringement, Executive Director Sue Considine said the library handles them on a case-by-case basis by with the patron and, if necessary, with state and professional associations and copyright experts. She added, “But, we would do that with copyright issues across the board. 3D printing is just another example of a time when copyright may come into play, but in a public library setting, copyright issues come into play every day. So this isn’t anything new for us.”
Yvette M. Chin (@rewordnik) is a freelance book editor and writer. She has edited and written for The National Security Archive, Freedominfo.org, and Digital Book World, and has appeared on NPR’s “On the Media.”