Hugh Rundle has thrown down the gauntlet and made an outrageously controversial statement at his blog, It’s Not About the Books. He doesn’t think libraries need to provide public 3-D printers.
Wow, that guy likes to live dangerously.
He writes as if braced for outrage over something most libraries aren’t doing and probably won’t do any time soon, but which is a bit of a darling for cutting-edge librarians. He’s not saying we ought to avoid those newfangled gadgets (though he reduces them to absurdity with examples of other things we don’t generally provide, like community-owned guns). Rather, he thinks we are failing to add functions to libraries’ repertoires that are more closely aligned with our mission. In a comment, he suggests the 3-D printers fad is an example of what Aaron Tay has called “cut and paste librarianship,” a feverish urge to do what other libraries are doing.
I don’t have strong opinions on 3-D printers. This is partly a failure of my imagination. Though I know they are cool and can make amazing things, I keep envisioning a gadget that was installed at the local zoo when I was a child: a glass-fronted vending machine that would mold a plastic elephant or gorilla before your very eyes! It seemed excitingly high tech back in the 1960s. You pushed a button that made the parts of a mold come together, melted plastic goo was injected, and after a minute or two a warm, odd-smelling, and lumpish plastic animal fell into your hands, hot off the press. I realize the new 3D printers are much more creative and wonderful than that, but like Hugh, I am a bit skeptical that they will make libraries suddenly relevant. This is partly because my community hasn’t clamored for a 3-D printer, and thinks the library is plenty relevant as it is.
But I’m not sure it’s relevant in the right way. Though our students spend a lot of time in the library and use its resources fairly heavily, and while faculty members across the curriculum partner with librarians in a variety of ways to foster student learning, we are seen primarily as a stimulating study space and a provider of published stuff. The 3D printer craze is part of a movement to make libraries into “maker spaces,” which is fascinating, if a bit mystifying. It’s cheering that libraries are moving beyond the 1990s fad of studying Barnes and Nobles shelving and looking to retailing for inspiration. But libraries have always been about more than consumption. We have long supported creation. That’s what information literacy is: practice making knowledge.
True, we have sometimes let our lessons in creativity become instructions on how to use tools to gather pre-processed stuff from library databases. Learning how to write a research paper by gathering and assembling a certain number of pre-published ingredients is about as creative as learning how to cook using cornflakes, canned vegetables, and mushroom soup. Yet undergraduates can learn a lot when they fabricate new ideas using the library’s tools and materials. They can go well beyond seeing the library as a user-unfriendly shopping platform.
There’s another way in which librarians forget that we’re all about helping people make stuff. We aren’t ready to move into the gap left by traditional publishing as the open access movement advances. After years of agitation, our dreams of open access seem actually to be within reach. Looking back, 2012 seems have been a watershed moment. Among events, these come to mind:
- The Research Works Act was roundly defeated.
- A “We the People” White House petition supporting access to publicly-funded research quickly gathered over 50,000 signatures, more than enough to trigger a response (which we are still awaiting).
- The number of publication listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals increased by approximately three titles per day.
- A companion Directory of Open Access Books was launched.
- Amherst College Library founded an open access press.
- The Finch Report engendered heated discussion about affordable access to publicly-funded research in the UK.
- PLoS has grown ever more accepted as an important and reputable publisher (and alternative business model).
- The PeerJ platform launched, offering a different business model.
Some notable protests also happened.
- Harvard revealed the shocking news that they can’t afford to subscribe to everything.
- The Elsevier boycott went viral.
- The chemistry faculty and Jenica Rogers of the SUNY Potsdam library had the audacity to tell the American Chemical Society (and everyone else) that ACS journals cost too much.
And some important court decisions that favor fair use of information were handed down.
- In the Georgia State E-reserves case, Judge Evans painstakingly applied the four factors test and found largely in favor of the library’s policies.
- In a lawsuit from brought by the Author’s Guild, the Hathi Trust won a summary judgment that bolstered libraries’ definition of fair use.
In short, 2012 was a good year. Things are changing, and changing fast. We fought for this moment, but I’m not sure libraries are ready to do what it will take to shift our work from procuring published stuff to supporting the creation and public sharing of knowledge.
Hugh Rundle mentions some of the things we ought to be exploring, and embracing: digital humanities projects, new ways of combining geospatial data and text creation, data-mining, app development, new publishing models, and playing with some of the terrific new tools for publishing. (Another sign that we’re in an open era: PressBooks has recently gone open source.)
On a local level, I’m wondering how my small library can help faculty meet grant requirements for public data management, how we can help departments discover ways to use GIS in their courses, how to provide spaces where digital humanities projects can get nurtured and supported, and how to help faculty not just find, but create new open education resources. We won’t have new staff lines. We won’t get more money. We’ll have to redirect our work. We’ll have to stop doing some old things in order to do new things. We’ll have to learn, and we’ll have to prioritize.
And we’d better get cracking, because there is a tide in the affairs of scholars, and we need to be ready to take it at the flood. Which, happily, is rising, right now.