March 17, 2018

Mission Creep and Mission Criticality | Peer to Peer Review

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.

Pressing concerns

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:

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 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.

What next?

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.

Barbara Fister About Barbara Fister

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), was published in 2010 by Minotaur Books.
Photo by Debora Miller

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  1. Barbara – for what it’s worth, I still love “Mold-a-Rama” and have picked up the occasional 3-D plastic elephant from places like the Lincoln Park Zoo, but that is not, as you’ve noted, relevant. What I have heard from faculty in multiple units is that they would love to have 3-D printing (and related tools) in the library because they see the library as a wonderful place for providing access to technology useful to their faculty and students, but still not widely enough available, e.g., business students doing prototyping, theatre students working on designs. I also know that 3-D printing is already a component of my daughter’s elementary-school education, as her class works with the engineering program at a local university and with local business to learn about entrepreneurship. Finally, I have seen how university-based maker spaces can become a hub for community engagement by fostering programmatic collaboration between the university (library and academic programs), the public library, the public schools, and independent media/maker communities. Is this as mission critical as pursuing the discussion of scholarly communication, research data services, or the economics of publishing, perhaps not, but it is certainly ripe with mission possibilities!

  2. Annette Beattie says:

    Babara – our public library which serves a population of 100,000 people, is scoping implementation of 3D printers into a new location. For us it’s about providing another opportunity to grow and inspire literacie. 3D printers just happen to be one of the many tools we use to inspire our communities to come along, get involved, give it a go, grow as a person. They may prove successful, they may not. For those who already use the technology, it becomes another handy venue for access, for those who know nothing about 3D printing as a concept or in reality, it could prove to be an avenue for some inspiration. Worth a go we think.

  3. Thanks, both of you. I can see why prototyping and the idea of turning plans into things relates to information literacy (as does, I suppose, being able to interpret plans when building a piece of furniture or wire a house) and a library is as good a place as any.

    But I took Hugh Rundle’s point that there are a lot of things libraries absolutely have a role in and which most libraries are neglecting. I don’t know whether libraries are getting 3-D printers while neglecting those things, but in my small library, I would put figuring out how to make an institutional repository successful and how to help scholars archive data and how to publish things before I’d investigate a 3-D printer. To be honest, faculty are asking us for any of this. But today Twitter is full of #pdftribute which is a fine and positive way to respond to Aaron Swartz’s untimely death, but also makes me wonder why so few scholars think of libraries having a role in this very thing.

    We have a lot of work to do, but it seems as if scholars are suddenly ready to look for solutions, with or without us. It’s time to make it clear libraries are for making, not just for access.

    Where I am, the making that’s going on doesn’t involve 3-D things, though maybe one day it will. But most of the making is scholarship currently flowing to commercial or society channels and is not being shared as widely as it should be, or is data that wasn’t shared in the past but now must be. Those are the things on my mind.

    And when we have that worked out, we can see about a 3-D printer (though we have no money, so it’s probably not gonna happen).

  4. Library Associate says:

    One thing puzzles me. Your library is heavily used, and considered relevant by the people who use it. “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. ” What, exactly, is wrong with being a stimulating study space and a provider of published stuff? Where else are people supposed to go for those services?

    • What’s wrong with it is that we aren’t seen as being more than a pleasant shopping mall for knowledge. (One where you never pay the bill.) The system for distributing scholarly knowledge is failing exactly when we have the tools to make knowledge available much more widely. We need to be part of the solution. Instead, we spend most of our energies working on ways to spread our resources more thinly to conceal the problems.

      Last year SAGE socked us with a 25% increase. I just heard from another librarian that Oxford and Cambridge journal prices at her library went up double digits, and the price for the ten Elsevier journals went up over 50% in one year. So what do we do? Cut, trim, buy articles one at a time. That takes time that we could be using helping our communities grapple with better solutions and resources we could spend on creating solutions that aren’t going to be provided by publishers that sue us and attack open access in Congress.