Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Who’s Saving Whom?

On an unrelated note, at least to the subject of this post, if you want to see what a real “book ban” looked like, check out this short historical news article from the New York Times: 1939: Fascist Italy Issues Book Ban.

“Booksellers and librarians received the list, which included books that have been seized and destroyed and others of which the sale has been forbidden.” Now that’s a book ban! If the U.S. had a fascist government banning books I’d be a lot more impressed by the bold librarians fighting for banned books.

But on to the main topic, how libraries are going to be saved yet again.

The headline of the article lets us know who’s going to be the cavalry this time: Can 3D Printers Save Libraries?

I was tempted to invoke Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, and answer “no.” Then I thought to myself, wait a minute, do libraries even need to be saved? The only types of libraries that seem to be in any systematic trouble are school libraries, and they don’t even get a mention in the article.

Fortunately, the opening sentence put my mind at ease. “With text becoming digital we’d think that libraries are suffering, if not dead already.” I relaxed, knowing that once again this was an article by someone who didn’t know anything about libraries talking about how they were going to be saved by something the writer did know about.

“We’d think that libraries are suffering,” that is, if we hadn’t used a library in the last 20 years or looked at any statistics about libraries or generally bothered to find any facts about what we were talking about.

Since libraries aren’t dying, it sure is nice to know that 3D printers are riding to the rescue to save them. You see, several libraries have installed 3D printers, and people use those printers. And since people weren’t using the library before, the people using the printers are saving the library.

About a third of the Chattanooga Public Library’s reference material was sold to allow for a new maker lab. And apparently other libraries are going through similar renewal. The library of the University of Nevada cleared out more than 18,000 square feet of space for maker tools.

I’m assuming that’s a third of the print reference material. Does anyone still use print reference sources anymore? Everything might not be on the Internet, but all the good reference sources are digital subscriptions these days.

18,000 square feet is a lot of space. From the tone of the article, it seems like the best idea would just be to turn the entire library over to “maker tools.” It wouldn’t be a library anymore, but at least lots more people could print 3D stuff.

And this is important, because “hands-on tinkering with machinery and tools is really the best way to learn about them and gain the specialized skills required to work with them. Books fall short.”

Yes, books do fall short. That’s why we also have shop classes. Now those shop classes can be at the library, so the people who don’t like books can also have something to do.

There’s a tradition to this as well, because supposedly “libraries used to do more of this experiential learning: The Library of Alexandria in the above photo, for instance, was the birthplace for the first steam engine!”

Well if the Library of Alexandria did it, then so should American libraries!

I wondered who would write fluffy nonsense about 3D printers saving libraries. It turns out the magazine serves “a devoted global audience of industrial designers,” who apparently aren’t big library users, or at least the magazine doesn’t think they are.

To an industrial designer, it could look like 3D printers are gallant heroes saving poor dying libraries.

Let’s turn this around, though. Libraries are doing fine. 3D printers also seem to be doing fine, if we’re talking about sales to manufacturing companies. Of course, that article is from Forbes, but maybe they know more about 3D printer sales than they do about libraries.

You know who isn’t buying 3D printers? Ordinary consumers, which could be a huge market. Selling 3D printers exclusively to big companies is like IBM selling big mainframes in the 1970s and ignoring the home computer market.

Home Depot and other stores are trying to sell them, but they’re still really expensive. That article I linked to uses the phrase “is expected” three times. “Is expected” in this context means “we sure hope this works to sell stuff.”

Those stores “are testing in-store services to give their customers a chance to use the technology without having to buy the hardware and related materials,” because if people can’t try out equipment that costs thousands of dollars, they sure aren’t going to buy it.

Since libraries are exposing people to this equipment, they’re functioning just like the stores that are letting people use the printers without buying them so they know what such printers are like.

Thus, if anything, it’s the libraries that will save the consumer 3D printer industry, not the other way around.

You’re welcome, consumer 3D printer industry.



  1. The Librarian With No Name says:

    Well, if some maniac was building steam engines in the library, no wonder it burned down.

  2. Frumious Bandersnatch says:

    A couple things rarely mentioned in the glowing reviews of these machines, or considered by the libraries buying them, is that it takes about 2-4 hours to print something the size of a salt shaker, with a cost around 20-30 dollars each, just counting the printer refills. I hope everyone salivating to jump on this particular bandwagon has either a very small patron base, or an incredibly large technology budget.

  3. My library service has one, and it gets reasonable use. Personally I think this may not be a sustainable business element in the medium term, because 3D printers are getting cheaper all the time, and so it will eventually get to the stage where, much as people rarely come to the library for a printer unless their own breaks, they will rarely come to the library for a 3D printer unless their own breaks.

    We’re a few years from a 3D printer in the garage of everyone who wants one, but in terms of “saving libraries” that’s a very brief product cycle. We can train people in their use while they become ubiquitous, but let’s be honest with ourselves: at some point 3D printers will stop being things you buy from Kickstarter and someone will get an Apple license, and you’ll be able to download patterns from your iStore. At that point Library 3D printers become useless as a draw for customers, except when their own breaks.

    So, useful, sure. Magic salvation bullet? No.

    (Not representing my employer : personal opinion only.)

  4. Chuck Riley says:

    @The Librarian With No Name, it wasn’t the cranks building steam engines who burned down the Library of Alexandria, but (pace tua) according to Plutarch, Julius Caesar.

  5. Peter Ward says:

    Yeah, we’ve definitely become franchises for the information industry…and now the fledgling “maker” industry. Thanks to the many library gurus out there who think books and reading are a losing business model, many libraries are looking to “reinvent” themselves. What gibberish!

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