Mission creep - a 3D printer will not save your library

2 January 2013

So you think your library needs a 3D printer. You’re going to be modern, ahead of the curve, futuristic, not-your-mother’s-library. Congratulations. But why exactly is it appropriate for a library service to provide 3D printing?

Cargo cults and technolust

“We have 2D printers, 3D printers are just the next step” you say? Not so fast. Printing and copying in two dimensions is about making a copy of the information. Librarians have spent the last decade talking about how it’s all about content, but three dimensional products are not content, they are containers. Whilst containers are important for the dissemination of information, they are only of concern to libraries for this reason - not in of themselves. If 3D printing was truly a useful technology for libraries, there would be serious  articles about the potential for information storage, discovery and dissemination. What the blogs, tweets and presentations of 3D printing enthusiasts are filled with is mostly stories about 3D printers that print in chocolate. Well, whoopee.

The harsh truth is that there is no business case for public libraries to provide 3D printing. What this is really about is technolust and the fear of being left behind. How many of the librarians clamouring for 3D printers currently provide their patrons with laundry facilities? Sawmills? Smelting furnaces? Loans of cars or whisky stills? I’m guessing none. All these services would be justifiable on the same grounds used to justify 3D printing - individuals would find the service useful, currently they are expensive to buy or rent commercially, and potentially they could be helpful to productivity and the economy. They are also nothing to do with the core business of libraries. As Brett Bonfield reminded us in July last year, when you confuse form with function it is easy to create a Cargo Cult instead of innovation.

Libraries could provide any number of services that look a bit like our core business, but librarians need to ensure that they understand why they are providing them and what the ramifications are. Yes, libraries provide access to information sources and creation tools that can be expensive to individuals, but that doesn’t mean that loaning or providing access to things that are expensive is what libraries are for. You might lend out ‘Guns of the world’, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to lend out a community gun. Your 3D printer might be used to make chocolate bunnies, or prototypes for local entrepreneurs, but what will your policy be on people printing dildos? (possibly NSFW).

Messing around with 3D printing is not a feature of modernity. It is a symbol of failure.

So Hot Right Now

As librarians we deal with intangibles. Tying your library to something like a 3D printer moves you in the wrong direction. It moves you towards manufacturing physical products. It leads you to the tangible - that’s not your job. It is the concept of the intangible that connects all the objects librarians have traditionally dealt with- books, records, photographs, magnetic tape and compact discs. It is this tradition of dealing with the intangible that makes librarianship such an exciting profession right now. Far from being a time of crisis, the times suit us. That’s why Forbes reports that Library Science is a really hot degree right now - pointing out that librarians should be good at data-mining and market research. Dr Alex Byrne, State Librarian of New South Wales, notes that Google has ‘turned people on to information’ like never before. Indeed, what’s holding back many libraries and librarians may well be a stubborn attachment to the physical. Once you start (honestly and wholeheartedly) thinking about ‘the library’ as a service rather than a place, opportunities abound. Betsy Wilson from the University of Washington has called this the ‘Flipped Library’.

The flipped library is why people like Tim Sherratt and Mitchell Whitelaw are the talk of library conferences and Twitter feeds lately, with their work on data visualisation and Australian History. It’s why you need to know about the new publishing project that Wired called ‘entirely Revolutionary’ and the potential of a product like Broadcastr for oral history. And it’s why the State Library of Queensland has created a mobile app called ‘Floodlines’ - an interactive exploration of the Brisbane River floods in 2010-11 using flood map data to create 3D models.

We’re living in a world where university scholars are in open revolt against Academic publishers and now publish papers and journals under open access rules. Where the very nature of those academic papers and books is in question, and projects like Pressbooks make it easier than ever for authors to self-publish and distribute works on the open web. There has never been so much to read. There has never been so much metadata. There has never been such an abundance of information, ideas and stories. It’s not enough any more for information to be organised - it needs to be made available in new and meaningful ways. It needs to be communicated and curated. After all, aggregation-only is just info vomit.

Projects like these take a lot more effort and thought than buying a new piece of equipment like a 3D printer. They require time and the learning of new skills. Much of it will be tedious background work before the exciting front-facing tools reveal themselves. If that  all sounds too hard, maybe you should be worried about your job after all.

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