A 3D printer did not save my library.
In 2013, Hugh Rundle wrote a blog post titled Mission creep — a 3D printer will not save your library, in which they spotlight libraryland’s lust for technology, questioning the value, or rather, the point, of having 3D printers in libraries. Rundle argued that no business case existed for public libraries to provide 3D printing, drawing comparisons to their presence in libraries with laundry services or loaning cars.
“…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.”
At some point in the past, I had started to draft a response to Rundle’s article, reflecting on whether the three(!) 3D printers in my library had indeed saved it, or whether my work had been contributing toward the diversion of public libraries from the rest of the GLAM sector. However, feeling that such a post might not land well with my employer at the time, I stopped writing and never shared it.
However, after speaking to my (now former) colleagues about those 3D printers, and then accidentally clicking onto an old bookmark (No. Your 3D printer does not make you innovative — Thomas C. Murray), I think now’s as good a time as any to share my experience working with 3D printers in a public library. So, here goes.
When Rundle’s article was first published (nearly a decade ago!), I worked as a customer service officer at a library in the inner suburbs of Melbourne, enamoured by the idea of creative learning spaces and the opportunities they presented for reinventing the public library. At this time, the word ‘makerspace’ was barely a conference bingo buzzword, but I believed this venture might be just the thing to make or break us.
Rundle called it mission creep, and that’s pretty accurate. I’ve come to understand that this venture was just another stab in the dark at finding another service to solve our identity problem. Yet, it only tacked another thing to our already bloated workload.
I didn’t believe this when I accepted a job that would oversee the development of Melbourne’s first public library makerspace. I wanted the makerspace movement to bring about the change and innovation it promised, and I wanted to be a part of that change.
For two-and-a-bit years, I worked diligently to activate the library’s makerspace with enriching learning experiences, curriculum-based programs and partnerships with local government departments. Some of my programs won awards; I spoke about them at conferences, and one of my lesson plans was published in a book by ALA. For the most part, I believe that what I achieved was for the greater good of the community: I taught kids how to code through gamification and strengthened dad-daughter relationships with weekend electronic soldering workshops. At least one of these kids has pursued a career in STEM as a result. However, the most successful programs I delivered—by way of the success measures of the day — were the 3D printing workshops. By order of upper management, I delivered these 2-5 times a week, sometimes 1:1 and at times, to crowds of spectators.
The most memorable 3D printing exploits include when some kids printed Green Lantern rings and then punched each other to see who could best embed the lantern shape into the other’s skin (not encouraged), and when a young entrepreneur printed some 30+ Pokemon figures and crafted them into keychains. He sold them at school (actually not mad about that one…). Another — a cosplayer — printed components for functional Spider-Man web shooters and an entire Stormtrooper helmet for Comic Con. I easily spent 50+ hours (and countless lengths of filament) producing these items (and troubleshooting the inevitable errors) with him.
These were fun experiences, but I almost never saw these kids in the library again, and still struggle to reconcile how the 3D printing programs connected with the mission of my library. These kids weren’t interested in learning how to design their own objects with CAD software, and they didn’t care to know how this might prepare them for “jobs of the future”; they simply wanted to watch something be printed and take it home for free.
Library programs usually link back to key metrics such as membership or borrowing. I can assure you the books I flogged and kept on display in the makerspace remained untouched after each workshop; hits to the library’s Linkedin Learning resource were abysmal; the industry-standard CAD software I had installed on the public PCs went unused. My community were only interested in downloading something from Thingiverse and attempting to pass it off as their own to get it printed. (“Did you really design this fidget spinner yourself?” is not something I thought I would have to ask so often…)
Attempts to diversify and tweak how I facilitated the workshops (e.g. they were initially called ‘demonstrations’) did little to curb the community’s attitude towards them; they just wanted to replicate shitty plastic toys. Conversations about PLA vs ABS plastic led to eyes glazing over and interjecting questions about how long it’d take for their keychain to finish.
“3D printers can absolutely be a conduit to providing students with high level, personal and authentic learning experiences. They can also be a colossal waste of money.”
I’ve added the emphasis on that last part from Murray’s article because, in hindsight, I think that’s what they were. The 3D printers in my library brought little value to the library as an institution, but they did allow me to witness society’s consumerist techno-fad attitude first-hand.
In writing this, I’ve come to believe that no fancy, fused deposition modelling machine will revolutionise public libraries, and no amount of flogging the idiom that libraries are more than just books will rationalise their purpose in our spaces. We had “popstar printers”, as Murray described; showy pieces of tech that were rolled out for special events. They were a status symbol for libraries with more dollars than sense (and are they still?). I know this isn’t the case for all libraries with 3D printers.
In hindsight, the library’s reactive approach to programming led us down a dark and confusing path, muddying our sense of identity and purpose within the community. I worked with very little support from upper management about the direction they wanted to take our creative learning spaces (did they even know ?). Their directive to make sure people had fun was one of the key factors contributing to my decision to resign from the job I once loved. I was no longer a librarian, but a slave to three 3D printers that broke more often than they worked and felt more like a kid’s party entertainer than anything else.
My experience can’t be universal, however — I have seen and heard incredible stories from some public library makerspaces, e.g. printing prosthetics and mask clips during the early days of the pandemic. It just wasn’t the case for my library, and I think it had everything to do with a lack of planning. Aside from the gimmick, there was no purpose to having a bank of 3D printers, and they demanded far more time than I felt they deserved.
These days, the makerspace lives in darkness and is a shell of its former self. The equipment has been removed, the displays repurposed, and the partnerships dried up. Rundle was right.
The techno-lust with 3D printing has seemingly faded, but a new lust has since emerged: Robots. (Please, don't get me started…)
I’ll end by saying I think libraries are at their best when they respond to what their communities ask of them. The 3D printers at my library were not asked for, but when they were there, they were a novel attraction that provided some light entertainment… and little else. This may not be true for every library, but I hope those with 3D printers have taken a hard look at themselves and understand whether what they’re doing is right for their communities, or simply a waste of resources.