3D printing is something that I've been noticing for a while kicking around the edge of the profession, and a discussion on Twitter yesterday based on a blog posting 'Mission Creep - a 3D printer will not save your library' by Hugh Rundle that I had with Shirley Burnham and Alan Wylie led me to explore it in more detail.
If you haven't come across 3D printing yet I would point you at Star Trek. When someone goes up to the replicator and asks for something, only for it to magically appear, well that's 3D printing about 200 years in the future. With a 3D printer, you can actually create physical objects, such as gears which can be assembled into a working model. They work with plastic (although there are food 3D printers as well, believe it or not!) and obviously require a special printer, which cost several thousand dollars, so they're not cheap by any stretch of the imagination. If you're still struggling with the concept, try this video:
Hopefully that makes it all a bit clearer. What I found particularly interesting were the possibilities of creating prosthetics for example, rather than bits and pieces for games. However, I'm less interested in the future of 3D printing, and more interested in the role that libraries have, or shouldn't have in the area. Hugh Rundle is very clear; "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."
However some libraries such as the Fayetteville Free Library already are at work in this area, and there are plenty of predictions that 3D printers will be entirely common within the next 5 - 10 years. Remember when computers were strange things, and virtually pointless for the vast majority of people - well, that's the situation that some see with these creatures. So is 3D printing about creating stuff? Well yes of course it is - stuff does end up being created at the end of the process, quite obviously. But does that mean libraries need to be involved with it? I think the answer to this question depends very much on the role that you see a library having in a specific community. With the rise of real time media people are starting to produce things for themselves - firstly content, but music, video and so on; people can create their own culture, rather than just sit and passively consume it. Mr Rundle makes the point that libraries don't offer washing facilities, which is perfectly true. However, libraries are increasingly offering facilities, advice and information to their communities in a whole range of areas. Children are able to use library facilities to learn about heraldry, how to paint model figures, military strategy and history, and then play wargames. Teenagers can use library facilities to create and play music, learn from libraries how best to save, mix, share and promote what they are doing. People want to use computers, so libraries provide computers, teach people how to use them, and help them create their own materials, either for themselves or for clubs or societies. We're used to the idea, and in fact we (hopefully) encourage youngsters who use the library to expand their horizons, not just by reading, but by exploring and trying out new things. Why is this - intrinsically - such a different thing?
Libraries are about bettering communities. Does having a 3D printer help with this? After all, Mr Rundle makes the good point than an extra laundry in a community library would probably better the community, but we don't go around putting in washing machines next to the bookstock. He goes on to say "librarians need to ensure that they understand why they are providing them and what the ramifications are." I agree entirely. If a library service simply looks at a technology - any technology and says 'ooh, shiney! Lets get one' this can only end in disaster. Obsessing over technology is exactly the same as obsessing over a collection - you ignore the community at your peril, so any justification for the use of a 3D printer would need to be really clearly articulated.
However - libraries are, or at least should be - involved on the cutting edge. They're not just about mass entertainment; the people who are keen to close libraries certainly want us to believe that however, as they're keen to point out that we can get our books from charity shops, that a 'library' can be run by volunteers and they're happy to hide the destruction of the library service behind community bookswops. Libraries need to embrace technology (and after all, a book IS a technology) to better their communities. That's why computers and ready access to the internet are so important, and why that access should remain free. It's why libraries need to offer eBooks and eLending as part of their key provision. They're not just simple add ons; they are an intrinsic part of the modern day offering that a library has to make. I'm sure that 10 or 15 years ago people were quite distainful about the idea of a library offering computer access, and would have regarded it as 'mission creep'.
Libraries need to be able to empower, but before we can empower, we need to learn. That learning cannot be theoretical - we need to try stuff out, to teach and empower our professionals to be able to do their job even better. That means that we must invest time and yes, money as well in being THE place that people can go in order to learn, to explore, to create and make - as well as being entertained. A library should be a place where people are intellectually stimulated, both by reading fiction of all types, but by experiencing the new. So, should libraries invest in 3D printing? I can't in all honesty see your local public library rushing out and buying a printer, nor do I think that they should. However, that doesn't mean that every library should ignore them; there are plenty of academic libraries that should invest in the concept of 3D printing however. It's certainly something that all information people should be aware of though, because there may well be - and I suspect increasing will be - times when a community could really use technology like this. Librarians need to be able to point that out, to involve and assist their community. We can't do that from a position of ignorance; we need to learn, in order to teach. I'm sure that people also said 'why should a library have a fax machine/scanner/copier/telephone' because they couldn't see the value in technology, or the benefits that it would bring. I suspect that 3D printing is going to be another example. So I'm certainly not calling on every library to raid the bookfund to buy 3D printers, but I am suggesting that we need to keep abreast of developments so that we can in the future buy them, if they benefit our communities.
Yes, most people probably are happy on bicycles rather than space rockets. But if we restrict libraries to simply providing materials that a section of the society wants, what about the rest? What about those people who don't use the library? Don't we have a duty of care towards them as well? Is it not our role to provide facilities to help them better themselves and their communities? I think that it absolutely IS one of our roles. Not only should we do it because morally and ethically I think we should, it makes sense in the longer term - libraries are closing because local councils, organisations and corporates think they can do without them. We need to continually demonstrate that we - both the information professionals AND the libraries themselves, are an integral part of the community and benefit everyone in it - not just the current members, but everybody. We cannot do that that by simply looking at technology and saying 'no, it's not really for us' because if we do that we're denying our communities the opportunity to learn and experience. We're in effect saying 'YOU don't need to know or learn about this'. So no, we don't need washing machines in libraries, because we all know about them already. We need to invest time, effort and energy in the central mission - which is to improve, assist and develop our communities and help the people within them. That's not mission creep - that's the embodiment of what we should do.