The Case for 3D Printing

A 3D printer can benefit the library as well as patrons

September 16, 2014


When I talk to librarians about 3D printing, the most common question I hear—after the question about printing a gun—is “Why provide this service?”

Of the many answers, the most straightforward is “We’ve always done this sort of thing.” The library is, at its core, an engine for the democratization of knowledge and information. Conceptually, the library is a collective resource for the individuals within a community. While we are best known as information providers, that has never been all we are. A library was often the first place where someone could go to touch a computer. A library was one of the places where many Americans first saw the internet.

The familiar laser printer we now take for granted amazed us in the 1990s. A library was often the place to go to print résumés, because most job-seekers did not have a printer at home or wanted a more professional look than a dot-matrix printer could produce. Going further back, a library was where someone would go to use a typewriter.

The point is that the library has a long, long history of providing technology for its patrons. 3D printing is still a novelty, but the basic technology is affordable. The future of additive manufacturing will likely be stranger and more wonderful than I can imagine, but given the uses that people are finding for them already—in health care to print organs, in food prep to make unique foodstuffs, in art to make impossible objects—it’s fair to say that amazing things will come from this technology.

What is possible with 3D-printing technology? You can find hundreds of inspiring stories on the web, including some that are barely believable.

Here are just a few:

  • 3D-printed tissues and structures have been implanted successfully into humans, and the potential for printing entire replacement organs is on the horizon.
  • People are using 3D printers to provide custom, inexpensive, and comfortable prosthetic devices for amputees, including children, providing them with an improved quality of life.
  • The same techniques used in fused deposition modeling printing are used to build experimental housing and could revolutionize low-cost dwellings, including replacement structures after a natural disaster.

While it’s a wonderful service to provide patrons, don’t forget that librarians could benefit from it as well. Need a shelf bracket? Want to have a custom sign for your display shelf? How about a custom sign for every month? Need to repair a random broken plastic thing? Once you have the power to create, the benefit is that you can create almost anything you can think of.

Let your public services department or your circulation department have access to a 3D printer. See what they can dream up that would make their jobs easier. Then share their designs with other libraries. If librarians begin imagining things that improve their daily tasks, everyone can benefit. And 3D printers help enable that kind of thinking—the ability to see a thing in the world and want to make it better. That’s what I want to see libraries and librarians working toward.

The ultimate promise of this technology is the replicator from Star Trek, a machine capable of taking the raw building blocks of matter at the atomic level and recombining them into anything you can imagine.

That is obviously not happening soon; but this is how we can get there, by building the simple machines that will help illuminate the way.

JASON GRIFFEY is the founder and principal consultant of Evenly Distributed, a technology consulting firm for libraries and education. This article is adapted from his Library Technology Reports (vol. 50, no. 5), “3-D Printers for Libraries.”