More Progress in the Making: The ALA Helps Prepare Public Libraries as they Embark on Setting up 3D Printing Labs


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UntitledThe library has always been my happy place. Throughout my childhood, we made one to two trips there a week and my limit was a whopping stack of eight books which I always fulfilled happily and then disappeared into my room for hours on end hoping not to be disturbed as I fell into one story after another. I take my own kids to the library now—and a suggestion for a trip is always met with excitement—but the library, while still fun, stimulating, and educational, is a much different place as we see less books and more digitization.

Now we are often too met with a variety of exhibits regarding publishing, historical items, art—and recently we saw a great steampunk display at our neighborhood library. There are interactive, digital games and a variety of educational tools meant to excite kids—as well as everyone. Our favorite upper floor of the library, however, yields the 3D printing lab, always bustling with middle schoolers so engrossed in projects that they don’t even look up as we pass by, with the machines whirring away, putting down layer after layer while kids create and peruse other designs online. We always stop to see what’s going on and check in for times on the weekly maker sessions, and I’m always amazed at how such an innovative process that invites the brain to be so busy can fit so quietly into a library, amidst others reading and researching in silence.

UntitledThe technology itself may be disruptive, but while in action, it certainly can be quite a relaxing exercise, and we always know there is an omniscient librarian just around the corner who we can go to should we have questions. Labs tend to be organized, clean, and all of the activities seem streamlined, with everyone seeming pretty educated on what they doing. This success most likely arises from organization from implementation to today, and we’ve often discussed the topic of how important it is for an institution of any sort to have a plan in place before purchasing and setting up a 3D printing service or lab area.

And thanks to new information, libraries just on the precipice of setting up 3D printing in their buildings will have answers at their fingertips—sixteen answers, as a matter of fact—in a document just released by the American Library Association (ALA) and their Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP).  ‘Progress in the Making: Librarians’ Practical 3D Printing Questions Answered’ offers up a treasure trove of information for setting up a makerspace in the library atmosphere. Co-authored by 3DPrint360 CEO Zach Lichaa and ALA Senior Policy Analyst Charlie Wapner, the document’s questions were all ‘fielded by’ other librarians who, not surprisingly, have an interest in 3D printing.

My only question is whether 16 is enough. It would seem this could eventually be made into a good-sized book; in fact, according to both the ALA and the University of Maryland, around 428 public libraries today are offering 3D printing services. They calculate that this is up 178 from last year, and the number of libraries offering 3D printing is accelerating quickly, with these services offered to patrons at either little or no cost.

“Libraries represent the public on-ramp to the world of 3D printing and design,” said Dan Lee, chair of OITP’s Advisory Committee. “Library professionals who have adopted, or are looking to adopt, a 3D printer must answer questions related to printer operation and maintenance, workflow management, cost recovery, patron safety, and much more. As a by-product of OITP’s policy advocacy on 3D printers and libraries, once again OITP is doing great work for libraries in providing this practical information to assist library professionals.”

UntitledThe document is the third publication in ALA’s “Progress in the Making,” series, which we’ve been following since its inception, allowing for the exploration of typical questions and considerations regarding 3D printing in libraries. It follows a tip sheet (pdf) on 3D printing and public policy, released in September of 2014, and a white paper (pdf) on the economic and policy implications of 3D printing, released in January of 2015.

“Libraries are democratizing access to, and facilitating learning through, 3D printing technology,” said Lichaa. “We need to make sure they have the necessary technical know-how to keep that trend going.”

More so though, we must see that librarians are completely up to speed in nearly all aspects of the technology, from where to look for ideas and how to implement them, to the 3D printer, how it works overall, maintenance, and even troubleshooting. Patrons look to them as complete experts for all library services, and with such a new technology available, comprehensive and reliable knowledge from the librarian will be needed and expected more than ever.

The question and answer format within the document is simple yet entertaining, and the questions involve everything from how much will a 3D printer cost (no more than $1500) and how much space do we need (area on the desktop) to what kind of 3D printer to get (FDM). Pragmatic subjects are discussed, such as typical warranty times (one year) and budget allocations for repairs and maintenance. The questions can get more complicated too, in terms of economy:

Q: What’s the best model for keeping 3D printing services sustainable from a cost standpoint?

A: This will depend on how often the printer is used. Just as some libraries charge for paper printing, it’s feasible for them to charge for 3D printing. One way to approach this is to charge for material. If you purchase the standard 1 kg roll for $22, this should provide about 35 objects the size of a Rubik’s Cube ($0.62 per print). Therefore, if you charge $2 per print and your patrons aren’t making truly large objects, you should be able to recoup funds for every roll of material used. If the object is going to be larger, you can charge $4 a print.

Q: Given the volatile state of the consumer market, what should libraries consider in selecting a supplier?

A: It is very important to work with a supplier who will be around for years in order to service your 3D printer. Library professionals should be aware that 3D Systems – a major manufacturer in the U.S. – recently announced the discontinuation of its line of entry-level consumer FDM printers. However, the number of options on the FDM market has grown significantly of late. As a result, 3D printers are more affordable than ever for libraries. One source of information about the options on the market is Make: Magazine’s annual buyer’s guide.

The questions can also become more complicated in terms of what must be considered time-wise and logistically.

Q: On average, how long does it take to print an item? Are some printers faster than others?

A: The duration of a print is dependent on two primary factors: the size of the print and the resolution you wish to print. An object the size of a Rubik’s Cube will take approximately 5 hours to print with standard resolution. The higher the resolution of the print, the lower the speed because the printer is working slower to provide better detail.

This allows for library administrators also to consider how patrons will be expect to wait if all 3D printers are tied up for hours, what happens if a print is still in process and it’s time to close, as well as actual time limits based on various projects.


[Image: Columbia College Library]

The document also offers information on software that’s best for those just learning, how to deal with noise levels emanating from hardware, as well as a variety of tips that deal with common issues like adhesion and finishing prints. While some of these may seem overly simplified, it’s also important to keep in mind that some of these questions will be replicated by patrons, and not only are they examining what they are getting into, but they are also getting a basic education in what to tell library goers who will be relying on them for answers to questions like, “what is an .stl?”

The authors of the document are well-versed in both 3D printing and the library atmosphere, as Lichaa runs 3DPrint360, a New York based company dedicated to serving newcomers to 3D printing and enthusiasts with advice and reliable products. He has worked with numerous 3D printing companies around the world, including the popular 3D Hubs. Wapner is the Senior Information Policy Analyst for ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy, leading the ALA’s policy work on 3D printing. He has also written several other ALA publications regarding this subject.

For public libraries seeking to demonstrate the impact of 3D printing, the Public Library Association also recently released a video featuring Cleveland Brewery Owner John Fuduric, which is freely available for use in presentations and social media.

Do you think this document will be helpful? Tell us your thoughts in the ALA 3D Printing Questions Answered forum over at



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