US Libraries Begin Offering Free 3D Printing to Public Amidst Learning Curves and Legal Questions


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What if all it took to gain access to the technology of 3D printing was your plastic library card?  Considering it’s been hard to even find a book about 3D printing at the library, and the supply of new tomes on the shelves seems to be dwindling, I’ve been worried the library itself may be turning into an antiquated institution, squeezed out of existence by electronic, paperless options.

It’s exciting to hear that with a number of 3D printing programs on the horizon libraries will be enticing budding geniuses and technogeeks back into those big buildings filled with books. While it’s a game changer for sure, allowing innovators of all ages to have access to what they need, a host of concerns and questions follow in offering technology that has the potential to break so many barriers.images

You may not be aware that right now there are 250 libraries in the US that offer 3D printers to patrons, according to OITP Perspectives, a publication by the American Library Association (ALA). From Boy Scouts making actual functioning automotive wheels to students producing prosthetic hands, these 3D printers are helping to accomplish noble tasks, and are spreading the STEM curriculum to the communities.

The crucial element in libraries getting involved in 3D printing is that it is free. While it’s not so hard to get your hands on or get to a PC or printer, it is for most people nearly impossible to get to a 3D printer or, even further, to buy their own. Affordability in general is one of the biggest issues with 3D printing — and while desktop 3D printers are becoming more and more affordable, there is still expense involved, not to mention software, materials, and maintenance. Many individuals want to try their hand at the new technology, and prefer to dip their toes in gingerly at first before diving head — and wallet — first into the maker movement. With a learning curve associated with digital design and 3D printing, libraries offer a great benefit, doing what they do best: offering a safe, quite haven for learning.

The 3D printers established in current libraries are there first and foremost to light a fire under students regarding science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. In line with the Obama administration’s agenda to promote STEM education, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation launched the Learning Labs in Libraries and Museums program. Twenty-four counties and cities received $100,000 in grant money each to create areas for teenagers to learning about 3D printing in what they refer to as ‘Learning Labs,’ with two of these successfully up and running in Colorado currently.

With the current smattering of libraries offering 3D printing services for free (with users providing their own materials for the printing), the enthusiasm level grows along with the educational level and the furthering of the STEM agenda. Libraries also often offer lecture series on the subject as well as hosting events.

The list of issues that arises though are:

  • Maintenance of expensive, high-tech equipment
  • Training of library staff
  • Economic considerations
  • Content being printed
  • Public Policy considerations
  • Legal issues

Librarians would have to do more than just wing it with the new and sometimes complex technology suddenly available. Invariably, patrons have questions, printers get hung up and need maintenance or explaining, a variety of materials come into play, and so on. This means considerable education or the need for onsite 3D printing specialists within the libraries.

And while libraries may be giving out the technology for free, potentially, the money has to come from somewhere. Currently, it is beginning to flow from numerous entities, whether they are government grants to bigger libraries, or funding within schools on the elementary and secondary levels. Many colleges and universities are allocating a portion of their budgets to purchase 3D printers for their science labs and their libraries — and these funds are certainly not going to waste, as students are 3D printing everything from advanced arts and crafts projects to automotive parts and medical devices.

makerlabsLarger manufacturers are also getting involved with offering donations, incentives, and discounted educational packages for schools and their libraries, as they see the bigger picture — the imminent need for those with experience in 3D printing and peripheral skillsets in the workforce.

The biggest proponents of this integration of 3D printing into schools so far have mainly been names like 3D Systems, Canada’s Tinkerine, and MakerBot. 3D Systems, in their great wisdom for seeing the need to spread the word of 3D printing to the communities — and acting on it — has also instituted a MakerLab Club, in collaboration with the ALA and Association of Science and Technology Centers. This club benefits libraries and museums, and their patron ‘makers’ who truly show a dedication to digital design and 3D printing. These libraries and museums receive multiple 3D printers, workshops, webinars, discounts, and a wide range of access to instruction.

20120915-Public-Library-3D-PrintingWith all the elements in place for offering the equipment to the public comes the immediate need for managing it and looking ahead to potential concerns. The ALA is right on target with issues regarding what could be potential copyright issues and more. With a number of libraries operating in different places with different people and different projects in progress, it’s hard to say though what subjective scenarios could develop, obviously.

“Given the many legal questions 3D printing gives rise to, libraries need to do more than provide their patrons with instruction in the basics of printer mechanics, maintenance, modeling and scanning,” states Charlie Wapner in his recent article for the ALA publication, OITP Perspectives, titled “Progress in the Making: 3D Printing Policy Considerations through the Library Lens”. “It is in our best interest to think chiefly about what is practicable and consistent with the mission of libraries [in serving the public], and secondarily about what might eventually be held by Congress, regulatory agencies, the state legislatures or the courts to be outside the bounds of the law.”

Whilethere are certainly a host of legal issues to crop up in the future, it’s uncharted territory right now. Copyright and trademark laws have the potential to come into question. The question of freedom of expression and what laws apply to 3D scanning and printing are still pretty fuzzy. The ALA is of course looking to ward off any potential issues considering the line between free expression and the controversy regarding issues like the 3D printing of guns which is beginning to force regulation. There are also other concerns down the line with 3D printing of items like medication, drugs, and even fake postage and counterfeit money.

“If library professionals familiarize themselves with the budding policy debates surrounding 3D printing, they can help shape the laws, regulations and corporate policies that coalesce around this technology in the coming years. One goal of our work around 3D printing is to make this possible,” said Alan S. Inouye, director of the ALA Office for Information Technology Policy.

MakerBot_Setting_HERO_tcm20-2098511It’s one thing to put 3D printers in libraries, but another altogether to expect them to police them. There is talk of a digital monitoring system being integrated into the printers themselves, along with the idea that librarians could post legal information regarding photocopying laws, and copyright and intellectual property laws near the 3D printing areas. While that leaves interpretation of the law up to everyone in question, it is in some way a method to deal with possible legal issues – sort of like signs at a public pool that say “no running.”

It’s hoped that, with the amount of enthusiasm and positivity that the technology is offering, problems would be kept to a minimum as citizens respect the privilege of having such expensive resources offered at no cost. The amount of good being done certainly outweighs the current potential negatives, with the idea being to educate people and offer students skill sets previously unheard of.

It’s easy to see what will happen when 3D printing resources are offered to the community at no cost. Creative people will flock to the technology and will continue to use it with inspiration and innovation. Digital design and 3D printing is a technology that applies to numerous disciplines, imbuing them with momentum and propelled by creative, human spirit. Have you been to a public or school library recently that offered 3D printing? What do you think of the legal issues and need for public policies surrounding 3D printing in U.S. libraries? Discuss in the Public Libraries to Offer 3D Printing forum over at

[Source: OITP Perspectives, ‘Progress in the Making: 3D Printing Policy Considerations through the Library Lens,’ by Charlie Wapner]

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