Thursday, January 17, 2013

Makerspaces, 3D Printing, & Libraries

Thesis I: 3D printing is better-suited to public libraries, which already have a wealth of programming options, like butchery and homebrewing.
There, 3D printing takes place alongside other "community center" events, as opposed to "literary" events, though it's important to note that these two categories are not mutually exclusive. One can print a book, which is a three dimensional object, for example, and one can also read about homebrewing and then experience it at a library.
Thesis II: 3D printers make sense at large, R1 institutions, but they will probably end up in a lab, run by a department or departments, much in the same way that computing, science, and engineering equipment isn't often, or ever, found in a library.
That is, there are already communities of makers on many university campuses, whether they code or create objects in laboratory conditions. Those already-existing places make more sense than a library for a 3D printer. That being said, I am in favor of anything that gets people into the physical library space; if a 3D printer is one of those things on your campus, then by all means advocate for it. But please realize you may be lobbying against other departments and spaces on campus. 
Corollary: Beyond the "next big thing," which I think 3D printers will be, they seem to exist as a wish fulfillment fantasy for academic librarians because "making stuff" is a powerful alternative to the research paper. Every single research paper is 1) an invitation to plagiarize, and 2) a reminder to library staff that the way research is conducted is a miserable experience, fraught with friction.
1) Librarians and library staff are sick of research papers. The assignments are often poorly worded, full of grey areas that students interpret how they please, a danger zone in which plagiarism flourishes. Those that are not vague are overly-detailed to the point where the assignment may be longer than the paper. Students become so focused on following the rules of the assignment that they lose sight of what's important about research papers: finding stuff, interpreting it, and making credible and logical arguments. Panic may set in, which leads to plagiarism. 
2) In my heart of hearts I believe that the majority of students do not plagiarize. When students conduct research, they first use a search engine, almost always Google. They will be unable to distinguish between scholarly and/or authoritative resources and total crap. Savvier students will skip ahead to Google Scholar, where they'll be confronted with paying $42.99 for twenty-four hours of access to an article in pdf format. They will read abstracts and cite them as if they had read the full text of the article. Then, and only then, will they proceed to the library, either in person or via the library website, and that is where the friction happens. Search the catalog, then databases?, or use a "discovery" service that delivers everything at once, akin to drinking from a fire hose, wading through hundreds if, not thousands, of barely relevant results? That the research experience stinks is a painful reminder to librarians as to their, our, limitations, and failures in creating positive user experiences.
The research paper has a place, maybe even still a paramount place, in academia, but it should not be the only assignment given. Three dimensional printers are an expression of this discontent; "If only we academic librarians worked in a place where people actually 'made stuff.'"

In addition, 3D printers also capture the zeitgeist, tying into the rebirth of people who actually are making stuff. Leather workers cobbling shoes and wallets in Maine, and posting on Vimeo; the artisanal pickles at the farmers market; and yes, even craft beer; all these things are related. They do not take place in vacuums.


If you'd like to read more on the "3D printers at the library" debate, here are some good places to go:


  1. I loved your thoughts on research papers and the dearth of making stuff, but I'm weary of drawing a connection between handcrafts and 3D printers:

    I think there's a difference between the maker culture of handcraft and the innovation culture of silicon valley (not hard and fast, for sure), but there's a lot more buy-in required for 3D printers that needs to be looked at critically.

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