3D printing isn’t the digital literacy that libraries most need to teach

Here’s a story that’s playing out in libraries everywhere:

Library Unveils 3D Printer

Keene residents now have access to a 3D printer allowing everyone the ability to turn the digital into the physical. A brand new MakerBot Replicator 2 is now plugged in at the Keene Public Library.


Libraries are now more than repositories of books for researching but active community centers inviting people to come, make, and create things.

That’s a great mission statement, and it’s one I’ve been suggesting for a long time. But when the Keene Public Library jumps on the 3D printer bandwagon, I’m reminded of its failure to embrace other opportunities to make and create, ones much closer to the library’s core competencies.

The LibraryLookup Project was born in Keene. Our library’s online catalog was the first one I connected to Amazon’s catalog. Over the years libraries around the world adopted the technique. It evolved through several iterations, culminating in a service that alerts you when a book on your Amazon wish list is available in the local library. But one library conspicuously refused to get involved: the Keene Public Library. Why not? One objection was that the method preferentially supported Amazon. So I added support for Barnes and Noble, but the answer was still no.

Then there’s this ITConversations podcast I made with Mike Caulfield. At the time Mike lived in Keene as well, and on the appointed day things weren’t quiet enough to record in either of our homes, so we went to the library and asked to use one of the meeting rooms on the second floor, all of which were empty. The answer: No. Why? According to the rules the rooms are available only for use by “non-profit, civic, cultural, charitable and social organizations.” I pointed out that ITConversations was a non-profit. Still no. In the end we recorded in the upstairs hallway outside the forbidden room.

I don’t mean to pillory the Keene Public Library. It’s a great local library, it’s well used, visitors from towns much bigger than Keene are always impressed. And they’ve done some great work online, notably an archive of historical photos that’s now part of the Flickr commons. Why not encourage the community to engage in that kind of making and creating?

It’s not just the Keene library. At a gathering of makers and hackers last year I sat in a session on the future of libraries. The entire discussion revolved around 3D printers and maker spaces. I asked about other creative literacies: media, webmaking, curation, research. Nobody was interested. It was all about 3D printing.

Here’s my conclusion. 3D printing, and the maker movement for which it is emblematic, are memes that are being marketed with great success. So much so that Evgeny Morozov, who makes a living deflating memes, goes after them in this week’s New Yorker.

Criticism has its place, and all popular memes deserve scrutiny. But there’s no question that the maker movement has tapped into a fundamental urge. We are starting to realize that you can’t build a house, or heat it, or feed the family that lives in it, by manipulating bits. You need to lay hands on atoms. As we re-engage with the physical world we will help heal our economies and our cultures. That’s all good. But it’s not the first thing that comes to mind when libraries seek to transform themselves from centers of consumption into centers of production.

Libraries really are about bits. They are uniquely positioned to adopt and promote digital literacies. Why don’t they? Those literacies aren’t yet being marketed as effectively as 3D printing. We who care need to figure out how to fix that.

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4 thoughts on “3D printing isn’t the digital literacy that libraries most need to teach

  1. Since you are opining about the role of libraries, I would be interested in your take on the Google Book Case which is still alive and kicking. Specifically about the digitizing of books and the ability to search them (not talking about the displaying of all pages just the search results).

    1. I once met with the University of Michigan head librarian who was UM’s liaison to Google on the scanning project. He gave me a copy of a book that had been long out of print but has now come back to life. Not only was it digitized, it was also made available, via print-on-demand, from Amazon. That’s still my favorite story about book digitization. Full circle!

  2. The library response on that day was so frustrating.

    It reminds me though that when I was in high school my friends and I wanted a place to hang out during lunch, and we were told that while we could use the library as an alternative space we could not use the conference rooms unless we were a student club.I never get this idea. I understand you might want to *prioritize* student clubs, but only student clubs?

    In the end, in our typical annoyingly smartass fashion we formed a club called “Friends of the Library Association”, got it recognized, and were able to use the rooms. The librarians would ask us — so what are you going to do for the library? We would say “Nothing. We’re not Workers of the Library Association, we’re *friends*”

    Maybe all of America needs to form one big non-profit called “Nationwide Friends of the Library Association” You get issued a card stating you have convening powers, and hence get to use the conference rooms. What do you think?

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