Beyond the Bullet Points: Missing the Point and 3D Printing

OK, the post by Hugh Rundle ( has gotten some attention. Most of it expected…bleeding edge folks think we need them, plenty of folks think they are unnecessary or not ready. However, all of these arguments miss the point in my opinion, because they are all grounded in the concept of library as collection with printing as one service to export the information provided by the library. In other words we (the library) have the stuff you need, and we’ll let you take some of it with you by printing it out.

I’ve tried to make a few twitter comments and leave it at that, but it just keeps annoying me, so sorry for the rant (I’m told a grumpy disposition is a side-effect of the medication I am on), but I just can’t help myself.

Hugh starts off with what I think might be the worse piece of logical reasoning I’ve seen in quite a bit of time:

Printing and copying in two dimensions is about making a copy of the information. Librarians have spent the last decade talking about how it’s all about content, but three dimensional products are not content, they are containers.

So a sculpture is not information, a video, nothing? A dance transfers no information because it is in 4 dimensions (time and space)?! Are libraries not supposed to support any field that works beyond text? Architecture, engineering, fine arts – see ‘ya! Aaarrggg.

The rest of my very real problem with this post is stated almost in passing … that is the library is about “storage, discovery and dissemination” of information.” In other words library as collection. That the library is the composite of its purchased and leased resources, and the nice services like printing (and I assume study areas, cafes, and the like) are nice additions on top of the core mission. And that undermines his entire argument in my opinion. He is absolutely right that to rush into 3D printing for technolust with no real reason is stupid. Printing chocolate and other examples, do not measure up to the services like 2D printing (and I presume bathroom services). What he is wrong about, is that only the provision of information (here clearly defined as that that is printable in 2 dimensions) constitutes a legitimate library service.

What 3D printing is being used in libraries is not as a sort of Xerox plus, but as part of innovation and creation spaces…MakerSpaces. The point is not for folks to come in and print out existing things, but to create their own things (and ideas, and new products, and pieces of whimsy). Why in a library? Because that is the core of the library – not the collection – idea creation and knowledge generation. Those books and stacks, and printers, and bathrooms, and study rooms, and tape players, and microfiche readers are just tools to get at what librarians are really supposed to be doing…helping the community create knowledge and know itself.

So while Hugh is probably right when he asks:

How many of the librarians clamoring for 3D printers currently provide their patrons with laundry facilities? Sawmills? Smelting furnaces? Loans of cars or whisky stills?

I would be glad to list the libraries that share fishing rods because they ARE A PART OF fishing communities where rods and reels are essential for learning something important to the community. Libraries share and host games, because key members of the community learn through gaming not dictates are a linear curriculum. Libraries loan out people: experts, members of minorities to help establish a civil and informed debate about what it means to be a community. They loan out seeds, and plots to grow gardens.

Ultimately what bothers me about this post is not an attack on 3D printing, and certainly not a warning against technolust. I agree. If you buy a 3D printer for your library expecting it to be a matter of changing a different kind of toner cartridge, just don’t. What bothers me is that by chiding librarians to keep with core values of librarianship, Hugh missies those values. Some librarian brought the first printed book into the library, another brought the first microfiche reader. Some librarian brought in the first game, and the first scroll, and the first illuminated manuscript. They did this to enhance access, yes, but also to expand the capabilities of the communities they served. They did so not because it was text and therefore OK, but because they were tools that could help. Help, not document the world, but to change it. Librarians change the world. Librarians are radical positive change agents that work with their community, sometimes following, but often provoking and pushing. A good librarian challenges what could be, not simply reifies what is.

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