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How to Start a 3D Printing Program at Your Library
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Posted On May 5, 2015
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If you’re thinking about installing a 3D printer in your library, there are a lot of things to consider before you do so. You have to decide on a model, find a place to put it, and figure out whether (or how much) to charge for its use. Three library representatives share their experiences with implementing a 3D printing program at their institutions.   

Sauk City Library in Wisconsin started its 3D printing program in 2012. Director Ben Miller, a former systems librarian, says that when he was hired, the library board was looking to “advance the library into the 21st century.” For Miller, one of the ways to accomplish that was to buy a 3D printer. So far, patrons have printed phone cases and characters from “Pokémon” and “Minecraft”; one person printed playing pieces for the board game Settlers of Catan; and another prints replacement parts for his electric razor when it breaks because the part he needs isn’t sold separately. “[O]ne of the things that we’re trying to focus on is being a place of creation instead of just consumption. And so the 3D printer was new enough and was sort of a big enough idea for a small town that we talked about it a lot at board meetings,” says Miller, and they decided to purchase one.

Northeastern University Libraries in Boston opened a Digital Media Commons collaborative learning facility on the second floor of its Snell Library in fall 2012 and added a 3D printing studio in 2013. Patrick Yott, associate dean for digital strategies and services, says, “[T]here was a real core need here at Northeastern for a centralized facility that was available to everybody—from an engineer, to someone who broke a part in their lab, to undergraduates.” Printed objects have included cellphone cases, cookie cutters (designed at a workshop around the holidays), and even font kits for an English class. “So we’re trying to get across to the students at large that this technology is no longer isolated to a certain type of activity,” says Yott. “I think this is pretty much true across academia as far as I can see it—the idea that data now is a tangible asset. And this is a really important way for them to start thinking about data. … It’s a really meaningful addition to the library and the campus.”

Penn Libraries Biomedical Library supports the University of Pennsylvania Health System and the university’s schools of medicine and nursing, biomedical graduate studies, and department of biology. Barbara Kountouzi, head of digital media and virtual services, was initially joking when she suggested to her boss that the library should purchase a 3D printer. But she quickly got serious about the idea, and the library started its 3D printing program in December 2014. Its printed objects include protein molecule replicas, animal skulls for paleontologists, and art for the hospital’s rehab robotics lab. “These days, making equals learning, and it has the same value as all the other academic activities and clinical activities,” she says. “People do love it. It’s popular, it’s worth it, so I would definitely recommend it … after careful consideration that it’s something that the administration wants. It’s not to be taken lightly.”

Learn From Others

Yott says faculty members alerted him to the fact that students were having trouble accessing the engineering lab’s 3D printers, which led to a series of conversations with faculty to get the program up and running.

Kountouzi also drew on the expertise of faculty members (from Penn’s schools of design and engineering) to learn about their 3D printing programs and the vendors they use. Joining a library makerspace listserv was especially helpful, she says. She watched the discussions and made notes for months prior to buying a printer.

Miller visited Sector67, a local hackerspace, to check out its printers. It became his biggest resource for learning about 3D printing. He printed samples to bring back to his library, and hackerspace participants told him which types of printers weren’t a good fit for a library setting.

Get Approval

Miller says it took some time for his board to accept the idea of getting a 3D printer. “[T]hey never discouraged me from going into it, but they definitely wanted to learn more about it,” he says. “They really wanted to not just throw money at it, but to understand why we would have it.” His visit to Sector67 helped to convince the board members to “jump in with both feet.” He says it’s important to have support from library staff members too. His staffers viewed the printer as “Ben’s toy” at first, he says. But when they began using it and seeing what it could do, they appreciated having it. He suggesting borrowing a printer or bringing staffers to another library to see one before making the decision to buy, so that everyone learns about it together.

Yott echoes the sentiment that getting others to like the idea is crucial; in his case, the faculty and research community at Northeastern needed to be on board. “We were very deliberate in our planning, talking to faculty and researchers across the campus, saying, ‘What would you need; how would you use it?’” he says.

“I personally had it relatively easy because we are running a poster-printing operation here, which is actually profitable, so with the profits that we were making from posters, we were able to justify expanding the service to 3D printing,” says Kountouzi.

Choose a Model

Northeastern’s Digital Media Commons has a variety of 3D printers because Yott says he wanted to attract both novice and experienced users.

Miller decided to buy the first iteration of the dual-extrusion MakerBot Replicator. Recently, the MakerBot’s motherboard broke, and the library board agreed with Miller that it would be more economical to purchase a new model instead of fixing the MakerBot. “We had about a 60% success rate with people just coming in and printing something. And we really wanted to improve on that anyway,” he says. The new printer is a LulzBot TAZ 5, which is made by Aleph Objects, an open source hardware company.

After analyzing her budget, talking to librarians on the listserv, and getting advice from design and engineering faculty members, Kountouzi decided to purchase a high-end 3D printer, the Stratasys uPrint SE Plus. It was important to Kountouzi to get a model that came from the same vendor the other departments used so she could lean on them as her support system.

Find a Place

“We have a real crunch for space, and so there’s no room for us to actually have an established makerspace,” says Miller. Sauk City’s 3D printer resides in its history room—within eyesight of the librarians’ desks—on a sturdy table near the microfilm area. “And so it’s this weird juxtaposition of Wisconsin history and local history, and the 3D printer,” he says. An adult patron doing a genealogy project on the microfilm machine can see what a teen is doing with the 3D printer and vice versa, so conversations have sprung up naturally. “It’s amazing to see that cross-generational meeting happening at the library, which is I think one of the best things the library can do.”

Kountouzi put her library’s 3D printer next to its poster printers. “[W]e have a space we sort of call a digital media lab—it’s not really, but we call it that.” The space has the library’s poster printers, workstations, a table, and the 3D printer. “[W]e will be moving to a new space just two offices down the hall, but it’s slightly bigger and it’s closer to where the sink is, because our 3D operation needs a sink,” she says.


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Brandi Scardilli is the editor of NewsBreaks and Information Today.

Email Brandi Scardilli

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