3D Printers Won’t Kill Your Library


Some of the conversations about 3D printers in libraries seem to be more about a disagreement on what librarians do, and what services libraries provide, than on 3D printers. Should your library provide 3D printers? I’m not sure. I don’t work at your library. Each library is different. Each library serves a unique community. Hugh Rundle will say that 3D printers are a form of mission creep and will not save your library and R. David Lankes will say that Hugh is missing the point on 3D printers.

I agree that 3D printers won’t save your library, but they sure won’t kill it either. If a library is at the point of betting big on one object or service to save them, then that’s the wrong approach. Libraries serve communities and librarians need to continually¬†participate¬†in conversations with the community members, whether they are active library users or not. Moreover, librarians need to communicate with library boards, mayors, deans, and other various stakeholders so that arguments can be made and understood when budgets are revised.

The Berkeley Public Library has a branch dedicated to loaning hand and power tools. Our library at Hendrix College loans bicycles. These aren’t collections one visualizes when one thinks of a library, but they provide a service that’s in demand.

If part of the disagreement is terminology, then perhaps, to fit the needs of your community, you should focus on shared space. A library is not a hacker space. A library is not a writing center, nor is it a coffee shop. Yet, all of these services can exist under one roof. Does it matter if it’s all called a library or a community center? Is there greater benefit in sharing costs and serving communities or is it more important to defend the idea of a library?


Aaron A.

I’m sure the scroll loyalists felt the same way when the book arrived. Protecting the “mission” is what has libraries knocking on the door of irrelevance in the first place.

Who gets to decide the mission of the library? If ever there was a place (related to learning) in desperate need of revolution, it is the library. Libraries that protect the mission to the extent of being exclusive rather than inclusive, won’t need to worry about dropping books on the floor and making too much noise.

There won’t be anyone in the building to hear them.

Timothy A. Lepczyk

Identifying needs and expanding existing services are a good thing. You’re right. Libraries that do not creatively adapt to a changing market will find themselves in a difficult position.

Hugh Rundle

This is not an argument about terminology, it’s about how the decision about ‘what your community needs’ from a library is made, and who decides. Throwaway assertions about ‘scroll loyalists’ miss the point entirely – the desirability of new technology is not in question, but rather our relationship with it. My blog is called “Its not about the books” for a reason. The value libraries bring to society is around making information and ideas more easily accessible and shareable. They are not about ‘sharing costs’ – this is simply an historical byproduct. So when I write about 3D printers being ‘mission creep’ this is what I’m talking about. They’re not mission creep because libraries should be about books, but rather because the arguments made in their favour usually focus on ‘sharing costs’ for users whereas libraries are for sharing ideas and information. That’s also, incidentally, why libraries and community centres are very different things. How old fashioned to concentrate on libraries’ physical form rather than their purpose.

Timothy A. Lepczyk

Hi Hugh,

I think you missed my point when I talked about sharing costs. A physical building can contain a library, a writing center, a hacker space, a coffee shop, meeting spaces, a media center, and even a co-working space.

That doesn’t take away from the core services of a library and librarians. Instead, it puts services that might benefit crossover users under one roof. Costs, in terms of facilities, infrastructure and even personell, could be shared.

What would you call such a building? Would you call it a library? A creative incubator? A community center? I’m not sure and it may not matter. Some libraries will incorporate all of those things and call themselves libraries. Some will not.




Hugh, your point about “sharing ideas and information” is spot on. I would only offer that in today’s world that is just as likely to happen with a 3D printer, or searching a databank of 3D parts/designs as it is any other resource in the library. Why exclude it? Libraries (imo) should be about connecting community with knowledge. Who am I to say what form it should take?

As someone who has extensively researched 3D printing and discussed the idea of it being located in the library, I have never once heard an argument based on cost sharing. YMMV.

Cheers, Aaron

Riel Gallant

I think you’ve made a good point. There’s been some sensationalism in terms of being for or against 3D printing in libraries in recent months (on blogs and in library school).

I’ve been involved in implementing 3d printing as a service in a university library (Halifax, Canada), and it’s been relatively successful for a number of reasons. I don’t believe it will ever define a library, but rather be a compliment to its core services. If a small library is struggling to remain open, a 3D printer may not be the best idea (in 2013 at least) unless there are enough people present to implement and maintain it.

Experience has taught us that low-grade 3D printers (which is what most libraries have opted for lately) can be a hassle and time consuming for staff. The technology should improve, however, and it will be easier to run as a basic service, much like what paper printing has become in the past 20 years.

I also know that it’s been a blast. You’ve got to try it out if you haven’t yet.


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