April 22, 2013 By Riel Gallant

Introduction

Since late 2011, when the Fayetteville Public Library received widespread media attention for its hackerspace, 3D printers slowly began appearing in libraries around the world, particularly in the United States. Recently, debates have sparked in the library blogosphere over this phenomenon; with the argument stemming back to library missions (Andromeda Yelton, Lankes, Rundle).

This report will present statistics concerning libraries in the world who have adopted 3D printing. The data was collected over a two-month period using search engines and social media tools like Twitter, YouTube, and various online discussion forums to search for libraries who have brought in lower-end (below the $5000 mark) 3D printers. The searches were performed using library terms as keywords and combining them with keywords like "3D printer", "3D printing", "Fab Lab", "hackerspace", "Makerbot", "Cubify", "Stratsys" and many more. The information provided in the search results were generated by either library communication officers, local patrons tweeting or sharing videos and information, or reports from local news outlets. Very often, these results were accompanied by geographic information, which could then be used to find the library's official website. It was much easier to collect information from libraries with webpages dedicated to their 3D printer, and confirm that they were in some way actively using the 3D printer along with their patrons.

This data in this report will be presented to show where 3D printers are being adopted by libraries around the world, what types of libraries are using them, how they are using them, and what kinds of 3D printers they own. The search terms that were used to find these libraries were limited by language, therefore results may be underrepresenting countries where English or French is not commonly used to communicate online. It should be noted however that a few Twitter members from Europe interested in this topic did search neighbouring countries using other languages resulting in a few extra results (the Finland and France results were found this way).

3D Printers in Libraries by Location

Of the 51 libraries found to have a 3D printer within their facilities, only 25 have been confirmed to be actively using them for the public.

The remaining 26 were libraries that had either brought in a 3D printer but had yet to make it public - for reasons such as troubleshooting, staff training, and making preparations - or people reported the library had brought in a 3D printer, but it could not be confirmed on the library's website or from other reputable sources.

Both categories together totalled:

It is not surprising to see the U.S. is leading the movement of 3D printing in libraries, but the gap is surprisingly large. This could be due to the fact that many lower-end 3D printer manufacturers are based in the U.S., and that many of first libraries to incorporate 3D printing are American. Again, it should be stated that because of the search strategy used to find libraries with 3D printers consisted of using mainly English search words, the results lean heavily in favour of English-speaking nations.

Types of Libraries

The 51 libraries included public, academic, and school libraries. In some cases it was difficult to distinguish whether it was the branch or the entire regional public library system undertaking the 3D printing initiative. These few cases lead to questions concerning where the 3D printers where located (which branch) and how many there were.

Academic libraries (especially those with strong engineering programs) originally seemed like better candidates as early 3D printer adopters because they have larger facilities and better access to engineering and 3D design professionals. However, public libraries have adopted 3D printers at over three times the rate of academic libraries. It should be noted however that academic libraries generally have more 3D printing information on their website and that they appear to be using their 3D printers more than public libraries. There appears to be a geographic trend in areas: when 3D printing is introduced in an academic library, a neighbouring public library follows, or vice versa (see Figure 4). These public and academic library combinations have occurred in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and Nova Scotia, but this trend may be coincidental.

Usage

When looking at the results of how 3D printers are being used in these 51 libraries, there are varying and limited results. There have been 23 libraries identified with having a function for their 3D printers. Six of them offer a 3D printing service, meaning they will take in patron STL files (3D model files) and print the object. At least 11 of them offer a patron work environment, calling them either makerspaces, hackerspaces, fab labs, studios, or innovation labs. 4 libraries have listed PLA plastic filament their base printing material.

In terms of equipment, libraries have adopted a variety of makes.

 

Makerbot is clearly the most common 3D printer found in libraries across North America, which is not surprising based on the company's recent surge in popularity. This was not the case however in European and Australian libraries, in countries where Makerbot models may not be as popular as other 3D printers. At least 9 libraries have already adopted the Makerbot Replicator 2 which was put on the market in September 2012.

Policy Considerations

For the libraries that have adopted 3D printing, planning the next steps should be interesting, but difficult. Having a policy in place for in house 3D printing should be on the radar of any library looking to make the technology available permanently to patrons. None of the 51 libraries have a 3D printing policy available on their website (or if any did, they were not clearly visible), but some libraries have plenty of 3D printing information on a webpage, and in one case a subject guide. A good policy for a 3D printing service would need to include the cost, submission process, wait and pickup time, and any other kind of useful general information. Copyright will be an important issue to tackle moving forward and libraries need to consider how copyright law will affects their patrons and their 3D printing activities. Libraries should ask themselves whether or not a 3D printing service should be subject to the same copyright regulations as photocopying a book or printing an online article, or if it should be subject to a whole new set of regulations. Libraries that grant their patrons hands on access to the 3D printing equipment (in hackerspace-like environments) should focus heavily on health and safety policy and procedures. Policy relating to patron conduct could be borrowed from the library's general policy.

Conclusion

Based on the advancements in the industry of affordable 3D printers, and the rise in 3D printing popularity, in libraries and among the general public (For example, Wikipedia's 3D Printing page was access 49,893 times in March 2011, and 526,765 times in March 2013), adoption rates should continue to grow. Various factors are holding back the vast majority of libraries for a variety of reasons which include technological unpreparedness, budgetary, staffing and spacing constraints, being of the opinion that 3D printing has no place in a library mission, and lack of knowledge. The technology will continue to evolve in accordance to Moore's Law, but 3D printers are still a niche product for early adopters (Deloitte). However, libraries should continue to ask how, if, and when could their own communities benefit from having access to a 3D printer at the library. For libraries with 3D printers, policy development should be a top priority.

 

Posted in 3D Printing Technology

 

 

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Ros Bell wrote at 12/3/2013 5:33:08 PM:

The UWE Library (UK) no longer offers 3D printing. They had a trial for a while and have now passed the printer along to a faculty.

Riel wrote at 10/30/2013 1:39:52 PM:

Hi Tony and Erin, I've added your libraries to the Google map: https://www.google.com/maps/ms?msid=202566696095151807865.0004d85b5b16ef78781d6&msa=0&ll=11.186353,-109.600665&spn=173.18548,63.984375

Tony wrote at 10/22/2013 2:12:08 AM:

The (Washington) D.C. Public Library has had a MakerBot and Cube running since June or so. See http://dclibrary.org/digitalcommons

Erin wrote at 6/17/2013 7:37:14 PM:

The Saxonburg Area Library has one now too! http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/business/heard-off-the-street/heard-off-the-street-librarys-3-d-printer-spits-out-all-kinds-of-fun-and-learning-691823/

Eric Maslowski wrote at 5/28/2013 9:35:56 PM:

Nice summary of the landscape, however, there is one correction. The University of Michigan 3D Lab is not only "high-end" as we have been running 3D Printing as an open/public service since 2003, with the MakerBot making it's debut in late-2010 as part of our model. We currently have a Cube serving the same role and will have 6 additional low-cost, open access 3D Printers spread in public spaces within the next month or so. Design Lab 1, also under the Digital Media Commons and U-M Library, had a RepRap since late-2011 open to students and courses. Feel free to contact me if you would like more information on our role in the past 10 years of 3D Printing as an open service. Again, nice article.

Patricia wrote at 5/10/2013 7:58:56 PM:

So for Canada, I Know Dalhousie has a 3D printer, but trying to find the other one ... Innisfil Public?

Riel Gallant wrote at 4/24/2013 3:15:21 PM:

Keep checking the Google map for more updates. Since publishing this information on 3ders, three more libraries have been added (UPEI, SUNY Oswego, and Lomira QuadGraphics Community Library)



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