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.

29 Replies to “Beyond the Bullet Points: Missing the Point and 3D Printing”

  1. David,

    Your conclusion begs the question: since when are texts not tools?

    Librarians change the world, as do many people, with texts and other tools. And yes, they loan and provide access to tools, but more importantly, they provide access to tools that not only help people participate in their communities, but also to escape or change their community and their circumstances, by evasion or critique. Language is one of the most powerful means we have of shaping and re-shaping our world, and libraries excel at helping people navigate language and its tools, despite our faults:

    I think you’re too hard on Rundle, he understands tools very, very well.

    1. Texts are tools and very powerful ones, one of many. I very much enjoyed the link, and it is well worth the read. My point is that the conversation within the community, which includes bringing in outside and former voices from texts (and architecture, and sculpture, and oral histories) are what we are about – not simply the delivery of 2 dimensional information.

      I agree that I am probably being hard on Rundle, I was more upset by the general reaction that said that libraries can have all kind of things in their collections, thus reinforcing collection as library. I fear I was a bit testy because it is way too common.

      I also agree that libraries can’t simply pick up any new “cool” technology and assume there will be a place for it in the library or community. It takes a champion (librarian or community member).

  2. Dave, it worries me that you attribute to Rundle the “worst piece of logical reasoning” you’ve seen in a long time…and then explain by way of a formal fallacy! No, a sculpture is not information. Information is a species of meaningful data and a sculpture is not data (though it may be a datum). Rather, an observer derives meaningful data (information) from a sculpture. Likewise, we derive information from dance, but the performers bodies are not themselves information. You’re equivocating between ‘is information’ and ‘transfers information’. Though I’m not 100% on board with Rundle, he does have a handle on the meaning of ‘information’.

    That being said, I confess to being one of those evil librarians who thinks of the library as a collection (information qua the social transcript) and the librarian as the bridge between a community and that information. I don’t see how that view necessarily prevents librarians from being change agents or from doing real good in their communities, but I think we’ve been through all this before. 🙂

    1. Lane, you always make me think. However, my problem with his logic is when he states that “three dimensional products are not content” and I also see a problem with differentiating between information and information containers. Apparently information is anything that can be printed in two dimensions…container or not.

      I’m also not sure he has a strong handle on information. Which is not his fault, I don’t think any of us do (I am very much including myself here).So what is information. There are a ton of definitions, but most fall into two camps: human-centric and artifact centric. The human centric definitions (including the famous data/information/knowledge/wisdom construct) defines information as that which we use as humans (or see in a given context). The document centric see the information as lying with a container that can be extracted, in which case the dancer and the sculpture are information just like the binding of a book, the ink used, and the carbon content of the paper used are information. Buckland did a great piece on this with the Antelope as document.

      So if the dancers aren’t information, what is the information that can be gleaned and reproduced in two dimensions? If you want to learn to dance, can you do it simply from reading and diagrams, or do you need the necessary kinesthetic “information.” This is why (and yes I have enjoyed going round with you on this – I truly learn a lot) I focus on what happens in people’s heads and talk about how we know something.

      In any case, I think librarians can bridge to collections, and all sorts of tools, some not even owned or management by the library and bring about change. I’m sure you don’t limit your work to what is housed in the walls or are leased. So already, in a sense, isn’t the library beyond the collection in that it includes you?

      1. You’re right that ‘information’ is a notoriously tricky, polysemous word, but for the purposes of librarianship, I think the semantic conception of information is the natural frontrunner: information is well-formed, meaningful data (the SEP has a good overview).

        More to your point, I think we should read Buckland with a grain of salt. When he advocates the ‘information-as-thing’ approach, he doesn’t make any metaphysical commitments. In fact, he ends up proposing either documents *or* data as the candidate ‘things’ by which information is made. The former is concrete, the latter is abstract, and I think the latter is the stronger candidate. As to documents, as I recall, his antelope was only a document after being “processed”. A wild antelope is not a document; a captive antelope in a zoo is. Even then, he only reported this belief; he didn’t advocate it.

        As to the dancer, my initial comment was meant to distinguish between ‘informative’ and ‘information’. The dancer is informative, not information. The information is the propositional content we use to (factually) describe the dance/dancer. For example, when the dancer arches her neck and points her toe, that is informative, but it isn’t information. Her motions constitute data and the data, if well-formed and meaningful, constitutes information. That information is the proposition “she is symbolizing the beautiful swan rising from the water” (among other things). I suppose you could say that information is a special kind of data and that data is an abstract object that supervenes on the physical. So, it really doesn’t make sense to talk of information in terms of 2D, 3D, or other Ds.

        But, some information *does* supervene on documents, which *are* 3D. Maybe the better question is whether the objects printed on 3D printers are documents. The programs that run the printers, and the blueprints that define the objects are certainly documents, and I think it’s uncontroversial for libraries to collect these sorts of things. But, the printed objects themselves? Look at it this way: most public libraries provide instructions on how to distill whiskey, but that doesn’t require that they also provide the stills. I think this is Rundle’s point. Granted, 3D printers are more affordable and easier to manage than whiskey distilleries, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable for a library with a collection of 3D blueprints to have a 3D printer. Shoot, we’ve got one in our library and it’s awesome.

        Last but not least, sorry I wasn’t clear enough: I don’t really view libraries as physical collections. I prefer to view libraries in terms of information: we provide access to the information our community needs. It’s a totally information-centric view of libraries.

        Rock on!

        1. Hard, maybe, but I threw it out there so I can cop it. I agree my 2D/3D distinction is probably not the right way to articulate my thoughts on this topic. Lane says “most public libraries provide instructions on how to distill whiskey, but that doesn’t require that they also provide the stills. I think this is Rundle’s point.” This is indeed mostly the point I was attempting to make. The distinction Lane makes between information and being informative is, I think, a useful one – thanks Lane.
          Dave asks if video, dance, architecture or engineering are not information. Jason Griffey made a similar remark in the comments on my post. Whilst an interesting academic exercise, I think this is a misunderstanding of what I am saying – my concern is not a definition war over what is or is not information but rather how librarians can best spend their time and funds. I also didn’t define information as that which can be printed in 2D – I wrote that the point of 2D printing is to make a copy of information. Ultimately it’s possible to argue that *everything* is information, but it’s not particularly helpful.
          What I’m concerned about is that many public librarians seem to be running away from what librarians have always been good at – connecting people and ideas – without knowing what they are running towards. I don’t have anything particularly against 3D printing, what bothers me is that the “ooh, shiny” factor appears to be distracting librarians at time when it is crucial that we’re part of discussions around things like copyright law, linked data and information privacy. Better for your community if you fix your shitty library website, clean up your metadata, advocate for their right to confidentially access information, and do more outreach. If you think this is “reifying what is” rather than challenging what could be, well, I respectfully disagree.
          Most critics of my post (that I’ve seen) appear to be academic librarians. Academics and university librarians spend a lot of time with people who get paid to learn, experiment and create new knowledge. I can see a role for 3D printers in academic libraries. But if you think they’ll be used in public libraries primarily by people creating and experimenting with new things, I think you’re mistaken. Just as library PCs are mostly used to surf Facebook and print boarding passes, 3D printers will be mostly used to print action figures and other fast moving consumer goods straight from a website. Which is fine as far as it goes, but I’m not sure it expands the capability of a community as much as any number of other things upon which one could expend the same amount of money and energy.

          1. Hugh I appreciate the reply. I feared my response was a bit rough after I reread it.

            I have to say I agreed with you that purchase of technology should always be guided by core principles and mission. And yes I see 3D printers as a rush to the cool. However, I’ve been a small part of setting up the first MakerSpace at the Fayetteville Public Library and I can assure you the intention there was to connect people with ideas…though those ideas were of their own making. THe first set of workshops and events were about “can you print me this,” but through a concerted effort and change in approach by librarians, they became “what do you want to create.” More on that here:

            I’ve seen what happens when librarians change their understanding of linking the public to other people’s ideas, to helping link a community to its own ideas. I’ve seen it in Chattanooga, in Dallas, in Fayetteville, in British Columbia, and Amsterdam. Will the majority of public use be consumption? Certainly for now. My problem is that if librarians don’t change their approach from connecting a person to a resource, to facilitating people learning (through resources, but also through creation, experimentation, and risk taking), then we are little more than maintainers of a collection, a very slow search engine, and a cost center.

            I very much respect your experience and the reality you are a part of. But I ask you how much of the public use of the library is a result of their expectations, and the options they are presented. What if we raised the expectation not just on ourselves, but of the public as well?

  3. Perhaps what is called for is a more informed and detailed discussion of Makerspaces. 3D printers are not a panacea for whatever we’re calling disruptive technological change in libraries this year. They *may* have a place in libraries, but if we aren’t talking about 3D printing in the same conversation as g-code, desktop CNC routers, laser cutters, and 3D scanning stations, then we are likely just embracing a fad.

    If we are talking about 3D printers in that context, then we’ve got some work to do to squeeze rapid-prototyping and small-scale manufacturing into the library’s mission. Perhaps a good discipline to adopt would be to replace each usage of “3D printing” in our writing with “rapid prototyping and small-scale manufacturing” and see if we are still as excited about introducing these things in our libraries.

    Another step would be to consider if we are willing to adopt the teaching of g-code, related software design tools and 3 dimensional composition and design with the same vigor and resources we allot to the teaching of information literacy. If we aren’t, well, then 3d printers are not the future of the library. If we are, then future libraries are going to look a lot more like shop class than like literature class.

    1. The assumption you make is that the library must use it’s own resources exclusively to take on these new tasks. In other words, if libraries support small scale manufacturing and prototyping, all or some librarians must become fully versed in g-code. I would agree that becoming expert in g-code and computer assisted routers and the like don’t fit the core mission…but the core mission is about facilitating the community. That is more than just buying the stuff and becoming experts. Librarians long ago threw away that cooke (we can’t collect Shakespearean texts because we don’t have Ph.D.’s in English Textual Studies). Instead librarians are facilitators that work to access and develop community expertise. So do we need g-code librarians? Nope. Do we need community members committed to teaching it? Absolutely. If a community member teaches it and not a librarian, is it still a library service? Yes. Aside from the library facilitating the learning, the community has defined it as such.

      So maybe the person running the MakerSpace is not a librarian at all…or even paid by the library? Just as the Manga print collection may be managed by a teenaged interest group. In the community-centric view of the library the question is not what fits into some librarian-only defined mission of the library around information, but rather a librarian/community defined operational mission around knowledge development and community improvement. To be sure the librarian part of that conversation will talk about resources, privacy, access, and the common good.

      Last thought: I want to be clear that I don’t think 3D printing or small scale manufacturing is right for every community, and therefore every library. One of the things I very much agreed with in Hugh’s original post was his stand against a technolust herd mentality where every library must do the same thing or jump on the same bandwagon. Why should a library in Seattle look and operate the same way a library in New Orleans, or Parish, NY does? Or for that matter a library in the Congo, or Russia, or Japan? Libraries should reflect their communities and the uniqueness of them.

      So will the future of the library look a lot more like shop class than literature class – depends on the community. Remember that the term academia came from the gymnasium used by Plato, and I think universities need to look a lot more like places to work out ideas, than simply note and test them.

      The common mission for me across librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation within their communities. How that is done MUST reflect the society to be improved (what does improve mean?) and the community that is seeking knowledge.

      If this conversation on small scale manufacturing does one thing I hope it raises awareness of the assumption that libraries have a single mission that we must all fit in the same services and approaches. Diversity within the library community should be celebrated – diversity of ideas as much as diversity of race and creed. It will not lead to some dissolution of the profession, but strengthen it, because as librarians we remain united in a cause around learning and knowledge. Look at this conversation. It is a conversation of librarians that started with a technology and service, but has been much richer in exploration of the nature of information and mission. We have public librarians, academic, academic librarian, an consultants joining in and feeling at home with a diversity of views. It is not, as too many conferences have become, “how we do it good where we are.” This is the level of discourse that identifies a profession (and a noble one at that), and not simply a trade.

  4. Lots of great points here! Especially about how 3D printing is not for the purpose of patrons printing things, necessarily, but for creating new things. Libraries are great spaces for creativity, and that kind of creativity is entirely in line with our mission to provide access to information. Also, things like 3D printers help us bridge the digital divide. School technology classes have used 3D printers for years now, so why not libraries?

    I also love the phrase “A good librarian challenges what could be.” If we just sit back and worry about what’s coming in the future, and don’t actively help shape that future, then we will not remain viable.

  5. I wonder how much of the discussion on 3D printing and academic libraries is really about the traditional research paper. If only we had 3D printers and people actually “made stuff.”

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