Interview: US Library Brings 3D Printing to the Public

As information goes digital and becomes easily accessible from everywhere, many public libraries are finding themselves with existential struggles. The Chicago Public Library (CPL) may have found a way forward. It recently opened an Innovation Lab to experiment with new library services, offering among other things 3D printers and software. In that way, CPL hopes to become more customer focused and able to adapt to people’s changing needs.

The Maker Lab

The first experiment in the Innovation Lab is the Maker Lab, made possible by a $250,000 grant of from the US Institute of Museum and Library Services. Open for the public from 8 July through 31 December 2013, the Maker Lab offers an introduction to new forms of personal manufacturing and business opportunities.

“To show and to engage is a big goal”, says Commissioner Brian Bannon. “We want to connect people to the ideas of the day and expose them to technology”.bannon_ed

The Maker Lab offers two kinds of activities: introductory and Open Lab hours, during which customers can work with staff members to master new software and to create personal projects. Customers use 3D printers, for example, to “make all kind of things”, such as plastic jewellery, games or key chains.

There are no firm rules for using the 3D printers at the Maker lab. “Obviously, we don’t want people to print things that can be dangerous or anything”, asserts Bannon. However, printing weapons, for example, would hardly be possible, because the Lab’s equipment is “pretty entry level”.

No library liability

The risk of infringing intellectual property rights when using the 3D printer has not been a big concern for the Maker Lab. “But if we decide to continue to invest in this, it could be a good idea to offer a class on intellectual property”, he concedes. “What we don’t want is for the library to put itself in the role of responsibility, to filter and interpret the law”. “But we do help people do the research on intellectual property rules”.

The Maker Lab has met with positive reactions and has helped CPL to reach out to a new group of interested users. “It’s nice to see new people come into the library”, Bannon acknowledges. And the trend seems to be spreading. “We have seen other libraries experiment with similar programmes”, says Bannon. “There is a lot of interest from colleagues around the US”. According to Bannon, even librarians “can’t be blind to the fact that there are some technologies that revolutionise the way we connect”.

Design methodology

The experiment-based methodology is unorthodox in itself. Says Brian Bannon: “Libraries are not really used to this process of prototyping, but we like how the lab space comes with a mind set of experimentation. When you think about a new way of reaching a customer, it is easy to focus on the solution rather than the process, but if you apply design-thinking the process is more important, you  can experiment and make adjustments along the way. This is the way many sectors of business function, but it is not the norm in public institutions.”

However, US public libraries do have a long history of show-casing leading technology of the day. “Benjamin Franklin made some of his experiments electricity in Philadelphia’s public library, for example” explains Bannon.“We have gotten a lot of questions about how this fits in our mission”, finishes Brian Bannon. “That’s a  question we love to get, because that’s the question we’re trying to answer with this project!”

Per Strömbäck
Editor Netopia