3D Printers and Library Policy: Cool Technology Needs Rules Too

When a new and exciting technology comes around, such as a 3D printer, it can be easy to forget about rules and policies. And yet, no matter how cool that 3D printer might make your library look, it's still a piece of public use technology. And public use technology requires clear rules and policies.

At the ALA Annual Conference this year, the conversation around 3D printers and makerspaces seems to have shifted from the "wow" factor to actually creating policies around using emerging technologies in libraries.

Kid with 3D printer

At the session, 3D Printers and Library Policies, two representatives from the ALA and one 3D printer pioneer librarian discussed usage policies as well as privacy issues. Barbara Jones, Director of the ALA's Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF) discussed First Amendment issues with 3D printing. Charlie Wapner, the Information Policy Analyst at the ALA's Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP) discussed patent and copyright issues. Rounding the panel out, Corrine Hill, Executive Director of the Chattanooga Public Library talked about actually implementing 3D printing policies – and taking some risks along the way.

Here are some of the best tips from this informative session that you can apply to your own library:

See a 3D Printer First

Visit a makerlab or another library with a 3D printer before you start designing your policy. This is a great way to see how your patrons will be using it and what sort of policies and guidance they might need.

Incorporate Privacy into Your Policy

As Jones correctly pointed out, most library 3D printing policies are focused on intellectual property rights and not personal privacy. Where do you draw the line when it comes to whether patrons can and can't print certain objects? The Chattanooga Public Library treats 3D printing the same way it treats public computing: there are certain sites patrons aren't allowed to visit, but they're not going to get up in the business of patrons to firmly enforce that rule. With 3D printing, patrons aren't allowed to print certain objects, such as weapons. But again, library staff aren't going to push buttons to enforce the rules.  It's a new territory for librarians, but privacy matters and it must be respected, regardless of the technology.

Don't Let Copyright and Patents Discourage You

Before Wapner began his talk on patents, he stated, "This should not threaten us as librarians." But the truth is that any individual that prints something under patent is liable for a lawsuit. Is the patron or the library likely to actually be sued? It hasn't happened…yet. Still: your policy should prohibit printing something under copyright, patent, or trademark protection.  

Align with Your Internet Policy

As mentioned previously, a 3D printer is just another piece of public use technology. The best way to start building a policy is to look at Acceptable Usage Policies (AUPs) for the other tech in your library. It can, at the very least, serve as a foundation for building out your policy and procedures.

Make Your Policy Approachable

This is probably my favorite point from this presentation. Makerspaces are fun – don't scare patrons away with a stern list of don'ts. The Chattanooga Public Library holds four classes a month: two introductory courses and two where you actually get to print. An intro course is a good way to tell your patrons about your policy and give them the rundown of the do's and don'ts (in a friendly and welcoming way, of course).

Tell the ALA About Your Policy

The ALA is currently collecting policies from academic, public, and special libraries with 3D printer policies. They are aiming to have a report on the state of 3D printing policies by ALA Mid-Winter. If you have a 3D printer, let bjones@ala.org know what you're doing at your library.

Some 3D Printer Policy Examples

Do you have a 3D printer at your library? Are you thinking of purchasing one? Tell us how you've designed your policy in the comments below. 

Image: acplinfo