Libraries Lead the 3D Printing Revolution

Libraries have the power to impact young people in so many ways. But for Matthew Shields, a nine-year-old in Kansas, a library transformed his way of life. Shields was born with only a thumb on his right hand. Thanks to a family friend and his local library, he now has a 3D-printed prosthetic hand with fingers that curl, grasp, and help him perform everyday tasks.   

After noticing that Shields was becoming self-conscious about his right hand, the boy's mom found a design for a mechanical hand called "Robohand." A teenage friend, Mason Wilde, took charge and loaded the blueprints on to the Johnson County Public Library's 3D printer.

It took about eight hours to make the prosthetic hand, but the lives of both Shields and Wilde are forever changed. Shields can now turn pages in a book, throw a ball, and give high fives. The skills Wilde learned at the library have inspired him to pursue a career in 3D printing prosthetics.   

"Why do we have a makerspace in the library? This is why," commented Susan Casserley, a Johnson County library volunteer, to TechSoup for Libraries.

Why 3D Printing

The story of Shields and Wilde is particularly striking, but there are plenty of other reasons libraries are offering 3D printing to their communities:

  • Making 3D printers publicly and freely available opens up the technology to new audiences who wouldn't otherwise have access to it.
  • Patrons can flex their math skills, learn some basic engineering, and get a little creative in the process.
  • 3D printing supports Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education for people of all backgrounds. 
  • During our recent Digital Media Labs & Makerspaces in Small & Rural Libraries webinar, one of our presenters remarked that makerspaces can also be a place for kids to learn and experiment – without worrying about being graded.

Introducing Your Community to 3D Printing

So how do you inform your community that you have a 3D printer? Furthermore, how do you get them to actually use it?

The Chattanooga Public Library is making waves in the maker community for good reason. The entire 4th floor of the main library branch is a public lab and educational facility focused on design, technology, and applied arts.

The library helped organize Chattanooga's first 3D printing event, Maker Day, in March 2013 with demonstrations, hands-on activities, and Q&As. Free public events such as Maker Day provide the general public with access to technologies they might not otherwise be exposed to.

Taking the equipment outside the library is another way to connect with new potential makers. Mary Glendening, director of the Middletown Free Library in the Philadelphia suburbs, took the library's 3D printer on the road to the local YMCA and a book sale. As she said:

"We've designed a lot of it [the maker space technology] to be portable so we can take it out into the community."

A Place to Learn New Skills

Brenda Hough for TechSoup for Libraries visited the Johnson County (KS) Library's makerspace, which has a MakerBot Replicator 2 printer as well as AutoDesk software available to the public. The library encourages DIY (do it yourself) learning, but it will also provide assistance and classes for people learning these new technologies.

"We wanted to create a space where people have the opportunity to learn and access software and technology that is prohibitively expensive for the average home/household and provide a space where patrons can work collaboratively on projects and acquire new skill sets – whether for hobby or work," Meredith Nelson, Business Reference Librarian at the Johnson County library told TechSoup for Libraries.

Even More Makerspaces

North of Kansas, the Chicago Public Library's YOUMedia is a 21st century learning space for teens. Workshops are led by librarians and mentors to help teens pursue technologies such as digital music, video production, still photography and of course, 3D printing.

In July 2013, the Chicago Public Library's main branch (Harold Washington Library Center) opened the doors to The Maker Lab, targeted toward adult patrons. Created in partnership with the Museum of Science and Industry, the Maker Lab offers an introduction to 3D software, 3D printers as well as other "maker" technology like laser cutters, milling machines, and more. The Maker Lab was intended to only be open until the end of 2013, but its grant was extended until March 2014.

And last but not least, I'm excited to learn that TechSoup's own local library, the San Francisco Public Library, will have a 3D printer at the new Teen Center. Author and Maker David Lang revealed this information at a library-hosted talk on the maker movement.

"A cool and interesting next phase is turning libraries into makerspaces. They already have these vibrant communities. They already have this structure. They're in the business of providing tools to the community," he said.   

At this year's Consumer Electronics show, tech journalists proclaimed that 2014 is the year that 3D printers will go mainstream. As the examples above show, 3D printing isn't a new concept in the library world. As 3D printers get cheaper and easier to use, expect to see more 3D printers popping up in libraries both big and small.

Images: TechSoup for Libraries, Chattlibrary