May 26, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

My Love/Hate Relationship with 3-D Printers in Libraries


3D_lovehateWe need a 3-D printer because… “…it’s the only program adults will attend.”  “ …our district might cut school librarians if we don’t look cutting edge.” “…for prototyping.” “…for the future of manufacturing.”  “…because the next town over has one.”

We’ve seen 3-D printers shift from cool niche products to supposed must-haves. “Library 3-D printing is empowering people to engage in creative learning, launch business ventures and solve complex health problems, states the American Library Association in their introduction to 3-D printers and public policy.  Heady! But we have to ask: are we achieving this dream or just printing tchotchkes?

3-D Printers’ theatricality is great marketing

I marvel at the miracle of 3-D printers in which an object transforms from pixels to rock-solid artifact with the push of a single button. Buzzing beneath colorful LED lights, 3-D printers can be downright theatrical. Some 3-D printers even resemble stages, their extruders veritable deus ex machinas. The  hipness of the device rubs off on us: we’re cooler when the printer is in tow. 3-D printers are great marketing tools, symbols that our program—and our libraries—are cutting-edge. Library ownership means many people can see the magic show for free.

3-D Printers help us do some things better

Custom jewelry can be quickly prototyped, tested, and manufactured. Project e-NABLE gets makers printing prosthetic hands, lowering costs, and allowing size and color personalization. Doctors have 3-D printed a scalable ‘exoskeleton’ to lend arm movement to a child’s otherwise-immobile appendages. Shipping a printer and filament to ravaged or developing communities can facilitate rapid deployment of necessary tools and parts. These are revolutionary possibilities.

3-D Printers can bring the world to our  neighborhood

3-D printing can physically connect our users to faraway or precious physical objects. The vision-impaired can feel the wrinkles in Abraham Lincoln’s life masks (via Smithsonian’s downloadable 3-D models. Students can download and print 3-D models of fossils or NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover, asteroids, and moon craters. Struggling students can have enough math manipulatives for both home and school. The world isn’t just on your screen: it’s in your hands.

And yet …

Printing existing designs FOsters consumerism

None of the uses above ultimately contribute to the maker movement’s goal of transforming consumers into creators. According to Dale Dougherty of Make magazine and Maker Faire, “The maker movement has the opportunity to transform education by inviting students to be something other than consumers … They can become makers and creators of their own educational lives,” he wrote in Slate. Printing others’ models doesn’t achieve this vision; it merely shifts the means and mode of consumerism from stores to the printer on your desk. In his book The Maker Manifesto (McGraw-Hill Education, 2013), Mark Hatch writes “Making is fundamental to what it means to be human. We must make, create, and express ourselves to feel whole.” Clicking “print” may fulfill practical needs, but does it contribute to feeling more human?

A steep learning curve slows innovation among novices

The real (and difficult) skill is 3-D modeling: learning to turn your 2-D design into a three-dimensional object. Some tools  make 3-D modeling easier (MakerBot’s has some customizable designs and its transforms user-drawn outlines into 3-D models for printable cookie cutters). But for most,, there is a significant chasm between user wants and their novice skills. We often cannot design what we envision: it’s a false promise.

Slow print speeds challenge schools and libraries

Schools and libraries host many maker activities  with multiple users and a finite time for completion. Most 3-D printers can’t keep pace with bulk printing. Take those cookie cutters. Print the two-inch size, and each can take 15 minutes. (You can get it down to five if you shrink your design down to a dime-sized charm.) Now multiply that print time by the number of attendees at a 90-minute workshop. How long will it take to put a printed product in each attendee’s hands? How small must the products be in order to print in that time frame? (I hear you saying that the library staff will do the printing. So who is bringing the invention to life? You or the patron?)

Additionally, it can be difficult for patrons to move from simple 3-D modeling to envisioning sophisticated uses. When Stanford professor Paolo Blikstein  introduced students to a laser cutter to create  “easy” starter projects like keychains, students envisioned using the tool in the future to create … more keychains. Does society need more keychains? Do we know how to guide our students and patrons beyond what Blikstein termed “keychain syndrome”?

Prototyping? Not so fast.

Some say they need 3-D printers for prototyping. But 3-D printers are rarely the first stop for professional-grade prototypers: the design and printing take too long. Instead, most reach for clay, cardboard, and foam for proof of concept. Is a 3-D printer the best prototyping for your community?

Consider your needs assessment

Finally, we have to ask: how many patrons have walked into our libraries and asked, “Do you print plastic stuff here?” Probably none.


Have we, enthralled by accessible price points, hypnotic colored lights, and a seemingly-magical process, invested money in something patrons simply aren’t asking for? Are 3-D printers right for most libraries, or only a few?

3D printing piece

Is this a good use of 3-D printing or not? How do you decide? (photo by Mayank Khanna)

Kristin Fontichiaro ( teaches at the University of Michigan School of Information, where she coordinates the Michigan Makers after-school makerspace program and is principal investigator of the Making in Michigan Libraries project, made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. She is series editor of the award-wining Makers as Innovators series (Cherry Lake Publishing).


Maker Workshop
In this two-week online course, you’ll create a maker program that aligns with your budget and community needs, with personal coaching from maker experts—from libraries and beyond—May 23 & June 6, 2018.


  1. I found that a laser cutter is a fast, affordable alternative to a 3D printer. My elementary students love to experiment with their designs and productions, they can take their products with them, and they are able to do it pretty much by themselves. We have a Silhouette Cameo. We’ve not yet ventured into 3D designs, but others have used laser cutters to craft layers that turn into 3D projects.

  2. A side note: the Global Map of 3D Printers in Libraries may be helpful in locating a 3D printer near you.

    Currently there are 671 (I think) libraries on the map.

  3. Kristin Fontichiaro says:

    Tonya – we love our Silhouette Cameos, too! They’re so user-friendly and are a great way to give kids both a digital and tangible experience. We like ’em so much we now own three!

    That being said, a laser cutter is different from a Cameo — the Cameo cuts with a blade, and a laser cutter with a laser beam.

    As a point of comparison good laser cutters start around $10K, a MakerBot Replicator 2 3D printer is in the $2K range, and a Silhouette Portrait (the little sister of the Cameo) can be snagged for $100 on sale.

  4. Kristin- This is a great article that respectfully addresses the seemingly limitless applications of 3-D printing while balancing the practical applications in a typical library setting. Innovation versus consumerism. The incredible learning curve to actually use 3-D printers as a maker almost relegates them a novelty for most folks. It is an important perspective that needed to be shared, especially for libraries that are trying to decide if they “need” a 3-D printer.

  5. Laura Gardner says:

    Great article! While we do have a Makerbot 3D printer in our school library (which we got from a grant), I only allow students to print original designs they have made on Tinkercad. Some of our students have become very skilled in making designs; they are teaching themselves using video tutorials and then teaching each other. The 3D printer is only one part of our MakerSpace, however, which is only one component of our library program.

  6. Christina Jane Stuck says:

    This topic is somewhat related to a question I’ve been percolating within me. I’m not sure how to really discuss it, where, or with whom, so here it goes! After reading Jim Trelease’s The Read Aloud Handbook (why was this book not assigned during my MLS in all of those youth study classes?!) and following Stephen Krashen on Twitter (who is awesome, by the by), should libraries change their long affair with reading? I, by no means, disregard the necessity of mingling in technology or in using it. I love STEM, STEAM, STREAM (or whatever will be added next). I adore using it in story times and other programs because (ta-da) life is not regimented into subjects.

    What is our focus as librarians? Surely it is to help not only produce (as with children/young adults) but to help people continue to be life long learners (in whatever ways), not just life long readers. But, I fear with so much discuss on STEM, we feel (or at least I sometimes do) the need to back off reading, stories, and books. It dawned on me after reading Trelease that Krashen is right: we don’t have a STEM crisis, but a READING crisis. Reading is at the center of everything. I wish the focus of debates in education would go back to reading. If we don’t have the funds to fund libraries and certified librarians, then how are we going to fund technology? And yet, it happens. And kids aren’t succeeding. Does no one see a correlation?

    Anyway, when I read this article I thought I might comment and see if anyone else feels this way or can help me. Thanks!

    • Kelly Myers says:

      I wholeheartedly agree. I have a pre-k library, so I’ve been able to strike a balance by offering makerspaces or learning centers that specifically support early literacy. Each week, I put out props and/or puppets to support re-telling the featured story; writing materials w/ blank books, art and craft supplies for visual/representational storytelling, and blocks, toys, and sensory trays for story re-enactment. There’s still a LOT of math & science concept development happening during these activities, but my emphasis is firmly on oral language development and emergent literacy skills. We still do a ton of traditional chants and fingerplays for the same reason.

      • Kristin Fontichiaro says:

        My take is that each school is different, and each school librarian has a professional responsibility to assess his/her school, curriculum, and student/faculty needs. The answer might not be the same in two neighboring schools. We gauge our success not by what trends say is the best thing to do but by the degree to which we help our school communities reach agreed-upon goals. A school with a robust CAD program probably needs multiple 3-D printers (and likely for them to be in the CAD classroom, not the library). A school with struggling readers needs literacy activities everywhere, including the library. A successful school librarian puts the needs of the school ahead of his or her own pride and vanity.

  7. Pam Hansen says:

    I agree. Technology not for technology’s sake, but only when it is an improvement. Another technology bandwagon that everyone seems to have jumped upon is the interactive whiteboard. How many of them are used as “smart” boards and how many are used as “dumb” boards? I have an interactive whiteboard and use it mainly as a screen (dumb board). I do not have the time to create lessons, nor do I have the training in SmartBoard technology. In my last three districts, I have seen little or no improvement in student learning or engagement following the installation of interactive boards.

  8. A. Madalyn says:

    Yes, in our (at least, my small library’s) attempt to appear “cutting-edge”, we seem to be putting the cart before the horse. If kids (or ESL adults) can’t read well enough to understand the instructions to USE a 3-D printer (or any other technology, for that matter), what use will a 3-D printer (etc.) be to them? Many regular visitors (especially after school) use our computers because their family can’t afford their own–or if they can afford a computer, they can’t afford internet service). If staff are the ones expected to “execute” patron’s designs, staff become manufacturers…and the library, a “factory” where items are manufactured. And what about copyright issues? If a patron wants to replicate a commercially-made item, will they be violating copyright law? Will the library be subject to lawsuits for enabling patrons to do so? Our library is on the verge of becoming a “makerspace” (very similar to our local PARK DISTRICT, which charges fees for all classes offered–we usually DON’T.)

    I grew up in a house with a makerspace—THE KITCHEN TABLE. My artistically-gifted mother taught me & my cousins how to do/design/produce many things there. We didn’t need our library (or tax dollars from our neighbors) to “substitute” for her skills, talent, patience with us kids.

    WHY do modern libraries assume they should be “all things to all people?” Why not focus on promoting LITERACY (via print OR digital methods) so that patrons of all ages can then use their literary skills to seek out interests of their own?

  9. I see 3d printers in libraries as a huge plus. Students will be able to make unique projects with them and even hobbyists. It can also bring people together to try and figure out and create something new as there are more entrepreneurs than ever before. Its a great tool to expand creativity and the imagination. I hope to see 3d printers in all libraries and schools around the world it would be great. Nice article cheers!