I have noticed for a short while something on the internet about public libraries becoming “Maker Spaces” where people can use, amongst other things, 3D printers.  There’s this video which explains the possibilities, if you’ve not seen it already:


For those of you who have not heard of 3D printers before, that feeling you now have after watching the video has a name.  It’s called “Future Shock” and you’re going to have to get used to it.  Give yourself some time and, when you’re ready, we’ll move on.

Basically, 3D printing does for producing plastic objects what home printing did for photographs.  The technology could eventually mean that one can make anything anywhere for the cost of the plastic and electricity.  To use an example from the video, someone could email you a bike.  More likely, one would go on to a website – a bit like Flickr for images – find the design for a bike you wanted and then print it yourself.  Look at Thingiverse for it in embryo.  It’s even theoretically possible, by the way, for 3D printers to be able to make themselves in a year or two.  See what I mean about getting used to future shock?

Frankly, the implications of all of this are mind blowing.  Manufacturing companies are going to start looking pretty silly for a start.  Countries which rely on manufacturing (hello China, or should that be, goodbye China) will also start looking a lot less cocky and dominating.  All that “Made In China” stuff could go into a museum.  Heck, all that “Made In” stuff in total could go into a museum. It’s almost as if the West saw it coming and decided to shift off all that pesky polluting manufacturing onto Asia in order to prepare for it.

“All that “Made In China” stuff could go into a museum.  Heck, all that “Made In” stuff in total could go into a museum.”

But the worldwide implications are for other people to worry about. What I’m curious about is its impact on public libraries.

The theory goes that public libraries will provide great spaces for 3D printers.  Libraries have always provided material for the benefit of the community for those who cannot afford it and 3D printing, on the face of it, seems to fit right in.  Libraries are also in the centre of most communities, have space (as long, presumably,  as one gets rid of those pesky books) to hold them and have helpful staff that could show you how to use 3D printers.  I’m not aware of any UK library having one as yet but, in the USA, several libraries already have one and they’re feeling pretty cocky about being on the crest of the technological wave.

That’s right up to a point but let’s go deeper.  For one thing, even now, a pre-assembled 3D printer can be purchased for $500.  That’s barely over £300.  That’s just about fine for libraries now. They provide computers precisely for people who can’t afford similar amounts of money after all.  However, these prices are at the start of the technological revolution.  Last year, one had to spend perhaps $1000. You can see where this is going.  3D printers are going to be cheap.  Really cheap.  Cheap enough that everyone who wants one is going to have one.  There’ll be no need for libraries  to provide them for the poor because everyone will own them, like the ubiquitous smartphone.  Be prepared to see “Happy Birthday Wayne” 3D banners on roundabouts. Perhaps there was a time when it would have made sense for libraries, therefore, to provide 3D printers to the populace but that time has already effectively gone even before most of us were really aware of the possibility.

“Be prepared to see “Happy Birthday Wayne” 3D banners on roundabouts. “

The other selling point for libraries in this is that we have friendly staff who will be able to help people in learning how to use them. That may be so in some branches of course.  However, I’m willing to bet that right now the majority of staff working in libraries have not even heard of 3D printers.  A lot of library staff frankly need to be more highly trained in Word, let alone the next disruptive technology. Moreover, libraries are in no position to help anyone.  The current cuts mean that there is never been such a difficult time for libraries to justify gambling on such a new technology.  It would be an act of desperation. An act of desperation, that is, unless there was a national investment programme to get 3D printers into libraries and the political will not only to do that but to train staff in the bargain.  With the current belief in austerity and, on the side of all main political parties, in the free market and localism, that is simply not going to happen.

As things stand, therefore, libraries may have lost the 3D printer battle even before most of them had even heard about it. But, like the hero riding over the horizon offering hope there is a potential saviour.  Ladies and gentleman, I give to you the gun-loving Americans.

Our saviour?
Image from Flickr/National Archives

To those in the USA who believe in their right to bear arms, the 3D printer offers a solution to gun control.  If 3D printers can print anything then, after all, they can print guns.  Look at that sentence again.  They can print guns.  This is not a science fiction fantasy either.  It’s happening.  Look at this news report on a hobbyist using a 3D printer to make a working assault rifle. As if that isn’t enough, there’s a whole group working on a, wait for it, wiki weapon.  They’re going to do it in the next few months or years. And they’re going to individualise them as well.  In the USA, they have pink hunting rifles for small girls now (don’t believe me? watch this video).  In 2020, little girls will be able to design their own Barbie rip-off ones. As the technology improves, there is nothing intrinsic that can stop them.  The plans for a working assault rifle, for a bazooka, for a main battle tank, are eventually going to get on the internet. Those plans will be impossible for any Government to stop, although doubtless they will try.  It’s going to be like every dream of the US National Rifle Association came true all at once.


Soon available for download?
Image via Flickr: Library of Congress

So how is this good news for libraries?  One can’t stop the internet but one can sure as heck stop the retail of 3D printers and, after the first homicidal 3D printer owner gets in the headlines, one can be sure that that is what is going to happen.  However, there’s going to be a big demand for the machines and there’s going to be a need for them to be secure as well.  Access to them, at least in Western Europe, will  need to be controlled and secure spaces in every community that has 3D printers for those who need them.  Places with trusted staff who are dedicated to helping people.  And forget letting volunteers run them.  These places are going to need to have paid and trusted staff … and all those buildings will be waiting.

Which leads us on to an intriguing thought.  Libraries, which are seen as a way of equalising access, of education and even as a vital tool for liberty could be used to effectively imprison this technology.  There’s a lot of moral and philosophical stuff that I won’t go into but I will end this post with one thought: who would have expected that, in one possible but unlikely timeline at least, the 3D Printed Assault Rifle could save the public library?