April 21, 2013

Sacramento library adds 3-D copier to its bag of tricks

A whirring, mechanical sound fills the air inside a basement office of the Sacramento Public Library's main branch. It's the steely and determined sound of the MakerBot Replicator II – a 3-D copier – in the process of making a chain link bracelet.

A whirring, mechanical sound fills the air inside a basement office of the Sacramento Public Library's main branch. It's the steely and determined sound of the MakerBot Replicator II – a 3-D copier – in the process of making a chain link bracelet.

In about 10 minutes, the machine, roughly the size of a large microwave oven, produced three chain links from a design that was uploaded from a digital file.

Lori Easterwood, programming coordinator with the library, added the links to a collection of items she had already made with the machine, including a tiny birdcage, a bolt and a 3-inch-high vase.

The recent appearance of the 3-D copier puts the downtown library squarely among a host of libraries nationwide jumping aboard what is called the makerspace movement. Its proponents in the library world believe libraries are places where people can go to make things as much as to read things.

"We're trying to re-imagine the library as not just a place for books," said Easterwood.

The library will soon own two of the 3-D copiers, which cost roughly $2,500. With funding from a state grant, the library will make the machines available to the public in about a month. One machine will stay at the main library, another will be placed temporarily at a suburban branch.

"Libraries are increasingly trying to be the place where people can have all of their needs met, whether that's financial planning or story time for children," Easterwood said. "We're now moving into the design area and really trying to expand beyond the book."

The machine uses a styluslike device to deposit heated biodegradable plastic as it travels along a track, moving back and forth, to execute designs that have been uploaded into the machine. It is often used to make replicas of objects, such as a comb.

Layer by layer, plastic is added – down to the minutiae of 100 microns – until the object is formed. Think of it as a latter-day dot matrix printer that produces objects, not words.

In the short term, the 3-D copiers will be more of a demonstration machine to inspire users, said Easterwood. The goal is to mimic programs used in other cities, such as Westport, Conn., where volunteers staff a MakerBot space and oversee demonstrations of the machine.

Eventually, the uploaded digital designs are shared and executed in file-sharing databases like MakerBot's Thingiverse. In turn, volunteers will get machine time to make their own designs.

The library will partner with the 15-month-old Sacramento nonprofit Hackerlab on the MakerBot project. Two Hackerlab members will help Easterwood show people how to use the machine and what it is capable of, said Charles Blas, co-founder of Hackerlab.

The nonprofit, with a goal of nurturing and helping technology startups, operates out of a downtown Sacramento office on I Street. It has its own 3-D copier machines, and resident makers there are working on the next generation of 3-D printers, Blas said.

"If people express interest to further the art of 3-D printing, then Hackerlab is a great next stop to collaborate with our makers," Blas said.

Such cutting-edge endeavors are not usually what comes to mind when people think of libraries, but Easterwood said she believes that is changing. The main library offers a publishing machine on its third floor that allows the on-site creation of fully bound and illustrated books.

"The library is where people will see this kind of technology for the first time," Easterwood said.

For some, the makerspace movement and the drive to make libraries spaces for content creation dilute a bedrock goal of the library: book reading.

"Libraries have been spending less and less on that core function for a long time now – with some pretty severe consequences about the variety of titles we can purchase to put on our shelves," said Steve Coffman, an expert on the design of new library products and services.

"If we were doing a really good job in the book department then I could see expanding into other areas, but sadly, we're not doing a very good job and we haven't been for a long time."

Coffman, vice president of consulting firm Library Support Services, contends the makerspace movement has the earmark of a technical bubble.

"Everybody talks about 'making things by hand' but if we really want to support people making things by hand, why not set up shop equipment – drill presses, lathes, or buy big Jenn-Air ranges and stoves and teach cooking?" Coffman said. "Why is it this one electronic gadget, the 3-D printer, has become the sole focus of all of the new 'making' that libraries want to do?"

Some see the makerspace movement as just another name for what libraries already do.

"Creating content, and not just consuming is something we've always promoted," said Sarah Houghton, director of the San Rafael library and author of a popular tech-friendly librarians blog.

"We spend money on puppet shows and for people to come in and teach someone how to start a small business or to give tax advice," Houghton said. "Not all of our money is spent on books. We spend money on enriching the life in our communities.

"Usually, the kind of content making we've promoted has been text-based but with this technology becoming more affordable it has allowed us to be creative in new and different ways," she said.

At Hackerlab the feeling is that a two-way traffic pattern will emerge between it and the library.

"This MakerBot project will funnel people to the library so that patrons can get more info on maker-type stuff, so it's going to be a symbiotic relationship," said Blas. "I think libraries will be a place to hold a book in your hand and experience the tactile feel of a book, but at the same time, you will now have access to technology to integrate with that."

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