3d printing, library missions, and things beside the point

I’d thought my next blog post would be part of yesterday’s thread about organizational change, but it turns out this morning my coffee and I can’t stop rereading Hugh Rundle’s Mission creep – a 3d printer will not save your library, and David Lankes’ passionate response about how he believes Rundle is missing the point, and then Lankes and Lane Wilkinson having a knock-down philosopher brawl in the comments. (Smart people arguing? And tossing about words like “propositional” like it ain’t no thang? Ooooh! Way to this girl’s heart.)

The coffee and I have been wrestling to situate myself in this dialogue. I believe in letting my philosophy of librarianship emerge from practice and observation, and thus far it’s got two planks: libraries are safe spaces for the sphere of deviance and libraries are liminal spaces. I think there’s a third emerging that has to do with dialogue — about being in dialogue with texts, with ideas, with people, about how that dialogue opens and changes us and our worlds — but I haven’t got that one figured out quite yet.

So what does this imply, vis-a-vis 3d printing and, more so, the ideas at play in these threads? I am broadly with Lankes’ perspective that views of the library are often too collection-centric; that the collection is a tool — one tool among potentially many — for accomplishing the real, transformative work of libraries. I notice, in fact, that there’s nothing in my philosophy thus far that requires a traditional collection; book collections are spectacularly useful tools for those ends, but it may be an accident of history that they have seemed to be the sine-qua-non tool.

But I also disagree with Lankes’ statement, “The point is not for folks to come in and print out existing things, but to create their own things.” I’ve seen 3d printers and held 3d printed objects, but I’ve never printed one myself and I’ve never designed one. There’s a lot of learning curves I’d have to climb before I could do either. I might never climb them. But holding those objects has been little moments of transformation.

They’re boundary objects between here and there. They force awareness of the liminality of the space I’m in, the everyday reality I’m in. Force me out of the calm slipstream behind inertia and into the dislocating eddies where I can see things, feel things, in new ways.

And books do that too. Immersions in fantasy worlds, dialogue with Cicero or Socrates, ideas that feel half-right half-wrong and all not-fitting-in that I have to wrestle and argue with — books are also about cracking open the familiar and letting new light in, about getting us out of that slipstream. And books are like that even if you’ve never written one. Even if you never will.

Community publishing is a great thing some libraries are cultivating, but you need not create books in order to be deeply, transformatively engaged by them. Same thing with 3d printers. Or whatever other tools you’ve got for letting the light in, provoking exploratory dialogue inside people between now and elsewhen, literal and possible, self and other, here and there.

It turns out, somewhat to my surprise, that there’s an idea that isn’t here, in my line of reasoning, though it is there, in the brawl in the comments I’ll be reading at least one more time: the definition of information, the delineations among information and data and knowledge and wisdom. That was a running thread throughout library school for me and it seems that libraries and information ought to be somehow crucially interlinked, and yet taking sides on how that definition shakes out seems not relevant to how I’m constructing these ideas.

Information is the raw material of dialogue, it’s the provocation for new realities, it’s the whisper in the dark inside the sphere of deviance that pushes history forward, but it somehow seems to be not what this is about.

When I think libraries, I think the lost-duckling kids, the ones who’ve never quite fit in anywhere yet, tumbling in bedraggled to the library and finding a port in a storm. I think the quiet in a giant high-ceilinged reading room with sunlight slanting in between talismanic books, the moment of looking up from the page when your breath catches on something giant and resounding in the silence and you have to find out the new shape that everything takes to accommodates this.

Information is a tool. Libraries are experiences.

4 thoughts on “3d printing, library missions, and things beside the point

  1. I haven’t been following the conversation, but I’ll check in on it. My sneaky suspicion is that if someone is arguing that libraries should foster creation with 3d printers, but isn’t talking about g-code or teaching drafting skills/software then they are either a victim of wishful thinking or are talking bunk.


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