By Lizabeth Arum

The card catalog and microfiche have (almost) completely vanished—but the libraries that have historically housed and managed them are far from becoming obsolete. Traditional systems have long since been replaced with digital resources like computers, tablets and software and 90% of public libraries offer e-book lending. Now, the next generation of the modern-day library is taking shape and it looks much more like a lab.

Libraries have always been communal spaces that have been set up to share and give access to learning and enrichment resources, and the introduction of new technologies is part of the mission to teach 21st-century skills. 3D printing is an example of the type of resource that is transforming today’s libraries into cutting-edge learning hubs and giving communities access to technologies that are having significant impact on such fields as scientific research, architecture, manufacturing, engineering, healthcare and more.

Demand for Libraries, Resources Still Strong

In a recent Pew Research study, 53% of millennials said they used a public library or bookmobile in the previous 12 months, the highest of any age group surveyed – and, overall respondents said they wanted expanded educational programs, including technology centers with 3D printers and other digital tools, and lessons on how to use them.

In January 2015, according to the American Library Association’s OITP Perspectives, there were 250 libraries in the U.S. that offered 3D printers to patrons. Since then, that number has been steadily growing, particularly as printers, materials, software and learning resources become more affordable and accessible. But, with accessibility can come interesting challenges, as librarians are often learning the technologies themselves as they are introducing them to patrons and students. Luckily, many resources, often free, exist for librarians to get quickly up-to-speed.

Opportunities and Use Cases Across Library Types

For all libraries – whether town public, K-12 schools or college/university – the benefits of having access to 3D printing are vast. Each type of library has its own unique needs, so the applications and use cases are quite diverse. Clearly, how a more advanced technology like 3D printing – and 3D design for that matter – might be used in a small-town library versus a larger university differ, the fundamental benefits are common. Introducing students to emerging technologies at any age is excellent preparation for the digital workplace, teaches teamwork and brings excitement and fun to learning.

San Mateo County Libraries have embraced 3D printing as a resource to all patrons, even transforming spaces to accommodate increasing demand and developing an online appointment system. The team’s mission is “to encourage creative failures and teach timeless skills through critical thinking, problem-solving, STEAM activities, access to technology, and fostering curiosity every step of the way.” Through one-on-one sessions, sharing free resources such as Thingiverse 3D design files and providing access to Tinkercad, a simple 3D design software staff has seen novice users produce such items as toys, maps and even prosthetic hands.

At the Harold A. Miller Marine Biology Library in Monterey, CA, part of Stanford University, 3D printing is integral to the type of scientific study that students and researchers are conducting every day. Just a few examples include prototyping of field equipment, studying whale baleen hydrodynamics and printing custom trays for sea urchin egg genetic labeling. In another case, a researcher at the library trains people on shark fin identification to enable tracking the illegal shark fin trade. Staff is working with the researcher to 3D scan fins from different shark species and print them as tools for identification work.

At Bayberry Elementary in Watchung, NJ, Library Media Specialist Arielle Goldstein has used 3D printing to add excitement to learning at the kindergarten through 4th-grade levels. Students have completed a variety of projects based on age and experience, ranging from printing simple symmetrical snowflakes to creating unique characters and writing stories. Third graders, for example, printed animals related to their ecosystem research projects and objects that represented people of historical significance. Fourth graders printed objects that would to assist a character from The Extraordinaires Kit.

Goldstein led 3D printing initiatives at Bayberry and is now a Library Media Specialist at West Morris Mendham High School in Mendham, NJ, where she is responsible for assisting the integration of 3D printing into the students’ interests and learning.

“The benefits of using 3D printing in the classroom are significant because students feel a sense of ownership no matter how big or small the project is,” says Goldstein. “Introducing 3D printing to the classroom creates excitement, promotes problem-solving, fosters persistence and allows creative students to use technology to show off their skills.”

Tips for Getting Started

For those unfamiliar with 3D printing, getting up and running may feel daunting, but librarians that have integrated the technology into their operations are excellent resources in terms of tips for diving in:

  • Make sure to buy quality printers. Check to see what grant funds may be available.
  • Use a small group of students or patrons to get others excited!
  • Start slow and give yourself time to learn the technology. There will be trial and error.
  • Be ready to fail…and try again. Get over the fear of failure and have fun with it.
  • Start students and patrons with simple objects so they see success quickly.

With 90% of those 16 and older saying that closing their local library would have an impact on the community, the demand is clearly strong across generations – and, the addition of technologies like 3D printing will keep libraries relevant for years to come.

For more on 3D printing and maker spaces, see:

Lizabeth Arum is an Education Community Strategist at Ultimaker. Follow them on Twitter: @Ultimaker


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