In the Chicago area, there’s a nearly exact replica of a 10 year old boy’s head. It’s not an exact replica because last year, he had a cranial defect. Doctors needed to perform craniofacial surgery on his skull to protect his brain.
Operating on the brain or skull leaves little room for error. “If something goes wrong I can destroy that person's character...forever,” said noted neurosurgeon Henry Marsh in the 2009 documentary The English Surgeon.
It helps to make a model. A team of doctors at the Loyola University Medical Center wanted to do just that to assist the doctors performing the operation, but ordering a replica of the boy’s skull would have taken 2 to 3 weeks and cost about $4,000. Instead, they went to the Chicago Public Library as part of a trial study and printed out a replica of the boy’s skull using a 3D printer. The model of the skull was sanitized, and took just 12 hours to make. It cost $20 and the surgery was successful.
The surgery is an example of how people are using public libraries in new and important ways. Public libraries are becoming a one-stop shop for manufacturing in the digital age. Because libraries are investing in machines like 3D printers, someday soon everyone with access to a public library could become an inventor or create something.
Did a car part break? 3D scanners can digitize the part and create an exact replica of it. Need to make a cheap prototype of your invention? You can work with a library specialist to design it. Want to make your own custom jewelry? Use a 3D printer and sell it on Etsy.
“It is about making knowledge available and initiating the public to make knowledge themselves,” Jeroen de Boer, co-author of the upcoming book Makerspaces in Libraries, told me. “Makerspaces are the places where knowledge exchange happens in new ways.” Libraries are increasingly inviting places for these areas, which are essentially DIY spaces where people can go to access resources and exchange ideas in order to create and invent things.
With new technology, libraries are not necessarily doing a different job—they are doing the same job, just better. Public libraries in the U.S., dating back to the 19th century, have always given people greater access to ideas. Before the Internet, those ideas could be found back in the stacks among the books. They were a collection of past knowledge, available free of charge to anyone with a library card, as Matt Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting explained succinctly to an over-privileged grad student:
“You dropped a 150 grand on a [expletive] education you could have gotten for a $1.50 in late charges at the public library.”
What’s different about this new trend is how it incorporates a focus on inspiring the future. Libraries that invest in commercial manufacturing technology give patrons access to past and future ideas. An inventor doesn’t have to spend thousands of dollars and wait weeks for a prototype–they can go to a public library and make a prototype for a few cents. Many inventors who work in libraries use a website called Thingiverse.com, a repository of 3D designs for anyone to upload or download. Just like book collections, it is free to access, and the only cost to library users is for materials.
In 2013, around 109 libraries in the United States offered makerspaces—also called maker labs or hackspaces—but that number is on the rise and likely much higher today. Some makerspaces consist only of a single 3D printer, like how the Chattanooga Public Library in Tennessee started, and operate on a shoestring (3D printers cost around $2,500, not including materials). Other makerspaces can cost $250,000 or more, like the one at the Chicago Public Library. The maker lab there has digital design software, 3D printers, laser cutters, milling machines, and vinyl cutters.
Most of this equipment at public libraries is purchased through a combination of local, federal, and grant donations. The Portsmouth Public Library in New Hampshire, for example, used internal funds to buy a MakerBot Replicator 3D Printer Replicator, and showed it off at a local fair. Britta Shepard and her husband saw the 3D printer there and knew that it could take their invention from an idea to a product.
They had a patent for a backup assistant to help vehicles with trailers on the back navigate, but couldn't afford to create a prototype -- it could have cost them close to $15,000. Instead they drove 15 minutes away to the Portsmouth Public Library to create a prototype for 15 cents.
“America wants to innovate, they want to get out there, but they don’t have the money or time to buy a 3D printer and to calibrate it, so the library is perfect. Anyone can use it,” Shepard said, and she knows from experience.
Neither she nor her husband is a designer, but they used Google Sketchup, free 3D printing software, to create the prototypes on the computer. Their design is a bit more complicated now and their costs have tripled—to 45 cents. Shepard’s goal is to raise between $100,000 and $200,000 during their planned Kickstarter campaign next month.
“Libraries are about more than collections — they are about information. Making things is a way for information engagement,” Joseph Koivisto, a librarian at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington D.C., told me recently.
The MLK library opened their own their own makerspace, called “The Fab Lab,” just this May, making it one of the newest in the country. While the Portsmouth Public Library that the Shepard’s used was just a single 3D printer, the Fab Lab in D.C. looks like Willy Wonka took over a high school art classroom. Tall, black tables at the center of the room are covered with some of the most advanced commercial modeling technology available. A row of MakerBot 3D printers line the outside of one of the walls, and when I visited, one was creating an object at the end. It was early to tell what its final form would be-- it just looked like a cluster of connected silver hinges. Whether that object becomes a patented prototype or something else entirely, it still symbolizes everything a library has to offer -- books that inspire, 3D printing that creates, and library staff that is a resource.
Right now, the staff at the MLK library is being trained to operate the new machinery and they are practicing by creating products as complicated as replica swords to laser cut signs.
“Warning,” reads a laser-cut block of wood created by one staff member. “This device emits potentially harmful levels of awesome.”