RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Some relatively new technology is increasingly showing up in libraries across the country. Card catalogs and microfiche long ago made way for computer databases and media production software. Now you can add 3-D printers to the mix. As Joseph Leahy of St. Louis Public Radio reports, these printers are causing some excitement and some concern.
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JOSEPH LEAHY, BYLINE: Patrick Wall is printing a green plastic sword from the game "Minecraft" at the University City Public Library.
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LEAHY: He runs the library and is demonstrating its new 3-D printer for a group of kids and adults.
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UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: How long does it take to print something like this?
PATRICK WALL: This one took about - close to seven hours.
LEAHY: The printer is roughly the size of a microwave, with an open space in the middle, a coil of filament feeds, an extruder that frantically moves back and forth inside, dabbing molten plastic into layers that harden.
WALL: This was about $4,500 altogether. And, you know, I think that was the 3-D printer and the 3-D scanner and all the filament that we got.
LEAHY: University City was the first of two public libraries here in the St. Louis area to set up 3-D printers for public use. But according to the American Library Association, there are now more than 250 libraries across the country that have one.
SARI FELDMAN: It's actually part of a larger trend.
LEAHY: The ALA's Sari Feldman says 3-D printers are just the newest example of the interactive spaces libraries are becoming for their communities.
FELDMAN: So where once we thought of libraries as places where we had things for people, now we really do things for people or do things with people.
LEAHY: She says across the U.S., libraries large and small are setting up so-called maker spaces, offering increasingly sophisticated hardware and software, including studio production equipment, design software and in some cases even laser cutters. But Feldman says the possibilities that come with cheap, user-friendly 3-D printers have also created a new gray area in setting library policy.
FELDMAN: There are many legal and intellectual freedom issues that need to be addressed when you make 3-D printers freely available for public use.
LEAHY: For instance, the same technology that can print a plastic "Minecraft" sword is also capable of printing plastic gun parts or other items. The ALA has recommended guidelines for libraries to address concerns about safety, access and liability. But some local libraries have established rules on their own. At the Pope County Library System in central Arkansas, new restrictions have been placed on its two printers. They include objects that are prohibited by law or deemed obscene or otherwise inappropriate. Adult and teen services librarian Sherry Simpson says there just were too many unknowns.
SHERRY SIMPSON: We want to inspire their interest in design, and we want them to bring their creations to life. However, some creations probably don't need to see life through the library.
LEAHY: Like most other libraries, University City's currently has no specific limits on using its 3-D printer. Director Patrick Wall says it falls under the library's general policy that applies to 2-D printers and other services and materials.
WALL: It hasn't come up. We tend not to make policies about things that we fear might happen in the future. I'm sure there will come a day when someone does something that we weren't expecting. And, you know, at that time, we'll sit down and talk about it.
LEAHY: And in an age where digital and technical literacy is stressed alongside traditional reading and writing, libraries are setting up plenty of space for the unexpected. For NPR News, I'm Joseph Leahy in St. Louis.
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