"Over the past 40 years, public libraries have followed popular culture through the ever-more-abstract artifacts of the digital age, offering music and video in every format, public computers for Internet access, online branches, and downloadable content...." More recently a number of libraries have turned back to the tangible and become involved in providing what are termed "Maker Spaces", including hosting and supporting the local use of 3-D Printing machines.
The technology called 3-D Printing, also known as Additive Manufacturing, is used to build things by depositing material, layer by layer. It was once a very expensive process used by industrial design for prototyping and model making. Over the last 30 years it has become a wide-spread technology, affordable and accessible to small businesses and individuals. ( See Extensive Wikipedia entry for 3D printing )
The 3-D machines use software that provides a digital blueprint of an object which direct the layer by layer assembly. Fabrication materials can include liquids, powders, or sheet materials which are used to build the model from a series of cross sections.
A recent article in Library Journal, "The Makings of Maker Spaces, Part 1: Space for Creation, Not Just Consumption", describes how the new 3-D printing hardware and software are beginning to be hosted by and used in public libraries. This signals that as traditional libraries have been losing users to both their physical locations and online resources. New services and activities provided by and at the library, can engage and retain users in novel ways.
However, this emerging use of 3-D printing by students and hobbyist in the library has much more serious applications and implications, as a new form of manufacturing. A current law student article in "Cause of Action" the DePaul law student newspaper, "3-D Printing Technology Meet the Bill of Rights" (Feb. 14, 2013, p.6), alerts us to how 3-D printing can provided the ability for individuals to manufacture their own working guns at home ! ( Probably not at the local library )
The author points to the work of a group calling itself Defense Distributed, that has demonstrated the ability to produce a restricted part for an assault rifle. He poses the question of how this emerging capability could seriously undermine the ability of governments to place restrictions on gun purchases. One can see how such requirements as background checks and even possible registration of guns, might become unfeasible, for weapons acquired in this fashion.
The author focuses on the possible implications if the government sought to then, control the availability and use of the software instructions for making these weapons. Much of the hardware designs and software for using personal 3-D printing are open source. As intellectual property or ideas, he sees First Amendment rights of expression implicated in any attempts by government to restrict the use and sharing of such software.
Such protagonist in this arena, like "Defense Distributed", explicitly view their activities as part of the political contention around the use of guns in our society. In Forbes article, "'Wiki Weapon Project' Aims To Create A Gun Anyone Can 3D-Print At Home", Cody Wilson, a 24-year-old second-year law student at the University of Texas, makes this clear :
"...But he doesn’t deny that the project’s goal is to subvert gun control regulations in America and around the world. “It’s one of the ideas of the American revolution that the citizenry should be the owners of the weapons,” says Wilson. “Every citizen has the right to bear arms. This is the way to really lower the barrier to access to arms. That’s what this represents.”
As serious as the implications from this use of 3-D printing are, there are sure to be many more disruptive effects both positive and negative, on society, from the continued development and uses of a technology that the Economist magazine describes as, amounting to a third industrial revolution.