Someday [soon] you’ll help patrons with tactile scholarship: Visualization & 3D Printing

February 10, 2012, 6:59 pm

Software. I’ve been hearing a lot about visualization lately. Obviously it’s been around a awhile, but it’s gathering new interest from more popular audiences. As these tools/techniques become more readily available and easier to use, visualization will likely become a prominent communications outlet. I will not only read an article but also be able to manipulate the adjoining data. Aspiring librarians should invest in developing visualization and visual literacy skills. This is a logical extension of multimedia and new media and it applies to both scholarly and popular contexts. Here’s an app to get you started.

Research libraries have long been building infrastructure to support data management and the UC has even recently launched a data plan generation tool. It seems to next step is the development of an open-source, user-friendly, discipline scalable visualization tool. (sorta like this) I imagine that a common platform designed for and with academics in mind could be a breakthrough venture. It could help us to cement the claim that “we know data” by not only collecting, storing, describing, and identifying it—but by also enabling scholars to do something new with it.


Hardware. For years I’ve been intrigued by 3D printing. At Georgia Tech I got to see some rapid prototyping and was very impressed. But as 3D printing has become more affordable and desktop-based it’s becoming a very real possibility for mainstream adoption. We’re talking $300 – $500—a very small investment! I foresee this technology becoming a standard service like scanning, page printing, and photocopying. Full disclosure, I’m a 3D printing fan boy.

This has been a growing conversation in our public libraries. (here & here) The concept of the library as an idea incubator and/or idea fabrication lab is pretty exciting. Meredith summed it up well via a recent exchange:“libraries enabling people to do something that they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do.”

A big theme for us these days is “knowledge creation” or “knowledge production” and this is the hardware making that a very literal possibility: a symbol of the 21st Century Library. From an academic perspective—you write a paper, give a presentation, AND design a 3D model to showcase your concept. Here’s a practical example that I can imagine:

Let’s say there is article about a new water flow apparatus. I can read the text, look at the images and graphics, manipulate and visualize the data, AND THEN download the attached CAD file and print a miniature working model to review and test in my lab. I could possibly build upon the concept contributing new knowledge and a better product  or perhaps apply it to my own research problem in a different manner. I then publish a paper about my design enhancement or my specific application of the tool, upload my data, and provide my CAD file so that others can build or contribute too. This is the beautiful potential of open science: quickly advancing ideas in a multi-sensory capacity. The future is tactile scholarship and it’s happening now.  Fast Company coverage. Wired Coverage. And this is good too.


@VT. There are a number of labs on my campus offering 3D printing but those are typically limited to specific courses and research programs. I’d love to find a way to offer this service to everyone, but that’s a low priority right now. The cost isn’t prohibitive, but for us it’s a matter of logistics, location, and other pressing needs. We’ll get there, but likely as a late adopter. I did have a chance to see a 3D printer in action last week… but that’s a post for next time. (In the business we call that a teaser.)


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