Connecting Libraries, Makerspaces, Data Visualization, & Innovation, Part One

UMich 3D Visualization CAVE

I’m very excited about the new Future of Visualization Committee Report from here at the University of Michigan. Visualization is to make visual something that isn’t, and these days usually refers to data visualization. I used to ask “what do you call data visualization when it is auditory and not visual?” I found out that is called data sonification, and I’m hoping that the ideas and planning represented in this report include sonification as well as actual visual visualization.

UMich Data Visualization Report Cover
University of Michigan Visualization Report
University Visualization Activities, a report of the Future of Visualization Committee

A large portion of the report is based on a survey of campus reporting back on what people here are doing, using, and want to have available. There is one particular part of it that caught my attention, the “wishlist” of resources people want to have easily available.

Screen Shot of Table in UMich Data Visualization Report

Now, I read this, and the first thought in my mind is, “Well, duh, you need librarians!” Part of that is because I am a librarian, and I tend to see things through that lense. So let’s do a little reality check.

I have admitted bias in this area. I’ve been arguing in favor of 3d printing to be made available in libraries in a much broader fashion, and for libraries to blend in makerspaces. I feel the maker communities and what they are trying to do is critical for librarians to understand. Actually, I believe the goals fit, or should fit, hand in hand: libraries and librarians should be embracing and supporting the maker movement; the maker movement is (to my eyes) in many ways recreating the fervor and passion of shared knowledge, resources, and support that surrounded the origins and evolution of public libraries in America.

Ann Arbor Mini Maker Faire 2013

A few weeks ago, at the Ann Arbor Mini-Maker Faire, I found myself in an interesting conversation about 3d printing in libraries. I was of course arguing that more libraries should be supporting 3d printing in the interests of increasing access to it, lowering barriers to entry, providing rich open access to support and foundational skills-building resources, and generally taking the new technology that will be important to the public and sharing knowledge/resources/support. The person I was talking with (not from the booth shown above, but a different booth that provides 3d printer access) argued the reverse. The logic was that 3d printing is expensive, even when it is cheapest, and that it is complicated; that many if not most libraries that have engaged with 3d printing lack the understanding of what is needed to provide appropriate levels of support and troubleshooting. That most librarians don’t know how to use a 3d printer, don’t know how to repair or tweak a 3d printer, don’t know how to make handouts or teach classes to support 3d printing. To which I responded, “… and that is exactly why it should be there.”

I’ve been in libraries for a long time now, and I’ve seen a lot of new technologies come in. I remember the first month of my first professional job, when I was told that our library’s designated computer support expert refused to support the one Apple computer we had in the lab, and that for this reason it was now my job. I had used a Mac SE and DOS machines, but had never used an Apple II, which is what was in the lab. I didn’t anticipate any problems. I sat down and learned. Librarians are good at that. I figured it out, using it, repairing it, troubleshooting. I made guides, helped patrons, taught faculty about it, and we bought more. By the time I left a little over a decade later, the lab had expanded from 12 computers to 50, of which 25 were Macintoshes.

Not every librarian in the library learned this. We didn’t need every librarian to know it. It was my job. Other librarians were experts in other areas or topics. That’s one example, but it happens over and over, with many types of tech and many topics, with many librarians who walk in not knowing and walk out the local expert and go-to gal (or guy). I don’t see any reason why 3d printing should be any different. What should drive the decision to get the new tech is not whether someone in the library already knows about it, but that there is a looming need; that librarians and/or staff should learn about the new before need for it becomes imperative and is taken on by organizations that perhaps don’t have the same drive to provide service and support as libraries. Libraries are here to open the doors. Not that other professions and organizations don’t also, but libraries are first and foremost hubs for sharing knowledge and supporting learning, whether it is books, or software, or hardware. Part of that is appropriate referral. We make excellent parters in projects, and happily refer people to those who are more expert. Let the libraries open the doors to new tech; and we will gladly refer the more advanced learners to the real experts down the block or across town or in the lab in the next building.

Now, at the same Maker Faire, I was very glad to see several librarians already there with booths. As I wandered around, I encountered a surprising number of colleagues and peers. The librarians are already there.

Ann Arbor Mini Maker Faire 2013: Eli Neiberger of AADL

Part Two will start looking through the wishlist from the report in more detail.

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