When the Sauk City Public Library purchased a three-dimensional printer, the library’s director didn’t envision it as just a cool new piece of technology for the small-town library.
He saw it as an entirely new direction.
“In five to 10 years more people will be reading e-books than traditional books,” said Ben Miller, who took over as Sauk City’s library director in 2010. “We’re looking at moving to across-the-board creation rather than consumption.”
The Sauk City library has had the new 3-D printer for a month and might be the first public library in the state to purchase one. Miller will unveil the printer to the public in a grand-opening display at 6 p.m. Thursday.
He said he wanted to take a month and familiarize himself with the printer, which melts strands of plastic and shapes them into small 3-D objects from a digital model.
Miller said the $2,000 printer is part of the library’s new focus on transforming the library into a community place for people who want to create. One of the first things he did when he was hired as the library’s director was form a community club for people who wanted to learn to program simple, open-source computer boards.
“The library is not about books. It’s about ideas,” Miller said.
Kristin Eschenfelder, director of the School of Library and Information Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison, said libraries have always been about more than books.
For small towns in particular, she said, libraries have long been “small development resource centers” where people have access to expensive databases they couldn’t otherwise afford as well as computers, copiers and the Internet.
According to a 2012 report by the American Libraries Association, 62 percent of libraries reported they are the only source of free computer and Internet access in their communities.
“The addition of equipment like a 3-D printer will be an offshoot of that,” Eschenfelder said. “If your public library has one, you get shared use of it just as you would get shared source of Morningstar report.”
It’s also true that the popularity of e-books are skyrocketing and public libraries are struggling to match the demand. According to the American Library Association, the number of U.S. libraries lending e-books nearly doubled over the past five years climbing from 38 percent in 2007 to 67 percent in 2011.
In January a poll by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 28 percent of Americans own an e-reader or table — up from 2 percent three years ago. At the same time, book publishers have limited the libraries ability to digitally lend books.
Three major publishers, including Simon & Schuster, have refused to sell e-books to libraries for lending. Last year Penguin said it would no longer make its new e-books available to libraries and HarperCollins restricted the number of times libraries can lend e-books to 26 before they have to be repurchased.
While public libraries could still end up being a crucial public repository of whatever shape new media takes, it’s also clear how they look and serve their communities will change.
“We try and prepare (our graduates) to work in an environment of change,” Eschenfelder said. “They’re not moving into an environment where it’s a set routine. It’s much more of an entrepreneurial environment you have to constantly be networking with your community to find what kind of needs might be served.”
Lisa Strand, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Library Association, said anyone who wants a glimpse of what a public library may look like in the future should visit an academic library, where many of the expensive reference and journal collections have been supplanted by digital editions accessible online.
“It’s very much an electronic environment,” Strand said. Instead of shelves of books Strand said there are flexible, open spaces for learning groups and white boards that can be moved around. “That’s a more modern approach.”
The purchasing of new books remains the biggest part of the Sauk City library’s non-personnel budget. This year the library spent $24,000 on new paper books and $1,100 on downloadable e-books, and in the short-term, Miller said, he doesn’t plan to make major shifts in the library’s budget away from paper books to new technology.
Eschenfelder said she thinks good public libraries will let the communities they serve guide their future.
“How public libraries look will depend on user demand and what people want,” Eschenfelder said. “As long as people want paper books, paper books will remain an important part of the collection.”
Strand said she hasn’t yet heard of any other public libraries in the state purchasing a 3-D printer. The Madison and Milwaukee public libraries don’t have one.
Miller said that given the printer’s relative newness, there will be a learning curve in introducing it to the public, but he said the handful of people he’s demonstrated the 3-D printer for have been excited about it.
Miller said there are numerous applications. The printer is useful for creating miniature knickknacks — Miller is fond of a Tyrannosaurus rex bust he made — and more practical uses, such as replacing small plastic parts that have broken on household items and are difficult to order.
“Also, it’s just awesome,” he said.