Spicing up the holidays with 3D printed ornaments at Chicago public libraries

On the third floor of the Harold Washington Library Center, inside a space called Maker Lab with computers, laser cutters and other high tech equipment, 9-year-old Sergio Ethan Angel was designing a 3-D Christmas ornament with his initials S.E.A. on the top.

In this holiday season, Chicago libraries are full of events that allow people to get creative with their gifts. One tool that’s getting popular: 3D printer.

“This one takes about an hour and half,” said Jorge Garcia, Maker Navigator of the Maker Lab at Harold Washington Library Center.

Photo Credit: Xiumei Dong
Gracia helps Angel design the 3-D Christmas ornament. Photo Credit: Xiumei Dong

Opened in July 2013, the Maker Lab was intended to be a six-month experiment to explore the role of the library in community-operated workspaces by offering technological tools such as a 3D printer or laser cutter. Because the community response was positive, the library extended the lab indefinitely, and continued to offer new programs.

“People are continuing making things,” said Garcia. “We will continue to be here as long as we can.”

As hundreds of thin plastic filaments neatly lined up next to each other and layered on top of one another, a bell shape 3-D object began to form on the platform.

“I think something like this is simple enough, especially with kids’ understanding of computers, they can, with some guidance, put them all together, and be able to print something,” said Adam Frederico, a senior consultant at a digital product development firm, and a big sibling of Angel through the Horizons for Youth program.

Normally, the space is only offered to adults, but once every month, Maker Lab has family drop-in days that invite kids to explore the technology.

“We see this as another potential digital divide in the future, we are trying to mitigate this, that is why we don’t charge for printing,” said Mikael Jacobsen, Learning Experiences Manager at Skokie Public Library.

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3D printer at Harold Washington Library Center. Photo Credit: Xiumei Dong

The microwave-looking 3D printing machines are also popping up at libraries around Chicago and such suburbs as Naperville, Hinsdale, Glen Ellyn, Bolingbrook, and Skokie.

Most libraries do not charge or only charge for the cost of the materials, which, in the case of the Harold Washington Library, are as low as a dollar per half hour for 3-D printing.

“Just like how we subsidize people for reading, we subsidize their learning. We see this as a learning tool,” said Jacobsen.

He said, unlike a copier that only performs one task, a 3D printer is more versatile. It allows people to experiment with inventions such as a scoop for the inside of a lotion bottom that the library printed earlier in the week.

Four months ago, Skokie Public Library added two more AFINIA h800 3D printers, which cost about $1,800 each, to the collection.

“It’s not too loud, it’s not stinky,” said Jacobsen as he plans to place the 3D printer in the library main printing area.

According to the library 3D printer policy, there is no patron age restriction for use of the library’s 3D printers. However, printers may only be used with staff assistance, and a maximum of two hours are allowed for each print job.

“We can’t force anyone to learn 3D printing,” said Jacobsen. The goal is to have the technology available at the library, so “just like people who are interested in Shakespeare, can go and read all Shakespeare.”

A starter kit for a 3D printer can be as low as $399 in the United States. When asked what would he do if he had a 3D printer at home, Angel said he would want to use the printer to print customized shoes, which is actually doable.

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