Traverse City News and Events

3D Printing, Board Games, Instruments & More: TADL Expands Far Beyond Books

By Beth Milligan | Jan. 27, 2020

Traverse Area District Library (TADL) will roll out a new 3D printing service to its patrons today (Monday) - the latest move in an ongoing effort to offer non-traditional programs and items to the public, from board games and musical instruments to flower seeds and smart-phone apps.

TADL has acquired two Prusa 3D printers at a cost of $800 each, with both printers upgraded with multi-material add-on kits. The 3D printers allow users to “print” physical objects by sending a design to the printer that then extrudes plastic through a small nozzle, printing one layer of the object, allowing it to dry, and then printing another layer on top until it’s complete. TADL’s printers can print up to five colors, and have the capacity in the future to print not only plastic but wood and other materials. The printers can produce objects up to 8.25x8.25x9 inches in size, with the possibility of creating bigger objects by printing smaller components that link together.

TADL Assistant Director for Technology Scott Morey says the printers offer a wide variety of applications, including STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) training for students, creative art projects, entrepreneurial uses, and practical household functions. “We’ve already had people reach out to us (about using the printers),” says Morey. “A woman with a pottery business wants to print a stamp to put on her pottery designs. A guy who plays complicated board games with a lot of pieces wanted to print a holder for the games. While we were testing it, we had an employee who was able to print a 3D replacement part for his car. There are a lot of practical things you can do with it.”

Users don’t have to be experts in creating their own 3D designs - though TADL will offer the option to hone those skills, which Morey says are in increasing demand in the job market. The library plans to offer classes in design, but patrons can also find ready-to-print options online. The website Thingiverse offers access to more than 1.6 million different 3D printer designs, with other online repositories housing their own databases. Want to print a guitar pick? Christmas tree ornament? Coin bank? Desk organizer? Chances are, whatever you’re looking to print, you can find a design for it online.

As with TADL’s regular printers, there’s a cost associated with printing materials. TADL will charge 10 cents per gram for finished 3D products, with a minimum charge of $1. The printed filament is light, meaning costs will be relatively low, according to Library Director Michele Howard. “The other day, we printed a beautiful multi-colored vase that was $2.50,” she says. “It’s a pretty inexpensive and fun way for kids to create their own things and send it to the printer.”

The printing process can be laborious, meaning products are not produced instantaneously. Depending on the size and complexity of the design, objects can take anywhere from 20 minutes to 12 hours to print. TADL has a new section of its website live today that explains the 3D printing process, including how to submit designs. Requests will be processed in the order they’re received, and users will be notified when an object is finished and can pick up and pay for it at the circulation desk. If designs are too big or will take too long to print, TADL can reject printing requests. There are also some restrictions on printable items, a common practice at libraries with public 3D printers: Users can’t print weapons or any components of weapons, drug paraphenalia, or obscene materials, for example. Morey says printing trademarked items - say, printing your own Marvel figurines - is a “legal gray area,” with TADL reserving the right to reject such requests. Staff will review all submitted designs before objects are approved to go into the printing queue to ensure compliance with the library’s policy.

The 3D printers are just the latest foray into non-traditional collection items and programming being explored by TADL. According to Howard, TADL just made more than 50 board games available to patrons for check-out, including popular (and often retail-costly) titles like Catan and Ticket to Ride. “We just started loaning them out Monday,” says Howard. “It was an initiative by our teens staff. They had games to play in the library, and everyone kept asking if they could check them out. We called some game companies, and the donations just flowed in. I checked one game the other day and it had five holds on it already.” Games can be checked out for two weeks at a time and renewed up to four times, unless a hold exists on it. The new 3D printers offer a support function for the board games: Each game includes a checklist of pieces, with users responsible for ensuring all pieces are returned. But if a piece goes missing, TADL staff can now print a 3D replacement, Howard says.

TADL also has a page on its website dedicated to its “Library of Things,” or items outside the normal books, CDs, DVDs, and video game collections offered. TADL patrons can now check out a range of musical instruments and equipment, from amps to turntables to guitars to keyboards. Other unique offerings include puppets, telescopes, power meters, art projectors, STEM kits, presentation equipment, photo scanners, slide viewers, and audio recorders, to name a few. Worried about losing your old family videos or wedding tapes on VHS? A Video2Digital Converter can be checked out to convert VHS tapes into digital files. TADL also launched a seasonal seed library in 2019 that allows patrons to donate, swap, and take home plant seeds. All of the above items can be accessed by patrons at no cost, according to Howard.

Residents in outlying areas have access to the items offered at TADL's main branch. Howard says if the requested item is a reasonable size, it can be included with books and other items that are frequently shuttled from the Woodmere location to other branch libraries (some fragile items, like instruments, must be picked up from the main branch). TADL also just added 100 tote bags to its collection that can themselves be checked out to carry items home. “We’re trying to reduce waste, so we don’t have to give out plastic bags,” says Howard. “It’s a fun idea we’ve seen other libraries do. There’s never any late fees; if you lose it, you just have to pay for it. We have a washer and dryer here for the puppets, so if the bags get dirty, we can just throw them in the wash.”

Other new technologies are on the horizon. Morey says if demand for the 3D printers is high, TADL could add more printers in the future, or offer additional “maker’s space” items like a drill press. The library is also planning to add a virtual reality (VR) space this year that allows building visitors to test out the technology. “One of the things we like to do at the library is to expose people to technologies,” says Morey. “Our bread-and-butter is books and movies and music, but we always try to offer new things as a low-cost test to see what the community is interested in.” The library’s support for smart-phone apps is also expanding: Apps like Libby, Hoopla, and Mango allow residents in TADL’s jurisdiction to access free digital books, audible books, online movies and music, and foreign language courses.

Patron interest - as well as donations - drive what TADL considers offering, says Howard, who calls it a “balancing act” to use the library’s funding and physical space wisely while meeting evolving patron needs with collection additions. TADL considers its policies in addition to its items when evaluating how to keep patrons coming back, she says. For instance, following a December initiative where TADL wiped out outstanding fees for all library visitors for the month, the library board decided to permanently wave overdue fees for any youth and teen materials going forward. “We realized (fees are) a barrier to literacy,” Howard says. “People get fines, and instead of bringing the book back, because they're embarrassed or can't afford the fine, they don't bring the book back and they don't come back to the library.”

Collection expansions and policy updates help keep libraries like TADL relevant, Howard says, with potential changes weighed against the library’s mission to encourage literacy, curiosity, and personal growth. That mission “is what we use to guide all these decisions,” she says. “There are different types of literacy, and we’ve found a lot of these things do inspire curiosity and learning.”

Pictured: One of TADL's new 3D printers, along with a test duck printed by the machine

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