Two fundamental purposes of libraries are to provide access to information and enable freedom of expression. Digital technologies have spurred the American Library Association to examine patron use of 3D printing technology in light of intellectual freedom policy. Libraries are strongly encouraged to proactively formulate and implement acceptable use policies regarding their 3D printers. The policy statement should address the library’s mission to nurture creative expression; express policies in a straightforward, positive tone without repeating existing laws; outline the process for creating, submitting and retrieving a work; and define terminology. The ALA’s own policy and advocacy documents support statements on the ethics of access for all, intellectual freedom regarding content, avoidance of anything illegal, patron privacy, and libraries as public forums promoting user interaction with information where any restrictions are content neutral.


library policy
information access
freedom of expression
intellectual freedom
user generated content
3D printers

3D Printing in Libraries: A View from Within the American Library Association: Privacy, Intellectual Freedom and Ethical Policy Framework

by Barbara M. Jones

In the 1950s, science fiction icon Ray Bradbury used a rental typewriter at the University of California, Los Angeles Library to create the first version of Fahrenheit 451 [1]. And on June 20, 2015, any library user can go to another library in that same city and learn how to start a business: www.lapl.org/whats-on/events/start-business. Some Angelina will take that class and then use a library makerspace to print a model 3D gear that launches her auto replacement parts company.

Library users have been “interactive” within library spaces ever since U.S. public libraries were born. United States library users have been blessed with constitutionally protected freedom of expression – which not only enables them to consume a wealth of information, but also to create it themselves. And librarians have the right to support users in their access to the information they need and to provide the tools they need to achieve their information aspirations.

In Spring 2015 the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) received its first written inquiry from a public library board about the intellectual freedom issues surrounding 3D printing:

We are getting ready to add an “entry-level” 3-D printer to our digital lab. I have some sample policies and guidelines from other libraries but I have been asked by our board to ask you if the Office for Intellectual Freedom has a position on 3-D printers . . . Of course they are thinking of the possibility of the public asking to print something that is unlawful, obscene, a violation of intellectual property rights, trademark, etc.

OIF had been waiting and hoping for this type of inquiry. This mirrors what a librarian in the 1950s might have asked about a young person typing away and wondering what the library’s role was concerning his creation, except arguably that the information environment is far more complicated now and the potential barriers to creation are many. Some are intellectual property issues regarding copyright, trademark and patents. Some are new complexities related to the potentials and threats in a digital world. So far, few have tackled the equally complex library ethical, intellectual freedom and privacy challenges. These are early times with implementation of 3D printing in libraries. I hope that this article and increased implementation of 3D printing will encourage more discussion and policy formulation informed by the ethical, intellectual freedom and privacy challenges of librarianship.

3D printing services are integral to the changing face of library service, which supports increased user interaction with content, growth of user-created content to support community collaboration and individual entrepreneurship. 3D printing is an important part of the makerspace movement, which has already engaged young and old in projects for fun and/or for profit. In the MIT presentation, “3D Printing for Fun and Science?” [2], we get an exciting view of how a technology-intensive university has introduced 3D printing services to its library’s informatics program. Students can make prototype parts for engineering and IT projects. At the Chicago Public Library during one recent week alone, users could 3D print their images, make 3D pendants or sign up for a 3D scanning/sculpting workshop: http://www.chipublib.org/maker-lab/

The goal of 3D printing in libraries will not be to create the next artificial heart. But a library user can learn the technology and potential of digital fabrication and reinforce that learning with simpler hands-on projects. A library 3D printing service could easily inspire future medical technicians or entrepreneurs and give them a head start on creating that heart in a future career in a highly specialized medical laboratory.

Such popular library services as 3D printing easily tempt librarians or library boards to install the equipment and think about policy formulation later – especially if a donor is waiting in the wings. In fact, I recall visiting one 3D printing lab with the policies and guidelines “evolving” on two erasable white boards, as questions and situations arose during use.

That kind of seat-of-the-pants implementation is exciting and scary at the same time. While libraries should not overthink new opportunities and unduly delay them, at the same time they should understand that 3D printers, like any service, need formulated policies. And these policies need to go beyond the very real issues of safety and intellectual property. They need to include longstanding, tried and true principles of library professional ethics, intellectual freedom and privacy. The good news is that if libraries do take the time to examine those principles they will discover that 3D printing fits really well into the library profession’s existing policy framework. 3D printing policies need not cause undue delay and might, in fact, encourage implementation because 3D printing won’t seem so different after all.

The phenomenon of user-created content has been an exciting growth area of 21st century library services. The digital information revolution has brought us far beyond the rental typewriters of the 1950s. The ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee is currently monitoring this exciting trend to decide whether additional policy is required and, in fact, held a special meeting in 2010 to consider changes. Thus far, the committee members believe that the existing policy framework applies in most cases, with few additions needed, to the overall digital environment and specifically to the makerspace environment. ALA will continue to monitor the area of user-created content to ensure that users’ rights to free expression are protected.

ALA’s Information Policy Process and Organization

The American Library Association and its members consider information policy formulation one of three key strategic areas for the profession, along with advocacy and professional and leadership development. At the time of this article, a draft for a user-created content policy is being discussed within the association for eventual approval by the membership.

Information policy formulation has been integral to ALA’s activities since its beginning, and digital technology has been a significant catalyst. A key policymaking unit is the Office of Technology Policy (OITP) at the Washington Office: http://www.ala.org/offices/oitp. Another is the Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) at the Chicago Office: http://www.ala.org/offices/oif. These two units work closely with the ALA membership on policy creation and implementation.

ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) will celebrate its 50th year in 2017. Its task is to work with the ALA membership to support the association’s ethical, intellectual freedom and privacy values as embedded in the Library Bill of Rights and the Code of Ethics of the American Library Association. Policy documents can be found in the newly published 9th edition of the Intellectual Freedom Manual (Chicago: ALA Editions, 2015) and the accompanying A History of ALA Policy on Intellectual Freedom. Much of the content will be, or is, available online. In addition, OIF and its membership committees frequently publish toolkits on particular issues. The office also provides training, consulting and speaking engagements around the world.

Related to the implementation of 3D printing services in libraries is a must-read document, “Progress in the Making: 3D Printing Policy Considerations through the Library Lens,” by Charlie Wapner, with a two-page insert by Deborah Caldwell-Stone [3]. This excellent document covers intellectual property issues very thoroughly, so my article will expand on the Caldwell-Stone insert and the work of the Office for Intellectual Freedom and its membership bodies, the Intellectual Freedom Committee (IF), the IFC’s Subcommittee on Privacy and the Committee on Professional Ethics.

3D Printing Acceptable Use Policy

As Deborah Caldwell-Stone recommends in her “3-D Printing, Intellectual Freedom, and Library Values” (see above), an acceptable use policy is the best possible tool for implementing 3D printing:

A written acceptable use policy for the 3D printer is a necessity if the library is to protect users’ intellectual freedom while addressing concerns about safety, access, liability and illegal use of the 3D printer. Effective policies include statements of purpose affirming that the library’s intellectual freedom policies apply to 3D printer use; a provision requiring that the 3D printer be used for lawful purposes only; and a declaration informing users that the library’s user behavior and acceptable use policies apply to all uses of the 3D printer. Such broadly written policy statements provide the library with the necessary flexibility to address any potential misuse of abuse of the 3D printer while assuring users the freedom to design and create projects with the new technology.”

OIF has discovered over the decades that such a policy is worth its weight in gold. Sadly, many libraries have learned the hard way that acceptable use policies could have avoided expensive and emotionally draining lawsuits. An acceptable use policy shows the library’s professionalism and thoughtfulness about implementation; it thus enhances the library’s image and will attract the attention of decision makers and, perhaps, prospective donors and foundations. And an acceptable use policy is essential for answering public and press inquiries consistently. Such policies can always be revised as the library learns more about how the space is being used and what problems or questions have arisen.

In perusing dozens of 3D printing/makerspace policies, the current policy outline that seems to cover all the bases and still protect the users’ rights, has 4 parts:

  • Mission or goal of the lab. This statement should be positive and forward-looking. It could promote entrepreneurship. It could promote digital literacy. Here are two good examples: “to bring a creation to life;” “using math, hard science, engineering, and technology to make design prototypes and troubleshoot printer.” The latter statement suggests that the library is going to train users how to use the tools, thereby promoting information literacy and eventually giving users more power and privacy rights over their creations.
  • Policies.  Keep it simple! One statement found in many policies can cover a multitude of issues: “illegal activity is prohibited.” This can cover illegal content (more on that later), intellectual property infringement and using the printer safely. Too many policies get into specifics and say, for example, that “inappropriate” objects can’t be printed. “Inappropriate” is not a term of law: it is in the eyes of the beholder. “Illegal” covers content like child pornography, obscenity and “harmful to minors” as defined by law. The same is true for prohibition on printing guns or gun parts. Many states already define that as illegal. When creating these policies, remember to analogize the 3D printer use to other library services and content like the traditional book and the Internet. Only then can you consider what might be special about 3D printers – starting an accidental fire, for example – and create policies accordingly. Any fee policies should be included here, and hopefully the fee structure can be lowered as time passes.
  • Procedures.  Presumably all users are treated equitably in their use of the 3D space, so procedures make clear how to create and submit the design, how long it takes and when to pick up your object.
  • Definitions.  Include any legal or technical terms so that everyone has the same understanding of terms.
Important Principles to Include in the 3D Printing Acceptable Use Policy

The following framework summarizes the basic points I believe should be considered in a 3D printing acceptable use policy.

Ethical Considerations for Libraries with 3D Printing: Access for All
We provide the highest level of service to all library users . . . equitable service policies; equitable access . . . “

Code of Ethics of the American Library Association [4]

One of the American Library Association’s most treasured values is provision of information access to all people. This value underpins the Code of Ethics and the Library Bill of Rights. Other values are to be found in these policy documents, but for the Code of Ethics I will focus on the ethical obligation of equitable access.

The Chicago Public Library (CPL) is an excellent example of a democratic 3D printing operation. When CPL opened its Maker Lab in 2013, the new space was importantly touted by the press as “open to the public” – to “anyone with a library card” [5]. CPL’s latest policy shows that it is open to everyone over 14 years old. This policy is acceptable as long as it applies equitably to all under or over 14 and is not arbitrary. Presumably the age cutoff was decided due to safety concerns with the technology.

CPL also explains that the lab was originally funded by a grant and now has been incorporated into their regular services: http://www.chipublib.org/maker-lab/. In other words, CPL is not charging excessive “added fees.” Most libraries either charge for the finished object based on the weight of the plastic or the time required to create the object. Such charges are to be expected, especially at the beginning. What should be avoided is a charge that prevents people from using the lab in the first place. Remember when libraries used to charge for VCRs? Most have figured out how to incorporate film media content into their budgets. Libraries should do their best to eventually create a budget model that does not depend heavily on user fees for makerspaces.

CPL issued a report in March 2015, “Making to Learn,” that everyone with 3D labs, or wanting to start one, should read. As was expected, CPL discovered that 3D printing sessions are always sold out; users learned “digital literacy” while taking part in the sessions; and that lab users collaborated on projects – all ideals for the 21st century library [6].

Intellectual Freedom Considerations for Libraries with 3D Printing: Content

Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.”

Library Bill of Rights [7]

 “Collection development responsibilities include selecting content in different formats produced by independent, small and local producers as well as information resources from major producers and distributors . . . Failure to select resources merely because they may be potentially controversial is censorship . . .”

Diversity in Collection Development: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights,Intellectual Freedom Manual, 8th edition [8]

 Librarians must be proactive to ensure that library makerspaces do not create barriers to expression. Too many library 3D printing policies are written in a negative tone, suggesting that the library needs to keep careful control of what can and can’t be created. Sometimes the restrictive policies are for such legitimate reasons as time pressures on the equipment and for safety concerns. But sometimes the restrictions are about content and do not protect First Amendment rights to free expression. Over-restricting content can lead to expensive lawsuits and can chill the potential entrepreneurial energy emerging from good 3D labs.

The most common 3D printing questions for OIF today are what content should be permitted for creation and who decides. A great many libraries place this decision with a librarian. The language likely to present problems is when the policy describes 3D objects as “inappropriate” or “objectionable.” These words’ definitions differ from person to person and are not good terms for policies. Consider, instead, Keene, New Hampshire’s public library policy, which simply says a user cannot print anything illegal. This broad statement covers guns; it covers child pornography; “harmful to minors” materials; and obscenity. The issues of illegal content need to be determined by the courts, not by one person.

A major challenge is the current language of ALA policy, which focuses on the model of the user receiving, not creating, information. But the First Amendment clearly protects the right to express oneself, and libraries purchase content that has been created because of this right. And so it is logical that libraries would use the same principles for content being created in their 3D lab space. In the age of user interaction with information, it is really the only policy that will work. This area of policy work is currently a major focus of the ALA intellectual freedom community.

Another approach to the protection of user creation in a 3D lab is to support the court’s categorization of libraries as public forums. Libraries are considered limited public forums because they are allowed to impose time, place and manner restrictions on a space (for example, a library can have open/closed hours), but any restrictions must be content neutral. This determination bolsters the concept of a 3D space as a place for user creativity protected by the First Amendment [9, p.45-47].

Privacy Considerations for Libraries with 3D Printing

Privacy is essential to the exercise of free speech, free thought and free association. Lack of privacy and confidentiality chills people’s choices, thereby suppressing access to ideas. The possibility of surveillance, whether direct or through access to records of speech, research and exploration, undermines a democratic society. In libraries, the right to privacy is the right to open inquiry without having the subject of one’s interest examined or scrutinized by others.” Library Privacy Toolkit [10]

Privacy has always been a cherished value within the library profession and enshrined in successive versions of the Code of Ethics and the Library Bill of Rights. It has long been understood that any kind of surveillance of library users has a chilling effect on their search for information. For that reason all 50 states have some form of confidentiality statute or assurance of library user privacy.

Like all library transactions, the 3D printing services can keep private the registration lists and the name of the user who created a particular object. Nametags should use a maker’s first name or initials only in order to protect privacy. The same traditional privacy principles apply when law enforcement asks to see what a particular user has created in a lab. It is useful to apply a privacy audit to a 3D printing operation and apply as many privacy protections as possible. See ALA’s Privacy Audit Questionnaire Checklist [11].

But affording 3D printing lab users total privacy understandably presents challenges not found in the traditional user/book or librarian/user reference interaction. In some libraries the users give their 3D printing design to a technician to be created and then printed. Also, 3D printers must be monitored carefully to prevent overheating, software malfunctions that destroy the objects and other accidents.

This need for librarian intervention suggests that users be trained as soon as possible to understand the software and hardware functions. Because of time and safety limitations the users will probably never achieve total privacy, but it is a goal to be sought.


These are exciting times. Not so long ago libraries realized the power of the Internet and the user-created social media content. These exciting developments have created increased interactivity between the user and information. A natural outcome of this interaction is user content creation in makerspaces. Some libraries have reacted to this phenomenon with fear – fear of lack of control of digital information and then of information creation by library users. And yet the vast majority of libraries have moved forward, knowing that professional values would be questioned in the process.

Librarianship is a profession with a code of ethics and policies to support our actions. As professionals, librarians continually monitor policies to adapt to new information formats and user interactions and services. Librarians should not wait to begin a 3-D printing space for some ideal time in the future when all the problems will be solved. Start now, with your goal and some policies that will undoubtedly evolve. The rest will fall into place. Just remember Ray Bradbury and his rented typewriter!

Resources Mentioned in the Article

[1] Weller, S. (2005). The Bradbury chronicles: The life of Ray Bradbury. New York: William Morrow.

[2] Bernhardt, M. (2014). 3D printing for fun and science? A conversation about digital fabrication, the library and you [slides]. Cambridge, MA: MIT Libraries. Program on information science. Retrieved from http://informatics.mit.edu/classes/3d-printing-fun-and-science-conversation-about-digital-fabrication-library-and-you

[3] Wapner, C. (January 6, 2015). Progress in the making: 3D printing policy considerations through the library lens. OITP Perspectives, 3. Retrieved from www.ala.org/offices/sites/ala.org.offices/files/content/3D_Library_Policy-ALA_OITP_Perspectives-2015Jan06.pdf

[4] American Library Association. (2008). Code of ethics of the American Library Association. Retrieved from www.ala.org/advocacy/proethics/codeofethics/codeethics

[5] Ferro, S. (July 11, 2013). In Chicago 3D printers are available to anyone with a library card. Popular Science DIY. Retrieved from www.popsci.com/diy/article/2013-07/chicago-brings-3-d-printers-its-main-public-library

[6] Chicago Public Library. Maker Lab. (March 3, 2015). Making to learn. What the Chicago Public Library and its patrons are learning as new members of the make movement. Retrieved from https://chicago.bibliocms.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2015/04/cpl-maker-lab-making-to-learn.pdf

[7] American Library Association. (1996). Library bill of rights. Retrieved from www.ala.org/advocacy/sites/ala.org.advocacy/files/content/intfreedom/librarybill/lbor.pdf

[8]American Library Association. (2014). Diversity in collection development: An interpretation of the library bill of rights. Retrieved from www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/librarybill/interpretations/diversitycollection

[9] American Library Association. (2015). Intellectual freedom manual. [9th Ed.]. Chicago: The Association.

[10] American Library Association. (n.d.) Privacy toolkit. Retrieved from www.ala.org/advocacy/privacyconfidentiality/toolkitsprivacy/privacy-and-confidentiality-library-core-values

[11] American Library Association. (n.d.) Privacy audit questionnaire checklist. Retrieved from www.ala.org/offices/sites/ala.org.offices/files/content/oif/statementspols/otherpolicies/PrivacyAuditQuestionnaireChecklist.doc

Barbara M. Jones is the director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. She can be reached at bjones<at>ala.org.