3-D Printers

One aspect of being a new librarian is the feeling of having arrived late to a party where everyone is already deep in conversation. You lurk with your drink and canapés hoping to hear something that resonates on which you can say something intelligent. Or perhaps you just blurt out what you’re thinking to the delight or horror of your new peers.

So I hear things about 3-D printers and think I have something to add. My gig before science librarian was equipment manager for a Cell & Developmental Biology department. So I have some years of experience evaluating, purchasing and subsequently training people on highly technical equipment. The value of centrally funded equipment is fairly clear to me, and you can see cool examples of how a 3-D printer might save money in lab. But this single blog post gets trotted out too frequently as a justification for 3-D printers. There’s been some pushback on 3-D printers – Hugh Rundle and Jacob Berg both come to mind. And they make good points – like you may have way more important things to do with your time, or maybe the main library isn’t the best place for these things. But they also reference “technolust” (Rundle) and “wish fulfillment” (Berg) as a dig at the motivations for getting a 3-D printer. Fair enough, but I think a library is a pretty good place for these things if they are coming to your campus, unfortunately you probably don’t have the time to make them really useful.

Most lab equipment is poorly utilized. Very few pieces of equipment get used daily in a lab, – pH meter, spectrophotometer, benchtop centrifuges, and thermocyclers (perhaps) all get regular use. But there probably isn’t enough demand for a single lab or most departments to own a 3-D printer and use it to capacity. In the cost saving link above, the author made some electrophoresis combs – that can probably be used for years. I’ve closed out a lot of labs, and there are multitudinous gel combs and molds floating around, you’re just not going to be cranking them out daily. Having access to a 3-D printer is a potentially huge benefit to scientists trying to replace a small plastic bit of a machine (cost $50-75 from manufacturer) or to engineering students working on something like a robotics project. However, not many lab groups would be using them daily, so sticking them at the individual lab seems like a waste.

Even if an individual lab can justify the time and space, individual labs are often terrible, and I mean truly awful, at sharing. Dispositions run the gamut, but my memories of negotiating for access to a piece of equipment reminds me of baksheesh.  Having a place where scholars can go, get training, and not get entangled by reciprocity has a lot of time saving value. The grapevine is also a poor way to inform a community of new technology.

Scientists (and I imagine other scholars) like to see things in action before purchase. Scientists generally ask their peers and poke around before purchase, so getting a 3-D printer could also serve as a proof of concept to the community. Most will probably conclude they don’t need one for themselves. But the thing about 3-D printers is labs are only the most obvious users, and if a printer is put there they will most likely be the only users. Off the top of my head, 3-D printers have applications for art, education, and archaeology in addition to STEM fields.

All that said, I’m a bit leery of bringing 3-D printers into the library because they squirt hot polymer compound through tiny holes. Entropy is a tremendous enemy of devices like this and I fear they would be rapidly beaten into uselessness in a shared use environment. I’m sure they are well engineered and easy to clean (down sales reps, down) but … hot plastic, tiny tubes. Also, even if they are plug and play, designing something cool must take some training – and who provides that time and expertise? That said, I’ll leave folks with some nuts and bolts questions to help them assess whether a 3-D printer is right for their library.

  1. How much is a service contract for this machine? If I don’t buy a contract, what are the hourly service rate, the travel allowance and per diem cost for a technician to visit? Alternately, do we send it in for repair? If so, what are the packing requirements and typical turnaround time?
  2. What is the consumable cost? How much time does it take to switch consumables (for example – plastic colors) and does that take special training? Do I have to purchase consumables from you or are there third party solutions? Consumables also include things like motors and belts – over time every moving part is a consumable.
  3. What routine maintenance is required? How long does cleaning take and how often must it be performed?
  4. What operating systems do you support? Do we get free updates to the software? How about the firmware? Do we get free upgrades to the software? Can you import schematics from other programs?
  5. What circumstances void the warranty and/or contract?

Any good rep should have this info off the top of their head or very quickly. 3-D printers are cool and relatively inexpensive. Given the range of applications, a library is a pretty good fit. But the time and energy they may require for user training and maintenance should be investigated pretty thoroughly before purchase.

“In-house Document Request”

One of the first duties I inherited in my new job was becoming the campus key contact for SciFinder. SciFinder is, at least here, the favored chemical search database of the students and faculty.  Like many databases, SciFinder has an assist to get to the full-text, in this case CAS Full-Text Options – a collaboration between CAS and various publishers. Among the various methods of connecting users to full-text is integration of the catalog, external links to patent websites, links to publisher websites and, if desired, “In-house Document Request”.

The user sees the link “In-house Document Request” and there is no indication of what it is or how it works. But when they click through, it shows my email address, has a form to send a message and then the citation for the troublesome article, patent, what have you. I get an email notification and then I try to help the person out.

When I gained this responsibility I also started recording the requests and my responses. I picked up this data collecting habit in my lab manager job because I found it always useful at work to argue about data and numbers instead of feelings and impressions. In any case, since July 10th I’ve had 130 In-house Document Requests and I broke down the responses into four broad categories: interlibrary loan request, physically on the shelf, part of the e-subscriptions, or available free online. There were also some requests I didn’t answer; usually because the article was in a foreign language and when I asked the user whether they really want an article in Kazakh the answer is typically “no”.

I’m about to give you the percentages, but remember that there is no user instruction on what “In-house Document Request” is, how it works, or when it should be used. So here are the numbers:

  • Required interlibrary loan request – 36.9%
  • Available in print in the library – 22.3%
  • Available through our e-subscriptions – 9.2%
  • Available free online – 23.9%
  • No response – 7.7%

Before talking about what I learned, let me curtail some hand wringing about the state of information literacy in America. The “available free online” category consists overwhelmingly of patent requests, often untranslated foreign patents. Even with detailed instruction, Espacenet or the Japanese Patent Office can be daunting the first few times you visit.

Also, SciFinder only reports the first appearance of an article. So a citation from Vysokomolekulyarnye Soedineniya can usually be filled with the English translation in Polymer Science U.S.S.R. a few months later – which is “available through our e-subscriptions”. So, the kids are still all right and civilization isn’t doomed.

Some lessons learned – I should do some outreach and learn more about patent searching. A lot of students just don’t know what to do with those references. I’ve also learned to use these email contacts are an avenue for liaison work. Email is main way I am contacted and the SciFinder requests have led to a couple students coming in for pointers. I learned users interpret this option in wildly divergent ways – and since there’s no guidance, who can blame them? One user requested every single reference this way until I informed them that I expected them to at least look before contacting me (there is a story behind that policy, but moving on…). Some students hope I will conjure a digital copy for them so they don’t have to come in, or just don’t check anything beyond the e-journal collection. So the abstract concern that some users don’t consider the physical collection as real has become concrete for me. But most often the requests have some element of trickiness to them, show me broken links, or cataloging mistakes. Overall, I’ve learned to enjoy these requests as little puzzles and pleasant detours from the routine.

The Polymer Librarian?

Happy 2013 everyone, it will be incrementally different than 2012.

In my new position one of my primary responsibilities (depending on whom you ask, THE primary responsibility) is providing support to our departments of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering. Akron is the historic home of the rubber industry and the regional research focus on rubber has expanded and evolved over time to encompass all aspects of polymer research. University of Akron has the only Polymer College in the United States, so while there are many fine polymer graduate schools, none of them carry quite the administrative gravitas of polymer science at Akron. To put it in perspective there’s a building for polymer science and another building for polymer engineering. It is the university’s strongest research field.

Which leaves me in a strange place for subject work. There are, relative to a subject like chemistry, relatively few librarians supporting polymer science and there’s a correspondingly thin literature on the subject. Also, chemistry resources for polymers usually don’t have quite the same functionality (for example, you cannot order polymer substance results by molecular weight in SciFinder). So there are few colleagues to talk to and not a whole lot to read. (But shout-out to Nico Adams for his work on polymer informatics – very interesting stuff.) The final issue is that one department is a few blocks away and the one next door is physically locked to me, which is a problem when your liaison style could accurately be described as “just barge in on them”.

So what to do? I’ve tried, with mild success, stalking the faculty at their seminars and I was able to do a presentation to one of the graduate student organizations. I’ve fielded a few research questions well and received some praise. I had a productive meeting with one department chair, while another has so far eluded me (his research is going gangbusters, so no hard feelings).  But I need to do more.

My current plan is to focus my research on our polymer collection, most likely by a citation analysis. Perhaps it’s a bit pedestrian, but my thought is that scientists will appreciate a data driven approach to meeting their needs. Also, I did work in a research lab and supporting researchers so when I see a problem, I look for ways that data collection and analysis can solve it.

So does anyone out there have any other (hopefull better) ideas on engaging my highly specialized research faculty in a locked tower? I would love to hear your thoughts.

The Unexpected Benefits of a Varied Life

This post originally was about using my liberal arts social science background as a physical science librarian. But a comment from “Bob” on my last post got to me when he mentioned some “dead ends” in his background. So here’s a roundup of ways I’ve tapped by wealth of experience to perhaps demonstrate the use of dead ends.

1) The history degree

My first tour of duty in academia was as a history major at a small liberal arts college and I wrote my thesis on Japanese militarism in China. Forward 18 years, I was asked to find an old Japanese patent that just didn’t come up in the Japanese Patent Database. But via a lovely non-linear insight, it struck me that there should be a year at the beginning of the patent application and it quickly clicked that the patent used the imperial calendar. The patent was retrieved quickly and the speed was due to this degree.

Also, I had a request for articles on Greek cultural life in America. Akron’s nursing program requires students to investigate an ethnic community and social sciences literature remains unfamiliar to most of the students. Although not as smooth as an actual specialist librarian, I at least knew to recommend an anthropology database and we found something a bit quicker than if I had not taken a few anthro classes.

2) Used Book Buying

For about five years. I worked as a book buyer at Powell’s Books and during that time purchased and priced around a million. From this job I was able to tell a coworker how to unslant a book’s spine and how to get out mildew smell. One of my liaison departments had a very nice book set donated to them and wanted an appraisal to decide if it was worth dealing with the administrative red tape to sell it (being useful is essential for liaison work).  Finally, dealing with customers at bookstore information shifts was solid preparation for reference shifts.

3) Janitorial

I can change toilet paper rolls like a champ.

4) Lab Work

My job as a research technician and lab manager has allowed me to talk shop with some of the students (giving advice on how to plate bacterial transforms is something of an eyebrow-raiser at the reference desk). Understanding lab group social structure and communication dynamics developed an understanding of the pressures facing my various user communities. Running a facility gave me experience in spending, budgeting and dealing with vendors. Also, being a former equipment manager certainly helps when the printers get jammed.

There’s more, but librarianship requires and rewards a broad skill set and may offer a chance to resurrect some of those career dead ends. That said, I’m not sad that my years of restaurant experience have lain dormant … oh, wait … I volunteered to help plan the holiday party.

But what about you? Please share your stories of unexpected value from allegedly unrelated fields, I’m really curious.