From Cool to Useful: Incorporating hobby projects into library work

Cool or Useful? A guide to incorporating hobby projects into library work

Sometimes I have trouble creating a clear line between geeky hobby projects I do on my own time and professional tasks for MPOW (my place of work.) This time, the geeky-thing-I-think-is-cool is a LibraryBox. LibraryBox is a hardware hack created by Jason Griffey.  What I’m currently trying to work out is, is this project a viable solution to a practical work-place problem? Of course, I have to watch out for Maslov’s Law of the Instrument which can be paraphrased: “To a person with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” These days I’m seeing a lot of LibraryBox-shaped nails. I’m eager to find potential applications for my new toy tool. My project in today’s post is to describe the LibraryBox project and describe a method of determining whether or not it has a work-related application.

What is a LibraryBox?

A LibraryBox is a very portable pocket-sized device that serves up digital content to wifi devices. It is designed to provide free ebooks to readers with wifi devices but without access to reliable Internet or power. The best introduction to LibraryBox may be found on the LibraryBox site. Jason Griffey has done an excellent job with the site’s design and has written comprehensive instructions for building and deploying LibraryBoxen. The site describes the project as: “an open source, portable digital file distribution tool based on inexpensive hardware that enables delivery of educational, healthcare, and other vital information to individuals off the grid.”

The LibraryBox project was designed to solve a very specific kind of problem. It is useful in scenarios involving all of the following conditions:

  • Either no access or sporadic access to Internet and electrical utilities
  • a need to distribute digital content
  • users that have wifi enabled devices

In order to meet these objectives, the LibraryBox

  • uses inexpensive parts and hardware.
  • runs off of batteries and is highly portable.
  • uses open source software. (The code is both kinds of free; both libre and gratis.)
My LibraryBox

Building the LibraryBox was fun and easy. I bought the necessary parts: a mobile router, a large usb flash drive, plus an optional battery. (I’m using a Sony Cycle Energy CP-EL I found on sale at the grocery store for $13). Then I went through the instructions. The process is easy and straightforward. A friend of mine completed them while his baby daughter was down for a nap. I took a little longer because I didn’t read the instructions through before starting and did some steps out of order. If you more diligent with following directions than I am, Jason’s instructions will get you from start to finish easily and without a hitch. Once I had my LibraryBox up and running, I filled the flash drive with some free and creative commons licensed content. I tested it out and was happy to see that I could use it to download ebooks onto my phone, laptop, and tablet. Once I demonstrated that it worked, I began to look for practical applications where it could be more than just cool, I wanted my hobby project to be useful.  To keep myself honest and keep my project enthusiasm in check, I’m using a series of questions to help determine whether I’m being blinded by the new shiny thing or whether it is, in fact,  an appropriate tool for the job at hand. These questions help with the tool/toy distinction, especially when I’m under the spell of the law of the instrument.

Questions:
  1. Does this tool or technology offer a solution to an existing problem?
  2. If the answer to #1 is yes, does it solve the problem better (more efficiently, cheaply, etc.) than alternate solutions?
  3. Does this tool or technology introduce unintended consequences or side-effects that are worse than the original problem?
Applying the Questions:

There are two ready applications for a LibraryBox at MPOW. Neither directly involve the library, both involve faculty projects in our Creative Media and Digital Culture (CMDC) program. Both are interesting projects and both project leads have indicated interest in using a LibraryBox to solve a problem. The first case involves using a LibraryBox to allow visitors to a remote historical site the ability to download and install a mobile app. My colleague Brett Oppegaard is leading development of a mobile app to provide visitors to a historic site access to interpretive materials. The location is somewhat remote and mobile broadband coverage is spotty at best and varies depending on the cell provider. My thought was to provide visitors to the site a reliable method of installing and using the app. Applying the three questions from above to this project, I learned that the answers to the first two questions are an unqualified yes. It solves a real problem by allowing users to download a digital file without an active net connection. It does so better than alternate solutions, especially due to its ability to run off of battery power. (There are no utilities at the site.) However, the third question reveals some real difficulties. I was able to successfully download and install the app from its .apk file using the LibraryBox. However, the steps required to achieve this are too convoluted for non-technical end users to follow easily. In addition, the current version of the app requires an active Internet connection in order to successfully install, rendering the LibraryBox workaround moot. These issues may be able to be resolved with some hacking, but right now the LibraryBox isn’t a working solution to this project’s needs. We’ll keep it in mind as the project develops and try new approaches.

Fortunately, as I was demonstrating the LibraryBox to the CMDC faculty, another colleague asked me about using it to solve a problem he is facing.  John Barber has been working on preserving The Brautigan Library and re-opening it to submissions. The Brautigan Library is a collection of unpublished manuscripts organized in the spirit of  the fictional library described in Richard Brautigan’s novel The Abortion. The Brautigan Library manuscripts currently are housed at the Clark County Historical Museum and we tested the LibraryBox there as a source for providing mobile access to finding aids.  This worked, but there were speed and usability issues. As we tested, however, John developed a larger plan involving a dedicated tablet kiosk, a web-app template, and a local web server connected to a router in the building. While we did not choose to use LibraryBox to support this exhibit, it did spark useful conversation that is leading us in promising directions.

Next Steps:

After learning that the LibraryBox isn’t a turn-key solution for either project, I still have some productive work to do. The first step is to install a light-weight web server (lighttpd) on the hardware currently running LibraryBox. (Fortunately, someone has already done this and left directions.) It’s possible, but unlikely, that will meet our needs. After that we’re going to test our plans using more powerful hardware in a similar setup. I’ve acquired a Raspberry Pi to test as a web server for the project and may also try running a web server on a more powerful router than the TL-MR3020 LibraryBox is based on. (Some open-WRT capable routers have as much as 128mb of RAM, which may be enough.) There is also work to do on the Ft. Vancouver project. The next steps there involve working on-site with the design team to more clearly articulate the problem(s) we are trying to solve.

In both cases my hobbyist tinkering is leading to practical and productive work projects. In both cases the LibraryBox has served as an excellent kluge (jury-rigged temporary solution) and has helped us see a clearer path to a permanent solution. These solutions will probably not resemble my early amateur efforts, but by exercising a little discipline to make certain my toys tools  are being employed productively, I’m confident that my hobby tinkering has a place in a professional workplace. At very least, my leisure time spent experimenting is benefiting my professional work. I also think that the kind of questions used here have application when considering other library toys fads innovations.

 


3D Printers in the Library: Toward a Fablab in the Academic Library

Colegrove and a student assembling an articulated model of a V8 engine
photo by Nick Crowl

Considering adding a 3D printer to the array of technology your library offers to meet your members’ needs?

The DeLaMare Science & Engineering Library at the University of Nevada, Reno, recently added two 3D printers, along with a 3D scanner and supporting software, to its collection. In the spirit of sharing the tremendous excitement involved in providing a 3D printer to our community, we hope our successful experience may be of use to others as you make the case for your own library. We’ll cover the opportunities libraries can embrace with the potential 3D printing brings, what exactly 3D printing is, how 3D printing, making, and fabrication enhances and perhaps changes learning, and to illustrate we’ll talk about what we’re doing here in DeLaMare.

What’s a 3D Printer?

In a manner similar to printing images on paper, a “3D printer” is a type of additive manufacturing: a three-dimensional object is created by laying down successive layers of material that adhere to one another, creating a three-dimensional output.

What the material is composed of varies from one manufacturer to the next including:

  • fine cornstarch held together by “watered-down superglue”
  • ABS plastic (think Legos!) with each layer literally melted onto the other
  • high-end photopolymer printers where each layer is “printed” by flashing a 2-D image of the layer onto a thin film of a photoreactive layer deposited on the growing surface of the object, the process is similar: the three-dimensional object is constructed by printing and adhering one layer at a time.

Although the technology has been around for well over a decade, the cost for reliable printers has dropped to the point where it is now becoming widely accessible to hobbyists and the education market. Fair warning: don’t be surprised (like we were!) to find that your local high schools may already be years ahead of you in this arena. You can learn a great deal by talking to the high school teachers that may already be on their second or third iteration of the equipment. This makes sense: with the ability to rapidly produce detailed precision parts, such a device is by its very nature a rapid prototyping tool; it has a rightful place next to those CNC routers and milling machines in the shop.

But… the academic library? We would argue that the DeLaMare Science & Engineering Library and academic libraries in general are about knowledge creation, and “rapid prototyping represents the kernel activity of knowledge creation through action.” Spraggon & Bodolica, 2008.

Think of it this way: a laser printer enables students to create a tangible product of their creative writing, enabling further refinement and creation as it is marked-up and shared with others. A 3D printer can play a similar but more broadly-based role in the lives of research and learning – producing tangible models of theoretical constructs, acting as the springboard of new ideas. The ability to go from a two-dimensional model on a computer screen to a real-world object that can be handled, is potentially transformative; immediately accessible, it will not only promote but accelerate knowledge creation and innovation.

Engine assembly
Photo by Nick Crowl

 

But… a 3D printer in the library?

Not everyone can easily understand the connection between libraries and 3D printing. Sometimes stakeholders need to have the “dots connected” to better understand what it is, the value it provides in academia, and why a library is a prime location for this technology.

First consider technology that has become commonplace in today’s library:

  • copy machines, recently expanded to include scan to email functionality
  • desktop computer workstations and software
  • laptops and tablets
  • supporting equipment such as laser printers and scanners
  • audio and video production and editing equipment and staff
  • large-format (poster) printers and scanner

students look on at a piece of math art
photo by Nick Crowl

There is serious potential here

UNR Libraries and many academic libraries across the country already strategically deploy technology to enable knowledge creation across departmental boundaries. We are actively building an environment that nurtures creativity while stimulating and supporting learning and innovation across the university landscape.

The library is in a unique position to be able to leverage the wealth of learning and opportunities for knowledge creation that access to such technology can provide in a way that most individual departments are not. Because the library exists for everyone in the academic community, we are well equipped to provide open support for all. By its very nature the library is an active inter-disciplinary hub, where communities of practice cross paths regularly; rather than relegated to isolated departmental “silos” on campus, library technology explicitly enables learning and knowledge creation across disciplines. Science, Technology, Engineering & Math projects can be augmented by insights from the Arts and Humanities, and vice-versa. Regardless of academic discipline, “imagination begets fabrication, fabrication begets imagination.” (Doorley & Witthoft, 2012) 

Colegrove and student discussing the build process of the newest model.
photo by Nick Crowl

How is Rapid Prototyping a match for libraries?

Rapid Prototyping technology enables the active construction of new knowledge in a way that may be a good match for the library; beyond simply an opportunity to continue to be seen as leading the way technologically, the addition of the resource might enable your students and faculty to leverage the multidisciplinary skills and competencies needed to innovate and compete in today’s rapidly changing environment. In our case, liaison/outreach opportunities abound; currently identified needs that would be supported include:

• Chemistry Department – production of 3D chemical models and lattice structures in support of ongoing research being performed by graduate and undergraduate students working closely with teaching and research faculty. To date, the department has been required to outsource such production needs at a significant cost – both for the cost of the printing, and a lag time on the order of weeks to months for turnaround.

• Mechanical Engineering – development of custom piecework as-needed to support various projects throughout the undergraduate curriculum: from gears and structural work associated with robots and hovercraft to bridges and other structures; the students are already making heavy use of the equipment and software to meet unforeseen needs.

• Computer Sciences & Engineering – in addition to significant prototyping needs identified with several department flagship Senior Projects courses, more routine work will include the production of custom case enclosures to house prototype systems.

• Mining Engineering – production of 3D models of ore bodies and other mine structures immediately enabling learning on a level that is difficult to approach from a strictly two-dimensional print standpoint.

• Geography – structural modeling of geographic terrains, including 3D models based on traditional maps combined with other data to create tangible models of concepts being considered both in the classroom and as faculty research.

Planetary gear
Photo by Nick Crowl

Potential support could include:

• BioSciences – examples could include production of body parts models from CT or other scans; producing tangible 3D replicas of actual case studies. [ Editorial note: a research team from the Psychology department on campus has already announced their intention to print 3D models of each team member’s brain from MRI scans.]

• Business/Engineering/Physical Sciences – production of custom parts needed to prototype development in support of patent applications without overly costly outsourcing of work.

• Seismology – active production of 3D models of fault boundaries in an area of study as based on field sampling and collected data.

• Arts – need more be said? Imagine the creativity documented in Lawrence Lessig’s “Remix” extended to the world of 3D objects…

In short, rapid prototyping is a new multidisciplinary literacy that is poised to boost learning and knowledge creation across the Sciences, Engineering, and Arts across the academy. The need for rapid prototyping support is real, and the library is an appropriate place to maximize both the investment and return on the equipment.

So what kind of 3D printer to get?

As of this writing, RP publications hosts a pretty thorough comparison chart of “Comparison Chart of All 3D Printer Choices for Approximately $20,000 or less” at http://www.additive3d.com/3dpr_cht.htm. Its authors make the important points up-front:

• there’s no such thing as the “best” 3D printer, and

• the most important thing is to ask yourself what you and your community will be doing with the machine; balance current needs and future potential.

3D printing software
photo by Nick Crowl

What will we be doing with a 3D printer?

In identifying needs strongly in line with robust, droppable output; we needed to be able to print 3D models of gears, robot parts, and models that could be handled with a minimum of breakage. Stakeholders across the disciplines were quite clear that they would rather hand-paint a part made of “real” (ABS) plastic if need be than deal with pretty but fragile output.

We chose 2 printers for our maiden voyage along with supporting hardware and software:

  • Production 3D printer: Envisioned as the production engine for reliable output of precision parts, the Stratasys uPrint+/SE appeared to be the optimum choice given the demands of a production environment. The combination of reliable precision output, along with the relatively low cost of materials, promises to be a good entry point, at roughly $4.50/cubic inch of printed volume. Although the Stratasys uPrint/SE is somewhat less expensive, the “+” option adds the capability of printing in multiple colors – a feature that is likely to be key in the adoption and use of the equipment.
  • Hobbyist 3D printer: The 3DTouch printer was selected to serve both as an active display and an entry point for users experimenting with 3D print output; although the printer lacks the precision of the recommended production machine, the cost of materials with the 3DTouch are dramatically lower than for the production machine at approximately $0.60/cubic inch. The idea is that the 3DTouch can serve as a testing ground for first-round prototypes that would otherwise be printed at a significantly higher cost on the production machine.
  • Supporting hardware and software: Purchases include a single NextEngine 3D Laser Scanner, along with a single license of the supporting software RapidWorks. Capable of scanning extended real-world objects at up to 160,000 points per inch, producing a highly-detailed digital representation that can be immediately opened and manipulated in popular modeling software such as SolidWorks or AutoCAD. The educational lab license (30 floating licenses) of the Rhino 3D Modeling Tools for Learning was purchased to meet the needs of customers less comfortable with the SolidWorks software available through a partnership with Engineering on campus.

gargoyle
Photo by Nick Crowl

Connecting the Dots

It should be mentioned that the equipment identified for purchase already has a successful track record – it continues to be the choice for installation in high schools across the country for the same reasons detailed here.

The introduction of the new service already speaks loudly to the students and faculty as to UNR Library’s commitment to the continuing support of combining new with traditional technologies in support of the depth of learning that could not otherwise be obtained. In addition to directly supporting learning and innovation across disciplines at the University, the addition of rapid prototyping services may provide opportunities to introduce those that may not currently think of themselves as “library users” to the wealth of supporting resources that the library already provides. Production use of the 3D printers will build on the already well-established model of large-format printing support, developed over many years; the adoption of the new technology will not require substantial modification to existing procedures.

The great news is we are seeing both printers get use from students and faculty from a variety of departments, even through the summer. Many students have been early adopters, often spreading the news by word of mouth and bringing their work to their peers and faculty. Interestingly, the students are helping each other with the 3D scanning, manipulation and building using 3D software, as well as sharing files. The printer is available to all within the UNR community and we are also looking forward to working with a number of faculty as they add 3D printing as part of their courses and curriculum starting this fall.

Edited to add the official press release from University of Nevada, Reno: http://newsroom.unr.edu/2012/07/18/university-of-nevada-reno-library-first-in-nation-to-offer-3d-printing-campuswide/

 

References

Doorley, S., & Witthoft, S. (2012). Make space: How to set the stage for creative collaboration. (1 ed., p. 79). Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Spraggon, M. and Bodolica, V. (2008). Knowledge creation processes in small innovative hi-tech firms, Management Research News, 31(11), p. 879-894.

 

About Our Guest Author: Tod Colegrove holds the degree of Master of Science in Library and Information Science with a concentration in Competitive Intelligence and Knowledge Management from Drexel University which complements additional advanced degrees held in Physics, including the Ph.D.; over 14 years experience as senior management in high-technology private industry. Actively involved in the academy across multiple scientific and engineering disciplines, and keenly aware of the issues and trends in scholarly communication in the sciences; active member of the Association of College and Research Libraries, Science and Technology Section (ACRL/STS), as well as the Library and Information Technology Association (LITA) division of the ALA. At the University of Nevada, Reno, where I served multiple years as manager of the Information Commons @One at the opening of the Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center, and currently serve as the Head of the DeLaMare Science & Engineering Library.