This week I thought about printing a lot. I had the opportunity to see a demonstration of the 3-D printer Morris library recently acquired. I spoke with the people that are working on the project. It was illuminating. On the same day, I spent time hand-setting type for my job in the Preservation Department in Morris Library.
The stamping press uses hand-set type to permanently impress titles onto bookcloth for new book covers.

The stamping press uses hand-set type to permanently impress titles onto bookcloth for new book covers.

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The press is heated to about 200 F to impress a permanent, durable title.

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This scene was once a ubiquitous part of life, but is now very rare. The preservation department has a cabinet full of these narrow drawers. Each drawer houses a font in one size, either lower or upper case.

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Setting the type for a title.

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Many of the proponents of the 3-D printer project on campus are retired professors and staff members. They are all volunteers, from all over the university.

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The plate of this kit-made robotic printer is heated. The operator's hand is resting on the plate, with the movable printer head directly above. Right now, Orange PLA plastic is being fed into the machine. The heated plate enables the printer to print ABS plastic, like what legos are made from.

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This is the more common type of printer. Here, the science librarian is using it to print out two small plastic rings. This would take about 15 minutes.

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The 3-D printer.

  When Guttenberg first convinced goldsmiths to take up the onerous task of making little cast, perfectly-formed letters, they did not start with just the 26 letters of the alphabet in upper and lower case and a few punctuation marks. They very closely copied the style of calligraphy, with hundreds of shapes and forms of letters. These early books were meant to look and feel like a hand-made manuscript. And they very nearly did. They achieved a level of artistry that analyzed calligraphic styles from a totally new mindset. Some thinkers believe that it took more than a century for the impact and potential of this piece of technology to be fully understood. I think that we could easily make the case that my university, the middle class, abundance of material resources, plentiful food and clean water, and much more, all stem from this one piece of technology and its profound ability to transfer knowledge. I have seen people comparing the invention of computers and PCs to the invention of the printing press. I believe that the impact of this piece of technology will take a century or more to understand. I remember when computers used tape decks to manage minuscule amounts of data. This week I saw a computer, using Linux-based, community-built software print out a plastic 3-D object. One of these printers has been famously used to make a home-made prosthetic for a growing boy, by his dad. Then he posted the directions on the Internet, and they are freely available. I am a potter, besides being a parent, a grad student, and a number of other things. I believe that the handmade pot is much more than an object made to house nostalgia and Utopianism. The ideals of social justice that influential thinkers have tried to attach to craft work are noble. They just don't attach very well. We have a printing press in the library because it does something that no other currently, economically-available tool can do. It permanently adheres a custom durable title to bookcloth in a one-off process uniquely required for repair. The hand-made craft object is the same. It does not need watertight dogma to justify itself. When I look at it, feel it, use it, I know that it can do things that no mass-produced object can do. It can express freedom and looseness, accident and choice, beauty and agility of mind in a very concrete way that no other type of object could. It is not the perfect tool for every job, but there are things about this tool that cannot be replaced, ever, by anything else. Still, I have some ideas for some tessellated geometric sculptures that I would love to make up designs for and 3-D print someday.The kite designs were fabulous. Paper clay may have been a better choice for my attempt. My media choice, pottery, is limited, like all choices. I see its place in a new way when it is put in the context of a world with cheaply available 3-D printers. The meanings of tools and objects shift in a changing context. And I like that change. I like modern life, without which I could not have the job of my choice, drink clean water, eat as much, own property, move freely. The list goes on and on.

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