Tag Team Tech: Wrestling with Teens and Technology August 2015

Thinking about Implementing 3D Design and Modeling Tools at Your Library?

 Kelly Czarnecki

Do you remember those questions on entrance exam tests that asked to select the shape that matched the larger piece to complete the picture? Or even a fold out that when your mind visualized the pieces put together it would form a particular object? These puzzles aimed to measure spatial intelligence which could be used in such areas as architecture or engineering. Whether or not those test questions bring up good or bad memories, being able to work with 3D design also has its place in many libraries that provide every day services to customers to create their own objects.

Many school, public, and academic libraries have equipment such as 3D printers or laser cutters and being familiar with digitally manipulating objects is a skill that’s useful. Maybe you don’t own this equipment yet but are seeing an interest from patrons in wanting to learn more about 3D design. Perhaps local schools are teaching classes with the software. Having it available can be a great supplement to what students are already learning. Animating characters through 3D design can also be a great way to tell a digital story and a more concrete way to introduce the complexities of 3D design through something fun and familiar. Likening a well known film or television series to the software will probably get users’ creative juices flowing. Lastly, another popular connection with youth and 3D design is video gaming. Many teens play video games and many libraries have supported this interest by hosting tournaments and other video game play. Introducing the means where they can create similar characters through 3D design brings a whole new level of skill building on which the library can build.

Fortunately, you have a lot of options and they don’t have to be expensive or have a steep learning curve. Even if you only have one or two computers or other devices with the software available, it’s a great start to helping grow patrons skills.

You may have favorite software you’ve been working with for quite some time or are just beginning and looking for some suggestions. Below are some ideas on how to get started.

3D Design Software—What Is It?

If you’re still feeling a bit sketchy (pun intended) as to exactly how this fits into the big picture of the library, think of objects as having stories.  The objects can be characters, as mentioned above, through animating them with the aid of a computer. Bringing characters to life through giving them a story line and other attributes of development can help users think through their creation in terms of a narrative. More abstract objects such as polygon shapes can help provide depth. A picture that has height, width, and depth is considered 3 dimensional (2D has height and width). Lines tell a story. You know by looking at a shape with three lines and three angles, a triangle is formed. A pyramid, on the other hand, is made up of four sides and has six lines. More information can be conveyed through a 3D object.

No one would argue that creating 3D objects should replace books in the library or that the stories of objects have a greater value of literacy than what are considered the classics that get checked out at our libraries. 3D design does have its place in many libraries, however, and can help develop skill sets that can be useful in a variety of careers such as engineering and game design and animation.

Tips on Choosing the Right Software for Your Library

Know your experts. Chances are, teens and other people that use the library have knowledge they can share about their favorite 3D software. Don’t hesitate to ask them for their opinions. They will likely have knowledge about the programs from using them that might not be readily known to someone that’s never used it before. Those with know-how will likely be other designers and makers in the community that are well-versed on the software and can give you the pros and cons of each.

Determine your goals. Is having a variety of software with different learning curves something that your customers want? Providing “high end” options along with those that will help cover the basics? Are your users wanting just to get their feet wet or go more in depth? Is it going to be primarily used for game design, 3D printing, architecture, K-12 education?

Involve IT. You might be the IT department, but if not,  keep IT in the discussion. While they might be familiar with particular 3D design software, they will also want to know such things like whether or not a site license is needed, how much space will be taken up on the computer by the program, and how often updates are needed. If you want their support down the road, keep them in the loop!

Our budgets are likely one of the driving forces that determine where we might start. Fortunately there are a lot of free and open source options to get started.

Let’s Get Started! Suggestions for 3D Design Software

While this list is by no means comprehensive, it’s a great place to start with free or low-cost software that offers a variety of starting places, from creating designs from scratch to being able to modify already existing examples.

Spore (http://www.spore.com)

While you might think of Spore as more of a game than 3D graphics software, it’s both. It’s a game in the sense that goals need to be completed to reach the next level. It’s also a great introductory design software where participants design creatures that can then be downloaded or imported into other 3D software or game engines such as Unity. Spore runs on Windows, Mac OSX, Wii, and iPhone, is single player, and rated E for Everyone by the ESRB.

SketchUp Make (http://www.sketchup.com)

This might be another familiar free software which is integrated with Google Earth and provides the ability to share creations with others. 3D Warehouse is an online library where users can search, upload, and contribute models. SketchUp Pro (http://www.sketchup.com/products/sketchup-pro) offers a discounted license for educators and students.

Tinkercad (http://www.tinkercad.com)

This free software is part of the 123D suite of free apps (http://www.123dapp.com/). An easy to follow two minute video tour is provided on their website to help you get started. You’re able to create something from scratch as well as modify designs that others have created. Basic shapes are provided which can be easily changed and viewed, much like editing images using the Microsoft Office Suite programs.

Thingiverse (http://www.thingiverse.com)

This website is owned by MakerBot Industries which produces 3D printers. It’s a commonly used site in many maker communities. Digital design files that can be printed on 3D printers or laser cutters that fall under creative commons licenses can be found here. This is a great option for getting started with 3D printing.


While this website isn’t specific to 3D design, it is a resource for user-created and uploaded projects which can include models and projects. This site is searchable and brings up many step-by-step examples when looking for “3D models” on how to design and print using various software.


This free software tool can be used with such equipment as a laser or vinyl cutter. It can edit what are called vector graphics which are shapes such as rectangles, polygons, stars, etc. (vs. raster graphics which are usually images found on the Internet).

CorelDraw (http://www.corel.com)

CorelDraw runs on Windows which is a vector graphics editor used for such purposes as sign making, editing photos, and creating web sites. It is supported by such programs as Adobe Illustrator and Inkscape. It can cost approximately $500 per download.

Don’t be afraid to try a new design software to meet the needs of your library and what you’re aiming to accomplish in your makerspace. Share the software you’re currently using for your makerspace and why you would recommend it!

Czarnecki headshot, used with permissionKelly Czarnecki is a teen services librarian in Charlotte, North Carolina. She has written extensively on teens and technology in libraries and teaches online classes for American Library Association. In her spare time she enjoys learning how to grill, watching the Chicago Bulls, and training for her next triathlon.


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