Made to Make: Expanding Digital Humanities through Desktop Fabrication

July 18, 2013, 08:30 | Long Paper, Embassy Regents C

Contributing Labs: The research has been conducted at the Scholars’ Lab (University of Virginia), the Humanistic Fabrication Lab (Western University), and the Maker Lab in the Humanities (University of Victoria).


This paper presents substantive, cross-institutional research conducted on the relevance of desktop fabrication to digital humanities research. The researchers argue that matter is a new medium for digital humanities, and—as such—the field’s practitioners need to develop the workflows, best practices, and infrastructure necessary to meaningfully engage digital/material convergence, especially as it concerns the creation, preservation, exhibition, and delivery of cultural heritage materials in 3D. Aside from sharing example workflows, best practices, and infrastructure strategies, the paper identifies several key growth areas for desktop fabrication in digital humanities contexts. Ultimately, it demonstrates how digital humanities is “made to make,” or already well positioned to contribute significantly to desktop fabrication research.


Desktop fabrication is the digitization of analog manufacturing techniques (Gershenfeld 2005). Comparable to desktop publishing, it affords the output of digital content (e.g., 3D models) in physical form (e.g., plastic). It also personalizes production through accessible software and hardware, with more flexibility and rapidity than its analog predecessors. Common applications include using desktop 3D printers, milling machines, and laser cutters to prototype, replicate, and refashion solid objects.

Literature Review

To date, desktop fabrication has been used by historians to build exhibits (Elliott, MacDougall, and Turkel 2012); by digital media theorists to fashion custom tools (Ratto and Ree 2012); by scholars of teaching and learning to re-imagine the classroom (Meadows and Owens 2012); by archivists to model and preserve museum collections (Terdiman 2012); by designers to make physical interfaces and mechanical sculptures (Igoe 2007); and by well-known authors to “design” fiction as well as write it (Bleecker 2009; Sterling 2009). Yet, even in fields such as digital humanities, very few non-STEM researchers know how desktop fabrication actually works, and research on it is especially lacking in humanities departments across North America.

By extension, humanities publications on the topic are rare. For instance, “desktop fabrication” never appears in the archives of Digital Humanities Quarterly. The term and its methods have their legacies elsewhere, in STEM laboratories, research, and publications, with Neil Gershenfeld’s Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop (2005) being one of the most referenced texts. Gershenfeld’s key claim is that: “Personal fabrication will bring the programmability of digital worlds we've invented to the physical world we inhabit” (17).

This attention to digital/material convergence has prompted scholars such as Matt Ratto and Robert Ree (2012) to argue for: 1) “physical network infrastructure” that supports “novel spaces for fabrication” and educated decisions in a digital economy, 2) “greater fluency with 3D digital content” to increase competencies in digital/material convergence, and 3) an established set of best practices, especially as open-source objects are circulated online and re-appropriated.

To be sure, digital humanities practitioners are well equipped to actively engage all three of these issues. The field is known as a field of makers. Its practitioners are invested in knowing by doing, and they have been intimately involved in the development of infrastructure, best practices, and digital competencies (Balsamo 2009; Elliott, MacDougall, and Turkel 2012). They have also engaged digital technologies and content directly, as physical objects with material particulars (Kirschenbaum 2008; McPherson 2009). The key question, then, is how to mobilize the histories and investments of digital humanities to significantly contribute to desktop fabrication research and its role in cultural heritage.

Research Questions

To spark such contributions, the researchers are asking the following questions: 1) What are the best procedures for digitizing rare or obscure 3D objects? 2) What steps should be taken to verify the integrity of 3D models? 3) How should the source code for 3D objects be licensed? 4) Where should that source code be stored? 5) How are people responsible for the 3D objects they share online? 6) How and when should derivatives of 3D models be made? 7) How are fabricated objects best integrated into interactive exhibits of cultural heritage materials? 8) How are fabricated objects best used for humanities research? 9) What roles should galleries, libraries, archives, and museums (GLAM) play in these processes?


In response to these questions, the three most significant findings of the research are as follows:

I) WORKFLOW: Currently, there is no established workflow for fabrication research in digital humanities contexts, including those that focus on the creation, preservation, exhibition, and delivery of cultural heritage materials. Thus, the first and perhaps most obvious finding is that such a workflow needs to be articulated, tested in several contexts, and shared with the community. At this time, that workflow involves the following procedure: 1) Use a DSLR camera and a turntable to take at least twenty photographs of a stationary object. This process should be conducted in consultation with GLAM professionals, either on or off site. 2) Use software (e.g., 3D Catch) to stitch the images into a 3D scale model. 3) In consultation with GLAM professionals and domain experts, error-correct the model using appropriate software (e.g., Blender or Mudbox). What constitutes an “error” should be concretely defined and documented. 4) Output the model as an STL file. 5) Use printing software (e.g., ReplicatorG) to process STL into G-code. 6) Send G-code to a 3D printer for fabrication.

If the object is part of an interactive exhibit of cultural heritage materials, then: 7) Integrate the fabricated object into a circuit using appropriate sensors (e.g., touch and light), actuators (e.g., diodes and speakers), and shields (e.g., wifi and ethernet). 8) Write a sketch (e.g., in Processing) to execute intelligent behaviors through the circuit. 9) Test the build and document its behavior. 10) Refine the build for repeated interaction. 11) Use milling and laser-cutting techniques to enhance interaction through customized materials.

If the object and/or materials for the exhibit are being published online, then: 12) Consult with GLAM professionals and domain experts to address intellectual property, storage, and attribution issues, including whether the object can be published in whole or in part. 13) License all files appropriately, state whether derivatives are permitted, and provide adequate metadata (e.g., using Dublin Core). 14) Publish the STL file, G-code, circuit, sketch, documentation, and/or build process via a popular repository (e.g., at Thingiverse) and/or a GLAM/university domain.

When milling or laser-cutting machines are used as the primary manufacturing devices instead of 3D printers (see step 6 above), the workflow is remarkably similar.

II) INFRASTRUCTURE: In order to receive feedback on the relevance of fabrication to the preservation, discoverability, distribution, and interpretation of cultural heritage materials, humanities practitioners should actively consult with GLAM professionals. For instance, the researchers are currently collaborating with libraries at the following institutions: the University of Virginia, the University of Toronto, York University, Western University, McMaster University, the University of Washington, and the University of Victoria.

By extension, desktop fabrication research extends John Unsworth’s (1999) premise of “the library as laboratory” into all GLAM institutions and suggests that new approaches to physical infrastructure may be necessary. Consequently, the second significant finding of this research is that makerspaces should play a more prominent role in digital humanities research, especially research involving the delivery of cultural heritage materials in 3D. Here, existing spaces that are peripheral or unrelated to digital humanities serve as persuasive models. These spaces include the Critical Making Lab at the University of Toronto and the Values in Design Lab at University of California, Irvine. Based on these examples, a makerspace for fabrication research in digital humanities would involve the following: 1) training in digital/material convergence, with an emphasis on praxis and tacit knowledge production, 2) a combination of digital and analog technologies, including milling, 3D-printing, scanning, and laser-cutting machines, 3) a flexible infrastructure, which would be open-source and sustainable, 4) an active partnership with a GLAM institution, and 5) research focusing on the role of desktop fabrication in the digital economy, with special attention to the best practices identified below.

III) BEST PRACTICES: Desktop fabrication, especially in the humanities, currently lacks articulated best practices in the following areas: 1) attribution and licensing of cultural heritage materials in 3D, 2) sharing and modifying source code involving cultural heritage materials, 3) delivering and fabricating component parts of cultural heritage materials, 4) digitizing and error-correcting 3D models of cultural artifacts, and 5) developing and sustaining desktop fabrication infrastructure.

This finding suggests that, in the future, digital humanities practitioners have the opportunity to actively contribute to policy-making related to desktop fabrication, especially as collections of 3D materials (e.g., Europeana and Thingiverse) continue to grow alongside popular usage. Put differently: desktop fabrication is a disruptive technology. Governments, GLAM institutions, and universities have yet to determine its cultural implications. As such, this research is by necessity a matter of social importance and an opportunity for digital humanities to shape public knowledge.