Building a materials library


I am helping Carnegie Mellon build its first materials library (yes, the oldest ID school does not have a materials library). I wanted to ask all of you if anyone has experience starting up/building a materials library?

  1. What’s the best way to organize the materials?
  2. What’s a good spectrum of materials to have?
  3. What are some good resources for samples?
  4. Any other tips, advice, caveats?


I believe the classical way is good for organization i.e. Metals/Polymers/Ceramics/Composites
Then Metals - Ferrous/Non-Ferrous
Polymers - Thermoset/Thermoplastic
Ceramic - Conventional/Engineering Ceramics
Composites - MMC/PMC/CMC

  1. McMaster Carr. Not only do they supply a vast amount of materials, in their catalog at the start of each material section they provide a material-chacteristics overview.

Before you begin to acquire any materials, you should really assess what type of collection you are try to cultivate and think about how the collection will fit into the mission statement of the school. If you just start to collect materials, you will be swamped by the volume of materials and playing catchup with the requests from students and faculty.

I’d suggest listening to this podcast to get an idea of how Harvard tackled some of these issues:

I worked for two years to help establish the materials library at RISD, so if you want to take this discussion off line, shoot me a PM


Stephen Szermer

  1. You should consider dividing the library into a public showroom where a selection of new/highly demanded materials is exposed, people could sit around etc. and a very high capacity storage area.
    Shelves are the wrong way to provide quick access to a maximum of fireproof (and mess up proof) storage, horizontal or vertical lift storage is exactly the right way: have a look at the “hänel lean lift” or similar units. You have all choices to combine this kind of storage with IT to establish a lending workflow.
    This way, you’ll never actually need more than one or two librarians/custodians to manage the place and no one is out of sight for searching shelves, messing the place up, hiding from work, stealing some stuff, …

Materials are a complex and constantly evolving field. First, I would suggest listing to Ms. Szermer and do a little bit of user research on your school:

Second, taking into consideration that you are creating a valuable service for a large and regarded institution it may very well be worth your time to bring in expert advice. Hundreds of novel materials are released ever year and it is difficult to wade through and determine the truth behind the manufacturers claims (who desperately want to sell their product) as well as the real world practicality of different material solutions. I would recommend contacting a firm such as Material ConneXion to help you in creating this resource (fair disclosure: I was an intern at this fascinating company a couple summers back).

Depending on what you’re looking for they could go as far as helping you assess what to include in your library, to as little as providing a fairly inexpensive academic account giving you access to their material archives database.

All the materials are combed through by brilliant PhD’s like Dr. Andrew Dent and then vetted for actual practical usability by a rotating team of regarded industrial designer, architects, etc. Long story short: with help or yourself you could create a materials wall for inspiration, while also providing a search able database with materials that have already been filtered for quality and practicality.

In Summary: After assessing the types of materials relevant to your students (for example interviewing all relevant professors), get in contact with a materials professional or get ready to do some hardcore research (maybe alongside a materials science grad student you bribed with food).

By the way, raw materials are uninteresting. Material science is much about discovering the limitations of a material, how it can be worked and joined to other materials. Thats why people feel attracted to composite materials. But the same goes for all the other stuff: Show representative products (or just cut sections from them if they’re to big) to give the students a feeling what can be done with the materials. Therefore, the companies producing semi-finished products, molding machines, machine tools, pressing plants, extruders, welding plants, coating technology, weaving machines, fasteners, … often have impressive product samples at hand what their equipment is able to perform or can refer to a customer of theirs with representative products.

I don’t know what you mean by raw materials but if you mean materials like steel aluminium etc. they are not raw and they are very interesting for material scientists. You cannot imagine the amount of research that goes into those materials. Steel is probably still the most researched material and it keeps on advancing. I mean playing with materials are not limited to composites. And material science is not merely discovering the limits of materials. It is discovering (or creating) materials from nothing. You take pure iron and it is so soft that is structurally unusable. A century of research has created numerous numbers of excellent materials.

Materials are not developed to be looked at under the microscope or to be tortured in testing machines (and that’s what material scientists love to do :laughing: ). From a designers (and engineers) point of view, it’s only interesting for which applications a material is optimized e.g. steel aloys that are suitable for complex forming operations, allowing to replace plastics and create fuel tanks that are lighter, tougher and vapor resistant. Just showing a piece of sheetmetal instead of a fueltank (or a part of it) won’t do the job to demonstrate what’s possible. Instead, a big book or database, full of charts and tables, would be sufficient (for the material scientist, not for the designer) :wink:

Yes you are right. But I am a material scientist :smiley: