I’ve been thinking a lot about computers in libraries
lately. I’m talking about
hardware, not web 2,0 stuff. I’m really hopeful that my library is able to
upgrade its public computers and move to thin clients this summer,
but enough systems talk.
The topic of computer access comes up regularly in my Next Steps interviews. Directors in all types of libraries seem to be pondering the same thing: reducing the number of desktops and move to something else. Interest in mobile devices continues to rise and it is very possible that we’ll move to purely wireless machines such as laptops and iPads. Studies show that people don’t typically carry their laptops around with them, so it seems logical that libraries will need to beef up the lending of these devices. This appears to be the natural progression ahead of us. It also allows patrons more flexibility in terms of where they can work. If they want to be in a big open populated area they can. If they want to be in a casual lounge area, they can. Group areas. Quiet areas. Take your pick. Use your device or ours, it doesn’t matter.
A blast of history
Let’s take a step back for a minute. Libraries are about information (and sometimes inspiration.) For a long time this was accomplished predominately through print. And while we are still buying print there is little doubt about the digital future. As a printed book lover I was very hesitant to accept this fate, but I have come to terms with it. Everything is going to be electronic. I’m over it now. I’ve moved out of the denial phase and into acceptance. (Note: I’m on the side that says everything will be digital and some things will be print, as opposed to the everything print and some things digital point-of-view. Print will become the minority in terms of content.)
Back on track: Libraries held the information. As the web emerged we saw gate counts drop initially. Our response was The (________) Commons. Fill in the blank with one of these terms: Learning, Information, Scholarly, Library, Computer, Technology, or Intellectual. Essentially we saw an infusion of computers (with productivity software) and cafes (big picture, buildings allowing food, drink, and conversation) along with a mix of casual, quiet, and collaborative workspaces that led to a boom for academic libraries. Many librarians I’ve spoken with in recent years say they are too successful in terms of patron count and that they lack enough space and power outlets to meet their current needs. This has been a huge shift that happened in a very short time. We’re talking 1995-2005. A state of the art library from the grunge era would seem woefully outdated compared to the modern concept.
I’m going out on a limb here, but I think the key to our current success has been the computers. Not only to access library materials, but also to work on homework and other assignments, and to browse the web and do whatever else. If you take the computers out of THE COMMONS I think you’d see our numbers drop by half. That’s just my instinct--- I can’t back it up with data. However I recall several occasions when the web crashed and people started filing out of the building. So the real question is: what happens when they don’t need computers anymore?
I saw these images today and they really struck me. More info here.
This is the future. Gone are the hard drives and monitors and the wires and cables and all of that junk. This is clean and elegant and could someday live in the cloud.
Since both my mom and mother-in-law read this blog here is some context: cloud computing means everything is online instead of on your desktop. Your photos. Your documents. Your programs. Everything lives online! So if you are at your house, or your neighbor’s house, or my house, or a friend’s house, or at work--- you can access your stuff. Everything you have becomes portable so that when you log-in from wherever, you and only you, can get your files… unless you elect to share them with others.
Back to our story. Imagine that we had these devices on every table or desk in the library. Need to get online? Click. There it is. Need to spread out your stuff, turn it off for now—no problem. Maybe we also have them available for checkout. Take a “computer” wherever you want.
The real evolution though is when this device slims down and basically fits into your other devices. Have an iPhone or one of those impostures? Click a button and the light-based keyboard and screen projects out on the surface. Need to blow it up bigger? Touch a button and get a larger screen size. Make it darker, lighter, whatever.
No more keyboards... at least in the physical sense. No more mouse, you just push and pull, pince, touch and tap. Everything is right there and fully customizable. Color. Shape. Sound. Brightness. Style. Skins. Languages. Volume. All yours. All right there.
And while we are at it: The huge advantage I can see to such a system is interchangeability. Imagine this--- I will have a roaming profile of my stuff. (See iTunes wireless connection post for the gist of this concept.) I can log into my device or into your device or the library’s device or the device at my dentist’s waiting room and access my stuff. The beauty (dream) of the cloud becomes realized here. It doesn’t matter where I am – all of the media, content, software, etc that I ever purchase or obtain follows me everywhere I go. So if I download a song or a book I can enjoy that material wherever I am.
But… I want layering too. I’m not sure what the technical term is but here is an example. I am a student and armed with my iPad I visit your library. I project my screen onto your nice new Steelcase table especially designed for “surface computing.” Let’s say I need to work on a homework assignment for my stats course. I don’t own a copy of SPSS but your library has a campus license. I authenticate and now, I have access to it via my screen. My affiliation with your library gives me access to the software, course reserves, and other products that I may need for school. They just show up in my menu options, I don’t have to go to your website or even to your building for that matter—I could do this from home. I have access to SPSS and journals and other stuff until my affiliation with your library/campus ends... on any computer or device that I want.
Let’s take this a little further. Imagine that everyone starts out with a basic set of core tools. And then you can purchase additional things, like MS Office (although I prefer Google’s tools) and games and apps and other content. Everyone starts with the same stuff but then, based on who you are, you gain access to more specialized tools and resources.
A professor might get “stuff” from the University (benefits, IRB protocol, etc), stuff from the campus library (resources and software), and stuff from his department (policies and procedures, etc). Not to mention, maybe his public library gives him copies of bestsellers. Maybe his homeowner’s association gives him something about the property, or a webcam tool to track his dog. His bank enables him to track spending, retirement, investments, and pay bills. Maybe his customer relationship with his local grocery store or the hardware store gives him access to tools or services related to those entities as well. Essentially everyone’s computing experience is shaped by who they are and what they are interested in. We get all these multiple layers that are ubiquitous. That's the future of the web. I don't need to bookmark the library's site or BankofAmerica.com because once I am a member those services just appear in my cloud menu.
The Post-Commons Era
What does this mean for libraries and other learning
Let’s leave the layering concept aside for right now. But IF, and I admit that’s a pretty big if, we could move to a purely cloud model with light-projected mobile interfaces— that changes everything. We won’t need a room filled with 100 or 500 desktop computers. We won’t need to worry about networking or security or maintenance or updates or upgrades. (Ok, maybe a little.) The point is, we get away from the structured hardwired learning commons model and move into a series of neighborhoods. Bill Mayer hit on this with his vision of libraries as “a series of living rooms and kitchens.” Different spaces designed for different purposes.
This pushes us away from having “just some tables and chairs and computers” and into more defined zones where intentional learning occurs. Or put another way: if students don’t need our physical collections or computer labs, then what will bring them into the library? What advantage can we offer that is crucial to their intellectual and cultural development?
I have a few more ideas, but I’m pushing 1,600+ words here and people don’t like LONG blog posts; they never make it down this far. I’m thinking about turning this topic into a regular series (FutureSpec) that will explore the impact that speculative technologies, partnerships, and new service models might have on libraries and learning and media. Expect a few posts later in the year long those lines?
Oh and if you’re really into this stuff then this is the place you’ll want to be-- they always seem to be on the forefront of technology services and I’m sure that they’ll be the first library out there offering light-projected mobile experiences.
The good folks at The Chronicle picked this up: If Libraries Remove Computers, Will Anyone Come? Just one thing I want to clarify is that it is the cloud computing model is what would allow us to make the type of shift I described up above. In academic libs it is the software that is very key. If we can make virtualization easier and better then I think we could move away from desktops. I hope people unfamiliar with me don't think I'm calling for the death of libraries-- much the opposite. This post was just intended to get us to think beyond computers, at least in the sense of how we know them today. It's really more of a challenge to think of technology rich and purposeful spaces and services. I think libraries can still play a critical role in the access and discovery of information--but let's move beyond hardware.