Monthly Archives: July 2013

Today’s Computer Commons is Tomorrow’s Card Catalog

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian at Temple University, and founding blogger at ACRLog.

Anyone who worked in an academic research library in the 1970s-1980s remembers the vast amount of library real estate devoted to the physical card catalog. For those newer-to-the-profession colleagues who are unable to picture this – and those who prefer to forget it – here’s a reminder:

duke university library card catalog
A typical research library catalog taking enormous amounts of floor space

As academic libraries of all sizes completed their migrations to online catalogs the librarians looked forward to the removal of the massive catalog furniture, and dwelled on how they would use all the space made available by the its departure. As timing would have it, the advent of the personal computer right around the same time the catalog went away made for an almost natural transition of the space from cards to computers. In my own place of work, where the catalog used to sit one now finds a field of personal computers – all of them hardwired desktops. One also finds printers, scanners and technology assistants to help keep it all running.

As my own library embarks on the planning process for a new building, one that will serve the institution throughout the 21st century, the future of desktop computer and whether tomorrow’s student will have any use for this technology is one of many questions related to technology planning. The current wisdom seems to be that undergraduates still prefer to have access to hardwired desktops – even though the vast majority of them own their own desktops or (increasingly) laptops.

It would be both questionable and considerably risky to plan for an academic library to open in 2017 without public desktop computing. Looking out into the not-too-distant future beyond that though, perhaps just another 10 years, I believe academic librarians will once again be in search of a purpose or application for all the space created by the removal of obsolete desktop computers. This technology will be just useful in 2027 as the physical card catalog was to the academic library by the time online catalogs were as common as desktop computers are today.

There’s no question that today’s college students still expect the library to offer them lots of desktop computers – as odd as that may seem when many of them own their own desktops, laptops or tablets. An article in the December 2012 issue of Information Technology and Libraries titled “Student Use of Library Computers: Are Desktop Computers Still Relevant In Today’s Libraries?” by Susan Thompson of CSU San Marcos, shares the results of two years’ worth of study into student use of the library’s desktop computers. According to Thompson, the students still preferred for the library to offer desktops for a number of reasons with which many of us are acquainted: faster connections; reliability when papers are due; access to onsite printers; preference for leaving laptops at home (this article focuses on a commuter institution); access to special software; fear of stolen/lost laptops; convenience. It’s a conclusion that many of us would expect.

But the data was collected in 2009 and 2010. That’s eons ago in the computer age. As I read it I wondered whether these findings would accurately reflect the technology habits of students of 2013 – and would they at all reflect the students of 2027? I know that as I walk through my own library almost every student who is not sitting at a desktop is using (or has nearby) a laptop, tablet or smartphone. Then again, at times of the day students are challenged to find a desktop when they want it.

I suspect that we will see some rapid change in student use of mobile computing and that it will, in time, chip away at the preferences identified by Thompson’s research. The future of institutionally supported desktop computing at colleges and universities is one that our IT colleagues continue to debate. Some institutions are abandoning desktops entirely while other swear on the value of offering acres of desktops and laptops to go. Factors such as residential vs. commuters, socio-economic status of the students or the local technology culture can all impact on the need for desktop computing. In an increasingly BYOE technology landscape, it seems inevitable that students will have no real need for a library provided desktop. That appears to be the thinking behind the planning of the Brody Learning Commons at Johns Hopkins University. It offers access to great study and learning spaces with technology support – but no computers are provided. Then again, they are nearby if needed in the familiar confines of the attached Eisenhower Library.

Perhaps the best thing we can do, in planning for onsite library computing today, is to aim for maximum flexibility. Students may express a demand for desktops today, but it’s hard to imagine that will be our future. When we gaze out upon our fields of computers we should, in our mind’s eye, envision it as a room that holds nothing but an enormous, as far-as-the-eye-can see card catalog. Because, ultimately, as the next generations of students make it to our doors, it is less likely they will expect us to provide them with computers, and it may be that they would consider such amenities laughable and a waste of their tuition dollars. It is a bit premature perhaps, but not unreasonable, for us to begin thinking about how we will use all the space currently devoted to desktop and laptop-loan computers. My crystal ball is less clear on this matter, although I suspect we can always improve things by expanding the café.

Photo courtesy of Duke University Archives

Office Space in Academic Libraries: Lumpers or Splitters?

Several colleagues and I took a field trip last week to Bronx Community College (BCC), one of the other colleges in our university system, the City University of New York. The library at BCC recently moved into brand new digs in a freshly-constructed building, a rarity for colleges here in the space-challenged NYC metropolitan area. In the library at City Tech where I work, we’re thinking about space use and the possibility of renovations, so we were eager to see what BCC’s librarians and the architects who designed the building had done with the opportunity to build a library space literally from the ground up.

The new BCC library is gorgeous, and my colleagues and I came back to Brooklyn with lots of ideas to think on for our library at City Tech. Curiously, since then I’ve found myself not reflecting on what students are doing in a college library, which is usually the lens I use when I look at space use in our library. Instead, I’ve been considering how we librarians use and move through space in a library.

At City Tech, offices for librarians are located along the perimeter of the library and divided nearly evenly between both of our two floors. We have a few areas that include several offices that open into a shared space, but most of us are in individual spaces with doors that open into the library itself. Staff restrooms and our lounge/kitchen are on one end of the upper floor of the library, our conference room is on the other. My colleagues and I are, for the most part, split up — scattered throughout the library.

BCC’s new library features a different plan for librarian offices: there the offices are clumped together on the first of the library’s two floors. The office area is rectangular with librarian offices along the outside edge, presumably to take advantage of the incredible views that accompany BCC’s location in the University Heights section of the Bronx. The office area also includes staff cubicles (in the center of the space), restrooms, a conference room, and a kitchen/lounge. The librarians are all together, and the space is accessible from one corner of the public area of the library via a single door.

How does office configuration affect the ways that we interact with each other as librarians and with our students and other patrons in the library? Because we’re so spread out at City Tech, I can sometimes go days or even a week without seeing my colleagues who have offices on the other side and floor of the library from me. While of course we mingle in meetings, at the Reference Desk, and in other library-related functions, my colleagues and I often have to intentionally seek each other out to have the kind of casual conversations that were common when I used to work in an office that was all cubicles, the kinds of conversations that I imagine are a part of the daily routine at BCC where the librarians’ offices are all together. Those conversations can provide a social glue that fosters camaraderie and helps a group of people work together as a team.

While I may not see my colleagues as often as I would if our offices were grouped together, a benefit to having librarians spread out like we do at City Tech is that we have to walk through the library’s public areas throughout each day. Anytime I come and go from the library, use the restroom or microwave, or need to make a photocopy, I’m walking through our stacks and study areas. Since I can never really turn off my inner anthropologist, I find that I highly value the opportunity to observe students and other patrons as they use the library. In the best moments these observations can provide inspiration to try something new with our services and resources. And of course the insights they offer can also inform our thinking about renovation possibilities.

It seems like there’s a strong positive side to both lumping and splitting office spaces in the library, so I’m not certain that one layout is clearly better than the other. I wonder if there’s any configuration that would facilitate the advantages of both?

Monograph Musings

As the scholarly communications landscape shifts and changes, what’s the role of traditional academic monograph publishing? That’s a question much on my mind of late for a number of reasons. About a week and a half ago was the American Association of University Press’s annual meeting, which filled my Twitter stream with the hashtag #aaup13. With the slower summer days I’ve been making time for weeding at work, considering which books should stay and which should go, and beginning to plan for purchasing new books starting in the fall. And I’m also thinking about academic books from the perspective of an author, as my research partner and I finish the draft of the book we’re writing and have sent out proposals to a couple of university presses.

Books are for reading — presumably anyone who writes a book feels that their book offers useful and insightful information that they want to share widely with others. But there are lots of possibilities for sharing our work, even a piece that’s as long as a monograph (rather than short like an article). There are websites and blogs, relatively easy to use tools for creating and formatting text into ereader- and print-friendly formats. Add in print on demand, and it’s easy to wonder about the role of scholarly presses. Having worked in publishing for a few years before I was a librarian I’m familiar with the huge amount of work that goes into preparing books for publication (not to mention publishing them). Academic presses definitely add value to monographs, from copy editing to layout and beyond. Scholarly books are also often peer reviewed, which for a book manuscript is a non-trivial undertaking, much more labor-intensive than for an article. I’m a firm believer in peer review — when done well, the resulting publication is much stronger for it.

But academic publishing, especially at university presses, has become more challenging — costs keep rising, and sales (to academic libraries and others) aren’t as strong as they once were. Jennifer Howard at the Chronicle of Higher Education wrote two good overviews of the AAUP meetings, in which presses discussed strategies for ensuring their survival in a time of lean budgets while expanding into new formats and modes of publishing. Facilitated by the meetings’ active Twitter presence, Ian Bogost, professor of Media Studies at Georgia Institute of Technology, who was not actually at the meetings, tweeted a 10 point “microrant” about academic publishing. Among other things, Bogost notes that publishers might put more resources into editorial development for their authors, because scholars are not necessarily the best writers. Bogost also points out that university presses could help fill the gap between highly scholarly works and popular publications.

The relationship between academic libraries and presses is changing, too. Collaborations are on the rise, as was discussed at the AAUP meetings, which has been exciting to watch — I think there are lots of natural affinities between the two. But as the scholarly book landscape changes I can’t help but think about my library, and the college and university we belong to. There’s no university press at the large, public institution my college is part of. I’m at a technical college that offers associates and baccalaureate degrees, and there’s also not a huge market for many of the more traditional university press publications at my college, the highly scholarly monographs. Not that university presses publish the works of their own faculty (though perhaps they should?), but of course we have faculty who write academic books at my college, too, as do faculty at lots of colleges that are unlikely to have presses, like community colleges.

Where does my college fit as scholarly monograph publishing evolves? I think the students I work with are a perfect audience for books that fill the gap that Bogost pointed out — academic works written without highly specialized language that are accessible to novices, something smarter and more interesting than a textbook, an overview that includes enough detail to be useful for the typical undergraduate research project. But what about getting into publishing ourselves? It’s easy to think of the differences in collections between large research university libraries and college libraries like where I work: they have more stuff (books, journals, etc.), and there are ways for us to get the stuff we don’t have if we need it. If university publishing and academic libraries become more closely tied together, where will that leave those universities and colleges without presses? And will that impact the opportunities that our faculty have for publication?