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

11 thoughts on “Today’s Computer Commons is Tomorrow’s Card Catalog

  1. At Seton Hill, we no longer have any desktop computers in the library; we are able to do this because all of our full-time undergrads get a MacBook and iPad. They are expected to have their own mobile technology with them. For part-time students, visitors, and those who don’t have their own MacBook with them, we have “loaners” from the IT department that can be checked out and used in the library building. The space that used to be devoted to desktop PCs is still used as workspace, but it is much more flexible now that students can sit in whatever configuration necessary.

  2. We did a number of user and environment studies before our renovation last summer, and we found that the desktop computers in the library were popular, but not the ones in the computer lab room. The students preferred to spread out throughout the building, and often used multiple personal devices, paper notes & books, and occasionally their own laptop along with the library desktop computers (and the small circulating laptop collection). As laptops get lighter, we see more students carrying them around, rather than relying on lab computers when outside of their residences. Thus, we decided to create more user spaces with the renovation, but not supply those spaces with computers. The students have heartily embraced these new quiet and collaborative areas.

  3. I think that some desktop computers are useful, but wireless access will make them redundant. When we opened our new library in 2009, the idea was to have a few desktop computers and a large number of laptops that students could check out and take wherever they want. Since then, we have added more desktops than I like (about 100 scattered throughout the building with most on the first floor), but we have also added many more laptops (currently we have about 500), ipads, and tablets. Circulation of laptops was down last year, but was still in the 60,000 range for the year. The students love the laptop program — and student government even allocates funds for us to keep it going.

    One of the things that I dislike about desktop computers is that you force computer users to sit where the computers are. And that is indeed where people will sit, because they want a computer. I like your idea of being flexible, since whatever hard-wired facility you install today will be terribly out of date in ten years (or less). If you invest in portable devices (and I use portable to distinguish from mobile, which pretty much means smart phones these days) you give your users the option to sit wherever they want and still be able to be connected. That is where I see the future of library conputing going. The devices will change dramatically, but the ability to sit in the corner and curl up with a good device is something that will always be in demand.

  4. Your post aligns well with what I have been thinking about for the past year or so. I hadn’t made the card catalog connection though (I’m one of those newbies :)

    I imagine that the library 10 years from now is still going to have a lot of computer technology built into it, but it won’t be a desktop and it will be connected to the mobile devices we carry around with us. I wouldn’t be surprised if one day we were able to walk up to a screen at a table or on a wall and automatically have it interact with the content on our phones.

  5. I think tablet computers will have the greatest impact on how libraries will need to reconfigure equipment and spaces. I believe that many students will be willing to bring their own tablet device to campus while many so far have not wanted to bring their laptops (regularly) to campus – inconvenience of lugging it around, concern about theft if they leave it unattended for a moment. Ownership of tablets is increasing rapidly. However, that doesn’t mean that students will not want equipment in libraries. They may want to connect their own tablet to a large display, they may want to work with dual monitors, etc. They will still have a need for power (often for several devices) and for wireless and sometimes wired access (multimedia, large datasets, etc.)

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