Tag Archives: computers “computer commons” desktops

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