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Introducing the post-library commons world: wild speculation on the future of computing and what it means for the learning environment

April 28, 2010, 1:32 pm

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?


 The Future


Light-touch-projector  
Lighttouch2  
Lighttouch3
 
 
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
environments?


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 w
orry 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.


 Update 4.29.10

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.

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