Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Drawing Blueprints for 'Pulsing Content' Libraries

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Drawing Blueprints for 'Pulsing Content' Libraries

Article excerpt

Last month we began to consider what it might mean to build dynamic, instantaneous libraries based solely on the materials held on the computers of people in the same space. That's the goal of this column--to think about what libraries in computers need to look like for them to serve as well as libraries we already know. This month we'll get started thinking about design needs for libraries in computers.

If we were building a physical library, we'd follow some steps you might know well. We'd assess our needs, call for proposals, review bids by architectural firms, pick one, then work with a selected firm to design a space that meets our needs. Maybe you've done this, but I haven't. I have done something similar for software, though, but maybe you haven't. When software design is done well, you end up with something roughly like what you get from an architecture firm--diagrams of boxes and arrows, mocked-up screen shots, cost estimates, and a timetable. Fortunately we don't have to worry about time or money here, and we can think of those diagrams and screen shots as pretty much the same thing for software as blueprints are for real buildings. And fortunately for both of us, blueprints are pretty easy to read.

So let's start there, with blueprints. When libraries were being built 100 years ago with Carnegie Foundation funding, one of the things the foundation offered as part of the process was a set of standard blueprints as a suggested starting point. (Jones, T., Carnegie Libraries Across America: A Public Legacy. Preservation Press/Wiley: New York, 1997.) You didn't have to follow them to accept funding, but if you needed a plan, you could start with these blueprints, and many communities did. We could fill a whole conference schedule with debates on what these particular blueprints have meant over time and their relevance today, but there's no debating that these baseline plans affected generations of libraries, library users, and librarians.

Today some of us might have an inkling of what a common design for libraries in computers could look like, but most of us don't. We probably do share a common mental model of the architecture of today's libraries. If you're like me, you probably think it's hard to imagine a library without service desks for reference and circulation; rows and rows of shelving for books, journals, and multimedia; a reading room or area; a reference section with its hefty volumes; separate browsing shelves for popular or newly acquired materials; oddly shaped files for maps; a children's section for a public library or locked stacks in a research library; and so on. There are also offices, public meeting spaces, copy machines, and restrooms--we cannot forget restrooms--a bulletin board, a big stand with a heavy dictionary on it, a daily newspaper section, and some items for sale near the front door.

With all that in place, the only things missing are the catalog, the computers, and the coffee shop.

Connecting the Dots

If that sounds about right to you, then we're definitely starting from the same place. You probably also have a particular library in mind as you think about this--maybe your local public library, or the one you work in, or one you remember from childhood or school. I can't help but think of several different libraries at once, including all of the 10 or so libraries I've known well from childhood on to where I work now. A funny thing starts to happen when I think back through time like that, though. I can almost feel my fingers flipping through catalog cards or spinning the dial on a film reader, and then my eyes can see the green screen of the dial-up terminal and the color-coded keyboard of a CD-ROM station. Then I remember a lot of meetings about trying to solve problems on the general use public workstations and then a lot of frustration trying to get wireless to work on laptops. At some point a few years ago that got easier, and now when I arrive in the library I simply wake my machine up and get to work. …

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