Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Conveying Content along Many Pathways: Whether We're Moving Books by Machine, by Network, or Online, Our Goal Should Always Be to Remain Responsive to Users and Their Preferred Access Modes

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Conveying Content along Many Pathways: Whether We're Moving Books by Machine, by Network, or Online, Our Goal Should Always Be to Remain Responsive to Users and Their Preferred Access Modes

Article excerpt

Checkout, circulation, collection management: We can automate it all, right? And the internet makes it easy, just "put it all online" as one of my faculty members likes to tell me. But we know better. Automating basic functions in libraries is complex, and there's more than one way to go. What's more, the strategic choices for those who face an architectural redesign can be downright extreme.

Balancing Physical and Digital Access

Automation initiatives for basic operations shine a spotlight on the fact that we continue to live in a "mixed" environment, where print materials share "attention" with digital files. Interestingly, there are still good reasons to invest in heavy equipment to make the collection accessible, even at a high price. Even in the digital age, it can still make sense to invest in a Library Retrieval System (LRS)--a heavy-duty automated system that links with the online catalog and delivers books from bins. [These are sometimes called automated storage and retrieval systems, or ASRS.--Ed.]

Why? After all, the web itself is a form of conveyance, porting whole books and other unique resources to a computer screen, or an iPhone for that matter. Likewise, there are Google Books, Project Gutenberg, the Open Content Alliance--all interested in making full-scale books accessible online. Would we even want to make such large investments in physical collection storage and access when we can look forward to a day when much of what we want can be delivered to a device of our choosing?

The answer is yes, but a qualified one. Understanding how to design effective library facilities and make smart technology decisions is not a simple task. Institutions of higher education are diverse, but taken together they are an "industry" that continues to spend many hundreds of millions on academic library construction and renovation. Some buildings are brand new, many involve adding space, and some get serious face-lifts, like my own institute library had last year. Managers have to make many decisions about how to provide access to collection, even as technology keeps lobbing new products at designers and architects. Nowadays, space design is a moving target. This design challenge is not unique to libraries, either. A friend of mine who is a vice president of a major research hospital in the Los Angeles area saw his construction costs double over 2 years due to almost continuous changes in the state's seismic regulations for hospitals. In some ways, making a major design decision--like designing for an LRS--can still seem like a role of the dice, even after doing all the research.

A Common Strategy

Fortunately, the strategic key for everybody with a stake--planners, front-line staff, and the top leadership--is the same: a focus on user behavior. This helps guide large organizations through tough decision-making processes. Library space is now widely recognized as social space, and this awareness is gaining ground among designers too. The opening of the Seattle Public Library was a seminal moment, and it has been a great "poster child" for libraries of the future. But what Seattle chooses in its design may not be the best fit elsewhere.

The way to discover the best fit, in all places, is to think about library users. They are navigating the "mixed" environment, and they continue to be deeply involved with both print and digital resources. When we turn our attention to users, we can begin to see several pathways open up for porting collections to them, in all the forms they need them.

In thinking about how checkout, circulation, and collection delivery systems impact the human side of digital libraries, I can think of three distinct pathways of conveyance, each of which tells the story of our mixed-media world--and which also sheds some light on the ongoing realities of access services.

'Works Well With Earthquakes'

One of the more intriguing solutions to space constraints involves not the newest, best, digital technology but instead, the wisdom of the conveyor belt. …

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