Information Commons to Go: 'How Can We Extend This Ideal Computing and Research Environment beyond the Walls of the Library?'

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My name is Marc Dewey Bayer (odd name for a librarian, I know). I am the systems librarian at Buffalo State College's E. H. Butler Library and a member of its Information Commons (IC) team. Since 2004, E. H. Butler has used the IC model to assist our 8,500 students with library research and computer applications. Campus Technology Services (CTS) plays a very active role in our IC, with a centrally located Computer Help Desk and a newly created Application Support Desk right in the heart of the library. Now technology, reference, and circulation support are all in one place. What happens, though, when students are away from the IC? For example, what if they contact the Application Support Desk with a technical question regarding Internet Explorer 5 when the library uses IE7? At the E. H. Butler Library we are currently examining ways to solve that problem by expanding the IC umbrella. In this article, I would like to introduce "Information Commons to Go," or ic2go, a new library initiative that uses open source applications to make the IC as portable as an umbrella itself.

Super and Not-So-Super Users

First, here's some context: Prior to my post here at the E. H. Butler Library, I served as systems librarian at a small private college also located in the city of Buffalo. There I had the good fortune of deploying multiple PCs at once and gained valuable experience on how to properly set up a PC. Deploying the computers was easy because I used ghosting software to clone one hard drive and then to write the image to all the other computers. It also was fun because, in the process, I had the opportunity to create the "ideal" desktop environment. I got to sit down and ask, "What are all the application settings, operating-system settings, etc., that I would include in the ideal desktop?" When I had configured everything I could possibly think of, I would simply copy my (super) user profile to the default user profile and, voila, everyone who now logged on to the library PC was in a highly configured environment optimized by a librarian for conducting research and using productivity applications.

What made me feel so good about this "super-user profile" was relative to another responsibility that often defaults to system librarians in small academic libraries--helping laptop users. "Why can't I connect to the wireless network?" "Why is my computer so slow?" "Where did my desktop icons go?" For these students, these "not-so-super users," the library computer lab was, in my mind, an oasis of palm trees and cool drinks (even though beverages are prohibited) that they could avail themselves of.

For remote not-so-super users, those east of Eden, the picture was not so pretty. Think The Terminator: humans and cyborgs fighting in the year 2029 with reference librarians at the front. "What browser are you using?" "Do you have Java installed?" Or (God help you) "What are your mime associations?" ... "Yes, ma'am ... the Start button ... it's the green graphic in the lower left ... yes, the lower left corner ... OK, click on that ... Incoming!"

There are, of course, varying degrees of user expertise. Some laptop users who sought my assistance with "I can't access the wireless" showed me, quite adeptly, how they tried. They knew what they were talking about--the wireless network was down. These students (among them virtually any Mac user who knows--or doesn't need to know--what he or she is doing) are beyond the pale. I don't want to inadvertently denigrate the not-so-super users either. Some of them have Ph.D.s. These not-so-super users just want the technology to work. Adjusting document margins, let alone protocols and dynamic link libraries, should never come into play. They have enough to worry about. For these users, aspects of computing should be preconfigured and customized to make the technology as transparent as possible.

How to Extend the Information Commons Model

At Buffalo State College's library, I no longer manage the ideal computer and its deployment (that is handled, quite admirably, by the computer technology services department), but building on my past experience and combining it with my current experience as a member of the IC team, I began to ask, "How can we extend this ideal computing and research environment beyond the walls of the library? …