Microcomputers and Workstations in Libraries: Trends and Opportunities

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Microcomputers and Workstations in Libraries Trends and Opportunities I quickly found when researching this column that the definition of "workstation," whether in general or in the library environment, has been shifting and becoming increasingly vague.

Originally the term referred to a high-powered device, frequently with extensive networking, graphical, or multitasking capabilities, that was used almost exclusively in engineering and the sciences. The increased capabilities of microcomputers to do what workstations had previously been designed to accomplish has blurred the term's meaning. In many instances the words can be, and are now, used interchangeably.

At the same time, library use of high-end devices as file servers in local area networks or for managing access to new types of information has meant greater interest in this type of high-performance computing. Whether called a workstation or a PC, libraries are finding this form of information power to be increasingly relevant to their operations.

I also discovered that only a book could cover library workstations comprehensively. With Keith Wright's ALA-sponsored monograph on the topic in press at the time this was written (August 1990), I will concentrate less on technology or hardware in isolation than on the opinions of scholars in various disciplines about information and appropriate tools to manage it.

Workstation History

Reading articles in the History of Personal Workstations (Goldberg, 1988) is the functional equivalent of hearing great technological lectures. The words of Doug Engelbert, inventor of the mouse, of Gordon Bell, one of the world's leading computer designers, and of similar computer contributors focus attention on the importance of information access and the diversity of workstation definitions.

Charles P. Tacker describes an early personal workstation and places into context some of our complaints about current workstation noise:

Dorado is the largest hardware engineering project ever undertaken by the Computer Science Laboratory. It was difficult to think of the Dorado as a personal machine, since it consumed 2500 watts of power, was the size of a refrigerator, and required 2000 cubic feet of cooling air per minute (while producing a noise level that has been compared to that of a 747 taking off). [Goldberg, p. 285]

Gordon Bell's workstation:

is a relatively large (greater than 50 pounds) and expensive ($10,000 to $100,000 in 1985) personal computer, with the appropriate transducers, used by a professional to carry out generic (e.g., calculation, mail, and communication) and profesional-related activities such as music composition, financial modeling, or computer-aided design of integrated circuits. Personal workstations are necessarily distributed with the person and interconnected to one another forming a single, shared (work and files) but distributed computing environment -- the workstation environment. A workstation's location is either with an individual on a dedicated basis or in an area shared by several members of a group. This choice is dictated by the cost and size of the workstation, relative to the cost and value of the work. [Goldberg, pp. 7-8]

What Bell saw was that even though a workstation existed by itself for one user a time, it was also linked with other resources elsewhere.

In defining his workstation, Engelbart uses the term "Augmented Knowledge Workshop," as the place in which a knowledge worker:

finds the data and toos with which he does his work, and through which he collaborates with similarly equipped workers.... [T]he large system of concepts, skills, knowledge, and methods on the human side of the workstation has to be taken into account, in a balanced way, when pursuing human effectiveness. [Goldberg, p. 187]

A thread that runs through the book is one of multiple capabilities in a single box and of networking with a consequent ability to share information resources. …

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