Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Computerized Orientation Systems: The Franklin Institute Model; How a Computer-Based System Improved Patron Use of the Franklin Institute

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Computerized Orientation Systems: The Franklin Institute Model; How a Computer-Based System Improved Patron Use of the Franklin Institute

Article excerpt


In many libraries collections are underutilized because library clients experience information overload. Their orientation to the vast array of library services can be hampered by a poorly designed library layout, the lack of directional and information signs, or by too many signs arranged in an incoherent fashion. Most library clients learn how use a library in a spatial context - that is, they wander unsystematically and sometimes unintentionally, learning to use the library in an incidental manner.[1]

To address this problem, some libraries are experimenting with the use of computers to guide patrons to appropriate portions of the collection and to resource librarians when attempting to respond to specific topical questions. This combination of a sign system and an expert reference system on a computer can have a tremendous impact on client use and perception of libraries. A Macintosh running HyperCard stacks is a great way to handle this process; witness the use of HyperCard at recent LITA and ALA conferences.

This article, describing a museum's use of a computer orientation system, may be instructive to those interested in experimenting with this technology. Although the museums's computer environment is considerably more complex and expensive than a Macintosh-based network, it points to an enhanced functionality at which microcomputer-based systems might aim.

Information Centers

One of the most important aspects of library service, perhaps the most important, is access to information. Library clients can benefit greatly from a formal library "information center." [2] If a computer equivalent of the library information center is established, we can more effectively link users and librarians with information resources.

As officials of Philadelphia's Franklin Institute, one of the nation's foremost museums of science and technology, planned for a major expansion, they realized the value of automating exhibit information and visitor services. Their goal was to provide visitors of all ages with the information they needed to make their trips to the Institute both instructive and enjoyable. They envisioned a system that met the following very specific requirements:

  * a network tying together the mu
-      sewn's multiple exhibit floors and
      capable of expanding to meet growing
      * easy-to-use workstations providing
      simple access to information, in
      multiple levels of complexity, to address
      the needs of children and
      adults, casual visitors, and teachers
      using the museum with a class
      * powerful applications controlling
      critical network operations


The Franklin Institute Science Museum received support from Unisys Corporation to design and implement the Museum's interactive computerized information system. It is the first museum-wide visitor orientation and instruction computer system ever created. Unisys has a particular interest in its partnership with the Franklin Institute, since Philadelphia is the corporate headquarters of Unisys.

The full system operates in the Futures Center, a 90,000 square-foot addition to the Franklin Institute containing eight permanent exhibits on future science and technology. The information system began operations in May 1990.

The unified computer information system is called the Unisystem. Each museum visitor receives a Unisystem barcoded card that can be personalized. Information about a visitor's interests, education, or age, help Unisystem answer questions at an appropriate level. Computer stations in twenty exhibit areas in the Science Center and the Futures Center allow an interested user to explore a scientific principle or hands-on device in depth.

For example, a visitor whose imagination is piqued by a model space station in Future Space can be directed to learn more about gravity in mechanics and discover the enormous energy of the sun at a demonstration of the solar collector in the observatory. …

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