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Using Technology to Enhance a Library as Place

Computers in Libraries [April 2011]

Breeding, Marshall.

Copyright (c) 2011 Information Today

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Abstract: Technology can play an important role in the ways that libraries make use of their physical spaces. I have seen some great examples of the ways technology can add to the vitality of a library's facilities, both in conspicuous and dazzling ways and with more subtle approaches. When I visit a library, I'm always interested to learn about how the librarians there use technology, both behind the scenes in the ways that they manage their operations or build collections and in their public spaces to enhance their patrons' experiences. Libraries today have to seek out strategies that promote stronger engagement with their users. In these times where so many public libraries face threats of budget reductions, it's important that they demonstrate vigorous use of their facilities and services and satisfy patrons who will help defend them and lend support when needed. Smart use of technology can help libraries strengthen their programs and facilities in ways that foster better services, higher patron satisfaction, and more positive perceptions.


I devote a lot of energy to researching, writing, and thinking about how librarians can use technology to improve the web experiences they offer their patrons. Next-generation library catalogs or discovery services have been a major thrust for my work for the past couple of years, and the use of them has resulted in a book, several articles, and numerous presentations. It's a topic that I find of vital importance to libraries.

Technology also can play an important role in the ways that libraries make use of their physical spaces. Im certainly no expert in architecture and design, but I've had the great privilege to visit many libraries, and I have seen some great examples of the ways technology can add to the vitality of a library's facilities, both in conspicuous and dazzling ways and with more subtle approaches. When I visit a library, I'm always interested to learn about how the librarians there use technology, both behind the scenes in the ways that they manage their operations or build collections and in their public spaces to enhance their patrons' experiences.

Libraries today have to seek out strategies that promote stronger engagement with their users. In these times where so many public libraries face threats of budget reductions, it's important that they demonstrate vigorous use of their facilities and services and satisfy patrons who will help defend them and lend support when needed. Smart use of technology can help libraries strengthen their programs and facilities in ways that foster better services, higher patron satisfaction, and more positive perceptions.

It's exciting to visit libraries that have a strong spirit of engagement with their patrons. They are bustling and busy, and their spaces are filled with people who are involved in positive activities, drawing from its content and collections and interacting with the librarians and other personnel. The great reading rooms of these libraries almost seem to radiate a tangible sense of intense intellectual engagement when they are filled with students and scholars who are silently reading, studying, and writing. Technology can supplement inspiring architecture as a contributing factor in the success of the physical spaces of a library.

Libraries Can Offer Computers

One of the most conspicuous ways that technology plays a role in a library's physical facilities involves the equipment made available to patrons. As you can imagine, many libraries see high demand for public-use computing. In fact, in many areas, libraries provide a lifeline to their patrons who need the computers for vital tasks such as submitting governmental forms, seeking and applying for jobs, or other activities that require access to an internet-connected computer.

I've seen public computing facilities take quite different forms. On one extreme, some libraries can only make available a few outdated computers with a minimal assortment of software. I've seen many public computers locked down tight, providing access to only the library catalog or a basic web browser. Patrons sit or stand elbow-to-elbow, pressed to quickly finish their sessions to make way for the next user. For many libraries, the lack of space and resources and high demand force this model of public computing.

Even in libraries with more room and more money, it is difficult to stay on the edge technologically - it's easy to suggest that libraries provide stateof-the-art computers, but that's a standard that's extremely hard to maintain. Computers that originally seem so fast and flexible lose their shine in just a couple of years in terms of their ability to run the latest suite of applications. Most libraries are hard-pressed to keep up with the 4- or 5-year replacement cycles needed to keep their equipment reasonably current, but that's what it takes to provide equipment that will meet ever-rising patron expectations.

The physical layout of public computing stations can make an impact on their appeal. Offering some of the traditional clusters of denser computing stations, some configured for smallgroup collaboration, and others that are optimized for longer, more intense work sessions in quieter settings provides a nice diversity of options that might better satisfy many different activities and work styles.

Libraries Can Provide Mobile and Wireless

Libraries increasingly need to accommodate patrons who bring their own devices, which these days are as likely to be a smartphone or tablet as a notebook or netbook. On one hand, it's nice when the library doesn't have to purchase as many computers, as higher proportions of patrons provide their own. But it's also important to provide the right infrastructure for mobile computing in the library.

First and foremost, fast and ample Wi-Fi is essential. Many libraries may face the need to upgrade wireless infrastructure to meet demand. If your library still offers only the slower 802.11b (11Mbps), it might be time to upgrade to one of the faster standards: 802.1Ig (54Mbps) or 802.1In (100Mbps). Library patrons will also appreciate generous availability of outlets for powering their laptops or charging their phones. Space and furniture design should also take this kind of use into consideration, again offering configurations amenable to both solitary and collaborative work styles.

Libraries Can Employ Tech-Friendly Policies

It helps to have policies and rules that are friendly to the ways that patrons expect to use technology yet that avoid intrusions on other patrons. More and more library patrons bring their technology, such as mobile phones, with them when they visit the library. There's nothing more off-putting than rules and regulations and signage that issue blanket bans on the devices.

Instead of a ban on cell phones, reminders to silence ringers send a less negative message. If quiet talking is acceptable in a given zone in the library, does it really matter if the conversation is with someone who is in the same room or with someone who is somewhere else? How many students actually talk on their phones these days anyway? Text messages through SMS or Facebook chat tend to be much more pervasive and, to me, a reasonably nondisruptive and appropriate way to communicate in a library.

Libraries Can Provide Downloadable Content

A growing area of interest for library services involves delivering content to library patrons on the patrons' own devices: ebook readers, tablet computers, laptops, and smartphones. I see libraries experimenting with many novel approaches to fulfill their traditional mission - that of providing access to content - in this new era that increasingly involves some kind of electronic device instead of lending a physical object.

We're entering a whole new world as content shifts from purchased physical inventory, such as books, periodicals, CDs, or DVDs, to digital content to the licenses and subscriptions associated with the more pervasive digital content. We face challenges both in terms of the legal framework that supports library lending and the technical processes involved in acquiring, managing, and providing access to ebooks and multimedia streaming content. It will be interesting to see how libraries adapt to this shift to streaming media. I learned that the Statsbiblioteket in Aarhus, one of Denmark's two national libraries, has an arrangement in which it licenses music of all genres on behalf of its users and provides both streaming and downloading options through the web; it also offers a station for transferring tracks to iPods and MP3 players.

Should we reach the point where most new books are published only electronically and printed versions diminish, it will have an impact on how libraries manage their physical spaces. We're already seeing libraries devote less real estate to storing physical collections as they focus on creating areas devoted to social and collaborative activities and to informal reading. Like I've written many times, I don't anticipate a future of libraries that doesn't include printed books - new and old - but we can certainly expect the proportions to change over time toward digital media.

Libraries Can Offer Self-Service

The implementation of self-service circulation produces dramatic changes in the ways that libraries make use of their space and interact with patrons. It's increasingly common to see libraries offer self-service kiosks for routine tasks such as checkouts, renewals, and returns of library materials. This approach is especially popular in highvolume urban library systems in the U.S.; libraries in parts of Europe, especially Scandinavia, seem to adopt this technology at even higher rates.

I have mixed feelings about library self-service. It worries me somewhat that libraries might lose an important point of personal contact with their patrons. On the other hand, the general public seems well acclimated to selfservice in other aspects of their daily routine, and library self-check tends to be much less complex than that of the local grocery store.

Many libraries have eliminated the traditional circulation desk entirely, moving toward full participation in self-check. This approach drastically alters traffic patterns and interactions between patrons and library staff.

On a recent trip to Denmark, I visited the Gentofte Public Library, near Copenhagen. In the past couple of years, this library had instituted a major reconfiguration, shifting all lending and returns to self-service stations. In my conversation with one of the librarians, she reported that the transition was generally smooth and that self-check was well accepted. As I observed the self-check stations, it seemed that library patrons, many of whom were elderly, went about the process easily and didn't seem to have any problems at all. The equipment in use in Gentofte, supplied by P.V. Supa, is based on RFID (radio frequency identification) technology and allows patrons to issue or return stacks of books at one time - up to reasonable limits - rather than having to handle them individually. More importantly, the librarian said that more time was now available for providing other kinds of assistance to patrons - and in a more face-to-face manner without the barrier of the service desk. Though some library personnel initially resisted the change, most now appreciate the time to provide help with more interesting questions.

Libraries Can Showcase Collections

Many libraries find ways to improve the presentation of their collections beyond the traditional book stacks. The Gentofte Library, for example, gives a striking presentation of its books through bright white LED lighting installed on each shelf. The visual effect really highlights the library's collection, in addition to the practical benefit for patrons who now find the shelves well lit, making it easy to find an item or to just browse.

The Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands provides one of the most impressive presentations of books through a massive multistory book wall with deep blue backlighting. Although the book wall represents only a small portion of the library's collection, which mostly resides in traditional book stacks, it's an architectural feature that vividly conveys the concept of books as the heart of the library.

Libraries Can Use Digital Signage and Exhibits

Now that large-factor LCD computer displays have become much more affordable, digital signage has become a common feature in libraries. Digital display products not only provide practical information but also lend a technological edge to the perception of the public spaces. I've seen some great examples of libraries making wonderful use of largescreen computer panels for interactive maps of library locations, digital art exhibitions, or just as more flexible ways to convey messages that used to be printed on paper or cardboard. A library I've visited that makes great use of digital exhibits is the Customs House Library in Sydney. It has a set of amazing interactive digital displays on the history of the city, items of cultural interest, as well as some creative digital art installations. Another example is the Yonsei Samsung Library in Seoul, South Korea, which I visited shortly after its opening in 2008. It features some of the most impressive digital display technology I've come across, with large-form touchscreens for its online catalog stations, current news displays, interactive library maps and wayfinding systems, message boards, and other technological wonders that reinforce the image of this library as one with leading-edge technology.

The ways that a library might integrate technology into its physical premises evolves over time. Refreshing technology is a key aspect of maintaining a library's physical facilities as well as its virtual presence. While great architecture can endure for centuries, any given round of technology ages rapidly and loses its utility and appeal all too quickly. Through routine equipment upgrades or opportunities to remodel, rebuild, or reconfigure facilities, new approaches to technology can be leveraged to improve use and strengthen the effectiveness of library facilities.

Publication Year:2011
Type of Material:Article
LanguageEnglish
Published in: Computers in Libraries
Publication Info:Volume 31 Number 4
Issue:April 2011
Page(s):21-25
Publisher:Information Today
Place of Publication:Medford, NJ
Notes:Systems Librarian Column
ISBN:1041-7915
Permalink: http://librarytechnology.org/ltg-displaytext.pl?RC=15899
Record Number:15899
Last Update:2012-12-29 14:06:47
Date Created:2011-07-18 14:08:02