Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Wish list: on-line in the stacks

This is my workspace. It's messy, I know, but the key thing is that my main "desktop" is on the screens. The physical workspace is primarily for setting things down, not for working.

Basically, everything happens on these screens -- I search, I read, I write, I converse (both text and voice). I can't imagine doing my work without the Internet. So I find myself in a dilemma when I go to the library, because I am cut off from my "place of work." I go into the stacks, perhaps with a scribbled note containing a call number, and I stand in front of shelves with fewer capabilities than I have in my own home office. If I don't find the book I want I can't check to see if I wrote the call number correctly; I can't look to see if there's a "second best" book that I'd like; I can't determine if there's another area of the stacks where I might find something else I'd like to read; and I can't search within the text of the bound volumes in front of me, even if digitized versions do happen to be available on-line. I stand there wishing I could go on-line.

Essentially, going into the library means leaving behind my ability to find. Yes, there are a few computers in the stacks, but they are too far away to make it possible to be usefully on-line and at the shelf at the same time.

Libraries made a great effort to get on-line and to reach out to users beyond their walls. What we haven't done, however, is to combine the on-shelf and on-line resources in a useful way. It makes sense to me that I should be able to stand amid bound journal volumes and do a keyword search. Or that I could pull a book off the shelf, see a citation, and check to see if the library has that item.

What would make this possible? First, many more access points within the physical stacks. Access to the catalog or other resources shouldn't be more than a few steps away. Heck, find a way to tie down one of those $100 computers at the end of each row, or create a place where a user can easily lean their laptop (and have the wireless access reach within the shelves). Instead of telling people to turn off their cell phones, remind them that if they have net access they can combine the power of the library's catalog, the library's on-line resources, and the items on the shelves. Encourage people to work with physical and digital resources together. If I could do that, I'd spend more time in the library.


Jon Gorman said...

Not to mention those sad libraries who have locked down many of their computers so they can't even access the Internet. There's nothing like trying to remember a particular book someone recommended but not being able to find it in the catalog. I know if I just go to x site, I'll be likely to be able to figure it out. But nope, not allowed. At least they have wireless, I guess. One of these days I'll dig out that rarely used pocket pc I have.

Karen Coyle said...

Jon, you'll love this one: inside the UC Berkeley library you can only search .edu, .gov, and .org domains on their computers (without a login, which I don't have). So in the library I cannot access Google, Librarything, or even my own web site (which is a .net). This is such a bizarre regulation -- I know it makes sense to someone somewhere, but I can't make head nor tail out of it.

arkham said...

That's a pretty good idea, actually. Maybe a solution for such things might include wireless access for PDA/pocket PCs, and possibly rental of such devices for in-library use. Of course, that's got it's own set of issues, but it would help integrate the stacks/print with the online.

Alain Pierrot said...

Ideas about virtual stacks, which would make a nice link with the physical stacks!

Markus said...

Thanks for your great post. At North Carolina State University, we have developed a mobile catalog (http://www.lib.ncsu.edu/m/catalog) that our patrons can use on their mobile devices while they're in the stacks.

Anonymous said...

Re: the issue of having Internet access at UC Berkeley available only to those with university IDs. We have essentially the same set-up at Michigan State and I doubt we're the only two institutions with this restriction. Should an academic library allocate budget and IT resources to provide Internet access to members of the public? Access to information is indisputably good for society, and educational institutions ultimately serve society. But an institution might also reasonably conclude (if resources are stretched, and they always are) that tuition-paying students have to come first. --Ruth Ann Jones, Michigan State University Libraries

Karen Coyle said...

It hadn't occurred to me that the limitations were aimed at keeping the public from coming in to use the Internet on campus, although that might be the case. It seems arbitrary enough to be designed to generally discourage use. But it makes it very difficult for legitimate users, eg those with library cards, who are not faculty, staff or students. I don't know about Michigan, but as a state institution Berkeley is obligated to allow members of the California public use its collection. So anyone can get a library card, but will have crippled access to other information resources when in the library. Go figure.