Friday, September 14, 2007

Libraries and Computer Labs

The Chronicle's Wired Campus has an article about the lack of public workstations in public libraries. This article is in turn reporting on an AP story about the increasing demand for Internet access in public libraries. All of this reporting on libraries and computers has been spawned by ALA'a recently released report (227 p.; 6+ MB):

Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study 2006 - 2007.

(Many thanks to Jessamyn West at librarian.net for providing the location of the ALA report.)

Public libraries, of course, operate differently than academic libraries. Where public libraries are often the sole providers of free Internet access in their communities (so say 73% of the public libraries that responded to the ALA survey), academic libraries are usually not the sole source of Internet access on their campuses. Apart from technology owned by the students themselves, there is always the computer lab, or, if your campus is large enough, the computer labs.

Which raises in my mind the question of the relationship between the library and campus computer labs. At the annual ATLA conference in Philadelphia this past June, there was an interesting and somewhat hotly debated presentation by Dr. Kenneth Boyd and his staff from the Information Commons at Asbury Theological Seminary. In the evolving world of I.T. and libraries, Asbury's Information Commons represents a melding of these two worlds where library services and I.T. services all come from the same department. Librarians at Asbury may answer reference questions about theological research, or they may assist students with the correct configuration of their wireless proxy settings or the correct formatting of footnotes in their Word documents. (Something that many of us do anyway, regardless of how closely our libraries are aligned with campus I.T.)

In theological libraries in particular, there is a noticeable generational gap between the computer skills of our younger and our older students. Seminaries tend to have more older students than many other types of graduate institutions, with average student ages trending up toward the 40s at the turn of the century. For older students, many of whom are returning to education for the first time in over 20 years, there is a profound technology shock. The last time they did academic research, they were using card catalogs and paper periodical indexes.

Which brings me to my question: Should academic libraries in general or theological libraries in specific include a computer lab as part of the library? If the library does not include a computer lab, where do students, particularly those without computer skills, learn to use computers for academic research and writing?

Space concerns often dictate one answer to this question. The 1960s and 1970s saw a lot of academic library expansion and building projects on a national scale; for many of our libraries, though, there has not been any significant building or expansion over the past 30+ years, leaving us with little room for books much less technologies that did not exist when our buildings were built. Any public library building project that I have seen over the past decade has devoted significantly more space to computers than previous designs; I believe academic library building projects have been more mixed as to how much priority is given to computer space.

If your library space allows room for a computer lab, you are still left with the question of whether libraries are well-suited to provide computer services. If 73% of our public libraries are the only available community spaces for Internet access, does that set a standard for academic libraries as well? The answer to this question is evolving; how fast it evolves is up to us.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I agree that "computer labs", i.e., some facility with computers for student use, need to be seriously considered in both old, renovated and new facilities. But I feel that the biggest drawback is not so much the labs (our campus is wireless and most of the students using the library work on their own laptops). It is an instructional technology classroom, where I can demonstrate the use of online resources for informal groups and formal classes. I'd appreciate seeing any examples of that kind of facility that my colleagues would be willing to share.

Blake Walter said...

I think the best of all possible worlds is a flexible space that can be used as both a lab and an instructional technology classroom, especially if it is not the only computer lab on campus. When you only have one lab/technology classroom, whether it is in the library or not, competition for that space is apt to be fierce.

Jared said...

Another option would be to have laptops on hand for checkout so that students could use them in your facility or elsewhere. These laptops could then be taken to a classroom with wireless for instruction sessions.

Here at Asbury Seminary, we have 10 laptops for students to checkout (24hrs w/ 24hr renewal) and they have proven handy in instructional sessions for students that don't have a laptop of their own.