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Hardware and the future of libraries
Article Type: Editorial From: Library Hi Tech, Volume 29, Issue 1
This theme issue of Library Hi Tech looks at some of the newest hardware-based technology in leading research libraries in the USA. Authors were invited to write specifically for this issue and were asked to highlight significant new developments in their libraries. The goal of this editorial is to provide context for the topic.
People think primarily of paper and books they then think of traditional libraries. In fact hardware in libraries is a theme as old as libraries themselves. On a visit to Oxford in 1990 I arrived at the Bodleian Library unannounced and asked colleagues there to show me their online systems. The request from a random tourist (admittedly one with an Ivy League business card) so surprised and apparently delighted them, that they gave me a full tour, starting with hardware from the middle ages: a security system that chained valuable bound manuscripts to a shelf to keep people from walking away with them. Chains are not a common hardware item in libraries today, but we use their modern equivalent, steel cables, to secure monitors and computers in public areas. The principle is not so very different.
In the early twentieth century access technology also became hardware-dependent. Catalog cards offered a significant advance over acquisitions lists in books, but the cards themselves needed special furniture to house them, and the furniture soon became even more specialized with rods and other devices to hold the cards in place if someone carelessly dropped or tipped the drawer, or if a reader thoughtlessly tried to lift a card out.
Library Hi Tech ran a series of columns by Morell Boone for many years that frequently reviewed the application of automated storage and retrieval systems (ASR systems) in libraries. These ASR systems substitute mechanized bin-based storage for traditional library shelves. While there has been no mass shift to ASR technology, research libraries continue to adopt it. A recent example of this is the new Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago, which is an ASR facility.
Compact shelving is another well-established storage technology that continues to spread as libraries run out of physical space and look for new ways to pack more volumes in the building. US libraries seem generally to prefer electronically operated systems. In more energy-conscious Europe hand-cranked compact storage remains popular.
In the digital age the need for new hardware in libraries has grown. In the late 1960s the important new machine was the photocopier. In the late 1990s the demand for networked-connected printers began to rival the demand for photocopiers. Some problems were similar, such as how to pay, how to keep the machines supplied with paper, and how to handle jams. Other problems were new, such as queuing jobs and separating output, and required collaboration with computing centers.
Many libraries also began to add computers and internet access. For university libraries this was an extension of existing computer clusters. For public libraries the advent of networked computers for visitors represented a major new service, often much in demand and often involving complex community cultural issues and a community requirement for censoring pornographic materials.
At the same time a social change in library hardware took place. In the 1970s a few large libraries had coffee in vending machines, but it could only be consumed in a controlled location apart form the books. By the late 1990s coffee and food services became common. People no longer came to libraries merely to locate information and to read books. They also came to enjoy an intellectual social atmosphere. Some never used the collection, but merely increased the gate count. This change meant that coffee machines and facilities for heating food became part of the hardware in libraries. Even libraries that outsourced their cafe services had to consider infrastructure issues like electrical requirements.
The library as a social center brought with it a demand for a different pattern of seating. Instead of desk-style surfaces and chairs, visitors wanted more comfortable chairs and seating at tables where they could talk with others. Students especially wanted tables where groups could work on common projects. This led to noise, which made libraries more interested in mechanisms to dampen the sound, such as carpet and more advanced acoustical tiles. They also investigated mobile walls to segregate group study spaces from areas intended for quiet reading.
The library as a networked social environment has changed the hardware infrastructure. At one time the demand was for high speed ethernet cables. Increasingly fast wireless connectivity has made physical cable connections much less important, except for library-owned desktop machines. But wireless access points are not simple technology. Overload can be a problem in a crowded area, and authentication requires policy decisions that cannot be made independently.
None of the hardware described thus far counts today as new technology. It is the hardware legally in which the authors of this theme issue are writing. I will not describe the contents of their articles, but will spring over them in time to look at what may be future hardware trends.
I expect videoconference facilities to play a larger role in libraries. Many research libraries currently have some videoconference facilities for staff, or at least share university resources. Systems like Skype, Google chat, and iChat have offered serious and successful competition to H.323 videoconference systems for two-party conversations, but H.323 continues to offer higher quality for multi-location settings. Videoconferencing offers a cost-effective way to have reference librarians in more than one place at once without losing the immediacy of speaking to a human being in real time. Videoconference systems can also save moving people around for meeting in broadly distributed library districts or large campuses. The technology has clearly taken off for private use and the odds of libraries catching up seem reasonable.
Digital storage systems are another hardware change that should expands substantially in the future. Research libraries moved from sub-terabyte to multi-terabyte capacities in the first decade of the twenty-first century, often because of digitization projects. Repositories, cloud computing demands, and especially the need to curate and house research datasets are factors driving significant increases in storage needs. Some librarians ask whether the library is the appropriate place for massive digital storage facilities. The physical location is not the issue, but rather the management of the system. In the 1980s libraries had some of the largest databases on many university campuses in order to hold the bibliographic records for their OPACs. The information content of repositories and research data collections are no less library-centric.
Precisely what the future will bring is never easy to predict, but some of the hardware highlighted in this issue is likely to play a role.
Michael SeadleBerlin School of Library and Information Science, Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany