Thursday, May 10, 2007

The end of the library as a place

When traveling I like to escape to the local library for a while to relax and read in peace. However, the ability to do that seems to be disappearing. By assisting with e-publishing I am helping accelerate that trend, but it is still a little sad to see.

At one University library in Sydney I discovered I could not even get in the door. They have fitted card operated turnstiles, like at a railway station. Only staff and students with identity card are permitted into the library. This is presumably to stop the large number of students from under-equipped nearby commercial colleges from clogging the library.

On a trip back from Sydney I dropped into a newly refurbished university library. Past the reception desk on the ground floor are rows of computers. If you look carefully, there is a small short term loans book section behind a glass door and some low shelves with reference works, but otherwise there are no books or serials visible. Upstairs there are books, but after a wander around I asked where the new serials were displayed. I was told that what paper based journals there are (most are now electronic) are shelved straight away.

At the ANU Chifley library I went in to look at Michael Smith's book "The Natural Advantage of Nations: Business Opportunities, Innovation and Governance in the 21st Century". What I saw were rows of computers. When I asked where the book was, I was told it was on the top floor, which was not currently accessible.

The risk is that Libraries will become a sort of intellectual call center: where people sit at workstations working their way through the set e-work.

But not all the new library spaces have this battery-hen appearance. At another ANU library I saw a couple sitting arm-in-arm in a very comfortable looking two seater chair. Each had a laptop on their lap (presumably connected to the ANU wireless LAN). One was wearing a headset. The autumn sun was streaming in the window and it looked blissful. This then is perhaps the future of the library.

Perhaps to welcome the casual visitor, the library could have the high tech equivalent of the comfy chair with recent serials. This would have a workstation on a flexible arm at a low comfortable chair, offering a selection of recent e-serials. Or there could be screens built into the tabletops in the library coffee shop.

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