Sunday, February 24, 2008

Jelly bean desks at RMIT Library firsthand

RMIT Librar - jelly bean -tablesWith a few hours spare after an ACS professional development broad meeting in Melbourne, I decided to see the RMIT Library's "Jelly Bean" desks first hand. These had been recommended to me, as being a more interesting and practical alternative to rectangular computer desks.

The jelly bean desks are installed in the RMIT Swanston library in the Melbourne CBD. The library is difficult to find, up a series of passageways which look like something from a neglected railway underpass.

First impression of the desks is how small they look, in comparison with those at the
Macquarie University Library's Learning Lounge. But the RMIT desks appear smaller than they are, due to the rounded corners and provide as much useful space as the Macquarie desks. The next impression is how unstable they are. The desks are supported by a single central column, with a small round base, about half the width of the desktop, make from a heavy steel plate. The extra height desks for short term us while standing, appear about to topple over. However, all but one of the desks I saw were clipped together in clusters, using an oval shaped bracket, making them much more secure than they fist appear.

I tried one of the few single desks, which had no PC on it. This seemed stable enough if used for its indented purpose with one person sitting at it. However, in a classroom, if a student sat on one of the wings of the desk it would be likely to tip up. The heavy base plate may well then may then be a hazard. Also the plate prevented a wheeled chair from being moved in close into the desk. Apart from that the desk was comfortable and had enough room for a laptop and papers.

The desks are mostly in clusters of four, around a pole for cables access from the ceiling. Some are in strings of seven, with two rows of desks facing each other. One end of the string of desks is against the wall, to provide power and data access.

There are power/data boxes clipped to each desk. This removes the usual tangle of cables from the desktop, but cables are apparent on closer inspection, hanging down in the spaces between the backs of the desks. The clusters of four have some perforated curved metal privacy screens fitted. The longer strings of desks have no screens.

The clusters of four desks have Dell desktop PCs. These are relatively small desktop units, but even so there is only just enough room for the PC, keyboard and mouse, and some papers on the desk. The stings of seven desks have Apple iMac computers, which have the processors mounted in the LCD case. By eliminating the PC case from the desk, these free up considerable desktop space, but as they have bright white cases, they look larger than the black Dell computers.

The ceiling mounted florescent lighting has been supplemented by additional florescent lights on a bar suspended from the ceiling. The ceiling mounted posts for providing power and data cables to the desks are adjacent to the lighting bar, but not incorporated into it, which gives a visually cluttered look.

The "jelly bean desks" appear to have survived well the punishment they would get from constant student use. There interesting curved shape distracts from the fact they are made from very ordinary looking laminate with a gray plastic edge strip. Some areas which might be improved are the power/cable boxes and inter desk spaces.

The power/cable boxes are rectangular and do not fit in well aesthetically with the rounded desks. Also for computers semi-permanently installed, it is not clear why desktop outlets are needed. In addition as the desks are in clusters, a separate outlet should not be needed for each desk. Low cost multiple outlet power boards could have been fitted out of sight under the desks and shared by several computers. Ethernet cables could have been taken straight to the PCs with no desktop sockets needed. If sockets were needed these could be low cost units under the desk. For desks designed for student laptop use, standard power sockets could be used, which have rounded edges more fitting with the desks aesthetics.

The gaps between desks are mostly hidden in the clusters of four, by the perforated screens. The gaps also provide somewhere to hide the cables, simply hanging down between the desks. But the strings of seven desks have obvious voids between them. Perforated privacy screens are not fitted, nor needed, with the Apple iMac computers as the wide screen LCD monitors are large enough to visually separate the students.

At one point a flat bed scanner has been precariously placed between two desks with some of it suspended over the void. Some way of filling in the holes is needed. One way to visually fill the holes would be to place the desks so the LCD screens obscure them. This would require placing the desks in an alternating pattern, so they do not face each other, as they do now in pairs.

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