Academic Libraries in the Digital Age

Barak A. Pearlmutter


The library should be where (physical) books and journals are collected. The (physical) books and journals people want should be available. They should be easy to find, and the library should be a pleasant and quiet place to read them. The librarians should help people find the books and journals. Anything else - especially computers in anything other than a cataloging role - is a waste of resources, and in the end detracts from the library's performance of its rightful mission.

Computers have very different needs from books. Access to computers, and to documents stored on the Internet, can be better provided outside the structure of a library.

Danger Signs

Mildew and leaky roofs and termites and censors are serious, but university libraries face a more insidious threat.
Advancing technological aspects of libraries and promoting lifelong learning are synergistic values.*
When a librarian starts spouting crap like that, it's time to find someone else to steward the collection.

The Enemy of Books: Librarians with Computer Envy

Librarians are trained to deal with technologies that move slowly, and that require centralized administration. Namely, physical documents. They have preserved information for thousands of years, and it is no exaggeration to say that we owe our civilization more to countless ranks of anonymous librarians than to brilliant scientists and engineers. But this long-term stable view intrinsic to the library is at odds with the fluid and ephemeral nature of computer technology, which advances in sudden spurts. For this reason, libraries are in general ill equipped to provide computer access services in an efficient and affordable fashion. Consider the simple computer card catalog. It is an example of extremely crummy computer technology: hard to use, old, inflexible, expensive, ugly, slow, clunky, error prone, intimidating. If librarians fill their libraries with computer pods, their whole libraries will look that way.

Today, as I write this, in late 2001, many libraries are busy discarding portions of their collection, and revamping reading rooms, to make room for desktop computer workstations which will provide their patrons with Internet access, and through it access to online documents. Today, in late 2001!!! Right now, many students have laptops. In a few years, they will all have portable computers. Spending large amounts of money to turn beautiful libraries into ugly loud computer pods is nuts; in a couple years all the patrons will have portables, and all buildings on campus (yes including even the main library) will provide public wireless Internet access using inexpensive and unobtrusive wireless access points. Computer pods replacing reading rooms today will enjoy a useful lifetime of a few years, at most.

Librarians are not specialists in the appropriate use of computer technology, and are unequipped to forecast technology's future. But many have computer envy! They want their library to be chock full of great big beige computers, with loud fans and enormous color monitors, humming and whirring and flashing their screen savers. Who cares about musty old books and a quiet place to read them, or mahogany benches and tasteful architecture? How boring and old fashioned.

What Makes Sense Today

If Internet access is to be retrofittted to a traditional academic library, the best way to do it today (late 2001) is with laptops and wireless ethernet. By "best" I mean least disruptive, most cost effective, least expensive, most flexible, least obtrusive, most useful.

One can purchase a bunch of two-year-old laptops for use by library patrons - perfectly serviceable mint condition laptops mind you - for under $500/laptop, today. Wireless access points with a range of 100m cost under $200, today. PCMCIA wireless ethernet cards cost under $100, today. If a library wants to provide Internet access, it can set up a few wireless access points, glue some wireless PCMCIA cards into a couple dozen laptops kept behind a counter, and voila. How convenient, to be able to carry the computer to the shelves, to be able to slide it aside in a reading alcove. Need some more laptops? Just buy them. No need to plan, no need to rearrange furniture.

This is the direction sophisticated organizations are moving, today. Starbucks isn't installing workstations for their customers, they're installing wireless access points. Campuses like MIT and Carnegie Mellon and Stanford already have nearly 100% wireless coverage.

Bean Counting

Electric power costs about $0.05/kW-hour. A desktop computer draws about 500W. This means about $200/year in electricity alone. Laptops draw way under 100W while charging.
Prof Barak A. Pearlmutter <>
Hamilton Institute
National University of Ireland, Maynooth