March 28, 1999

Planning for public use computers in libraries

A few years ago, The Leavey Library at USC launched into prominence the "computer commons" model of providing computers in libraries for general student use. Variations of this model, a large room, with dozens of fully wired computer stations, usually with a help desk, have been applied as the design solution to assure students access. Thousands of student users daily attest to the need for computer access on campus.

Recently, I saw a sparkling new 130 computer installation of this model in an Information Technology facility at Lehman College in the Bronx, NY. This version features a help desk, but unlike the Leavey Library, has no connection to the library. Since less than 40% of Lehman College students have their own computers, this facility was predictably already over-run, even as computers were unboxed! I would contend that the absence of the library will inhibit this version from being as effective as the Leavey installation.

Less certain is that the computer commons is the one best design for a new library or renovation.

So, how should libraries deploy terminals for Internet access?

The users tell us this:

The pre-college group has a good regard for both the distributed and centralized models. The cluster is the preferred installation for girls. The boys prefer the disintermediated version but also have good regard for the cluster approach. The third ranked preference; "a cluster with Web savvy librarians" reveals girls preferring this model significantly more than boys.

Least favored among the pre-college group is the "Bring-Your-Own" model of "hook up" facilities.

I checked the 220 pre-college mean scores against the responses of 73 older, summertime users of the Lilly Library. On average, the older group's answers (expressed as means) were different - they prefer the spread-out, distintermediated model and are the strongest in preference of a cluster with help from Web-savvy librarians:

There is a strong evidence in this data that users want independence (just as they want a variety of study spaces) and yet are aware that they need expert help when they need it. Incorporating their views in designing new spaces will have positive results in the long term.

Comments welcome:

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Cluster(centralized): 3.93.813.81
Spread out in building:
Cluster with lib. Staff: 3.53.453.1
Floating staff through building: