Computer Lab, Kinkos, or Research Center?

I have worked in two different types of libraries in my life, public and academic. The struggle between being a computer lab and a place for research (or reading) continues to be a growing issue. In public libraries, where they are often the public’s only access to the internet and technology in general, this is an especially important balance.

In academia many of our resources are electronic. Our catalogs are all online. Articles and reference works are accessed through the touch of a mouse, but our computers are not often limited to these uses, nor do I think they should be. Because we serve a legion of multi-taskers, our computers not only search databases, the internet, and catalog, but they play audio and video, create graphics, act as a window for courseware, email access, have word processors, and have chat software. We give our users the information they need and the means with which to manipulate it.

Are we a library or a computer lab? At MPOW, we have more computers in our building than anywhere else on campus and offices are no longer sending their students to the computer lab (not us) for their computing needs. We use 6,000 pounds, not pages, not reams, pounds of paper every week in our ARC (Academic Research Center). That is three pallets of paper. That is a lot of trees. We provide staplers and hole punches, until they are all stolen. We fix computer problems and manage print cues. Oh, and we answer reference questions too.

I do not think our situation is unique. Were it up to me, we would have staplers, but no hole punch. Heck, we could do away with both, really. If they need a stapler that badly, they can go and buy their own. Cynical? Yes, I am sometimes. There would be a limit to the amount of printing the students could do. It could even be a really high number, just something to curb the sheer volume.

My point, if a have one, is that we do so many things a computer lab does, that students sometimes forget that we are not actually a computer lab. Is this a problem? We have books, journals, and movies, but they are lost in the effort to illegally print out the e-version of their textbooks and the 200 page Power Point presentation their professor put up on Web CT. We can not fix their IT accounts. We are not IT. We actually support our own computers with no help from IT, but we rely on campus IT for the student accounts.

We are a place of research that must have computers because of the very nature of information and the way we manipulate it. Where do we draw the line? Should there be a line at all?

–Jane, has only questions and no answers

5 thoughts on “Computer Lab, Kinkos, or Research Center?

  • September 6, 2005 at 4:11 pm

    I see your dillemma and please excuse my ignorance but all I can see are easy simple answers. But it may not be as simple as I imagine it.

    Can’t you bolt the staplers and hole punches to a solid table? I have seen that done before with a steel cable and a lock.

    As far as printing goes, charge them. You are correct that people are taking advantage of free stuff. Why not? It doesn’t have to be a whole lot just something that makes large documents not worth it. Or it could be free for the first 25 pages and 5 cents each additional pages. The specifics could be worked out. The other option is their accounts. I know you alluded to this but work with IT to make it happen. Work it like a computer lab where you are limited to a number of pages per account. Sorry if it seems simple to me. I am just a simple-minded person.

    “Mr. R.”

  • September 6, 2005 at 7:30 pm

    Mr. R, we’ve been battling these demons for a while so I have answers to your “easy” solutions. 1. we’ve bolted, we’ve attached in a variety of ways, and the staplers always walk.

    2. the powers that be at our POW won’t let us charge, period. We’ve been asking and begging for the 3 years I’ve been here, to no avail.

  • September 7, 2005 at 8:34 am

    As a further addition to the coversation, we are looking at print management software, which would require the students to “unlock” their jobs at the printer. Though this may cut back on some printing, I doubt it will solve our problems.

  • September 7, 2005 at 7:16 pm

    I do think it’s a problem. At MPOW, the problem seems extreme; we have an IT-staffed “regular” computer lab on the bottom floor, an IT-staffed “multimedia” lab on the first floor which has course reserve software and MS Office while the “information commons” lab right next to it (separated only by pillars) is staffed by the library, and doesn’t have MS Office or course reserve software. Then on the second and third floors of the library we have completely dilapidated old PCs that frequently crash and eat floppy disks, which are staffed by the same student who staffs the information commons. On each floor near the stairwells, we have “direction stations”, which are supposed to be used for orienting one self in the library or to do a quick catalog search. (And did I mention that IT is mostly housed in the library, making the situation all the more confusing?) I really think it’s unfair to expect our patrons/users to be able to differentiate which computers to use for which functions, not to mention which staff can help you with which problem.

    I’m not sure what the answer is, but I wonder if it wouldn’t be more useful for libraries and IT departments to join forces, at least in academic institutions. (I think about this a fair amount because at one time, MPOW and our IT department were under the same dean.) Perhaps IT could benefit from the library’s resources, and the library could benefit from IT’s presence across campus?

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