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