In an academic environment that is shifting to hybrid learning modes, librarians must reimagine their space as a service delivered to students. Where do desktop computer labs fit into this vision for libraries that prioritize mobile-first strategies?
Space as a service is an emerging concept in the field of academic librarianship. The gist of this new take on the library's physical space as a service in and of itself is that undergraduate and graduate students increasingly want to leverage library space to enhance their overall educational experience. In the past, academic librarians' perception of building space was static and nondynamic: the space was simply the sum total of all the chairs, tables, rooms, and equipment that the inhabitants of the space could occupy or use. All the activities that happened within the library building—services provided at desks, engagement with students in instruction rooms, and consultations between students and librarians—were identified as the real services. Yet in an academic environment that is shifting to hybrid learning modes, librarians must reimagine their space as a service delivered to students, even when those librarians may themselves have less presence in the space. Part of that process involves questioning the viability of every existing space and whether it fits into the new space-as-a-service paradigm.
The 2021 OCLC report New Model Library: Pandemic Effects and Library Directions, which seeks to envision libraries in a post-pandemic era, presents the perspectives of a set of globally diverse library directors. The report concludes that ongoing pandemic changes are leading to library practices, in aggregate, that present a transformation to a "New Model Library." One quality of this new model is the way in which those who use the library perceive the physical spaces. According to this report: "The pandemic reaffirmed the value of libraries' physical spaces as library leaders were pressured to stay open, reopen, and reduce building restrictions. . . . Building closures highlighted the importance of treating library spaces as a service that supports people coming together to use the library for different purposes." The study recommends that to improve the library customer's engagement experience, librarians should "treat library space as a service . . . [as] a unique part of the library's value. Reevaluate use policies and the design of library spaces to encourage the community to gather in different ways for different purposes."Footnote1
Librarians who want to pursue space as a service in this transformation to the New Model Library should be asking where desktop computer labs fit into this vision. Should they be a part of this post-pandemic journey, or is it time to abandon them? A survey conducted by Ask Your Target Market, an independent online research firm, collected input from 500 students from across the United States over a two-week period in October 2020. The survey's purpose was to understand students' experiences with academic library space. According to the results, 37.8 percent of respondents identified "computer lab" as one of their reasons for spending time in the library. At 58.6 percent, students' top reason for spending time in the library was "quiet study space."Footnote2 As students grow ever more dependent on their own mobile computing devices, imagine a similar survey conducted two or three years in the future. It would likely reveal that even fewer students need a library-based desktop computer to complete academic tasks.
What do we know about why students still visit library computer labs? Are they using desktop computers for academic research and sustained deep learning, or are they simply using the desktops for activities such as checking email, sending jobs to printers, and viewing entertainment websites between classes? If the latter is the case, librarians should ask what value, if any, desktop computer labs add to our space as a service. When envisioning future libraries, planners should ask if it makes sense to allocate space for computer labs—or to offer desktop computers at all.
The Rise and Fall of Desktop Computers in Academic Libraries
Academic libraries began offering access to desktop computers as soon as doing so became affordable. Initially, desktop access was primarily for searching digital catalogs and limited numbers of electronic databases. Academic librarians exercised tight control over access to these desktop computers and the resources for which they served as a gateway. Several factors—such as the growing affordability of the hardware, the emergence of desktop productivity software, end-user-oriented database search systems, and new information technologies such as CD-ROMs—contributed to both the expansion of desktop computers in academic libraries and the development of more liberal policies for gaining access to them. By the late 1990s, desktop computers became so ubiquitous in academic libraries that the term "Information Commons" grew in popularity as a way to describe the centralized space that incorporated both the desktop computer hardware and the services that developed to support them.
In "Conceptualizing an Information Commons," a 1999 seminal article on this newly developing library space, Donald Beagle described it as both an "exclusively online environment in which the widest possible variety of digital services can be accessed via a single graphic user interface . . . via a single search engine from any networked workstation" and a "new type of physical facility specifically designed to organize workspace and service delivery around the integrated digital environment." The article goes on to describe how existing reference services would transform to adapt to this new digital environment.Footnote3 The Information Commons model, as a way to organize library space, long ago dropped from the academic library vernacular as it was superseded by the more contemporary Learning Commons model, yet a visit to many academic libraries today would show that their space and service-delivery model is still heavily influenced by the Information Commons.
Can the ways in which current and future students use technology to perform academic tasks, on and off campus, justify ongoing support for the desktop computer labs that harken back to the Information Commons model? The answer lies in a deeper understanding and analysis of what it is that today's students use library desktop computers to accomplish. At Temple University Libraries, we asked ourselves this question as a way to better understand if desktop computers were delivering on the promise of contributing to students' academic success by attracting students into our spaces for exposure to collections and services or if they simply met a demand fulfilled by no other campus building. Answering this question required the collection and analysis of months of desktop computer usage from 2018 through early 2019. What we learned deeply informed our thinking about, and planning for, a new campus library building that was under construction.
In general, desktop computer usage by undergraduates, calculated in time spent logged on, is diminishing over time. According to the 2018 ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 91 percent of students reported owning a laptop, and 95 percent reported owning a smartphone.Footnote4 This mirrored my institution's annual internal technology survey: fewer than 50 out of approximately 1,200 student respondents reported not owning a laptop or a smartphone. A November 2021 EDUCAUSE QuickPoll on students' experience with educational technology confirmed that the laptop is their top primary educational device (81%), while the smartphone is their top secondary device (56%).Footnote5 Figure 1 shows that desktop use comes in a distant second for their primary device and fourth as a secondary device.
The data supports that students have almost entirely transitioned to mobile computing. One need only walk through any academic library to observe nearly every student using a laptop. When students are found at a desktop station, they are usually there to plug in their laptops to the surge protectors. The configuration of computer lab desktop furniture lends itself only to work by individual students. For much project work, students need group activity spaces where they can use their own laptop while contributing to a collaborative assignment. We see this demonstrated in study rooms where students wirelessly connect their laptops to wall-mounted monitors. All group members can share their individual screens or collaborate on a single document. Desktop configurations may fulfill some needs, such as on-the-fly printing, but otherwise they inadequately support the way students work in a mobile environment.
Designing the Post-Desktop Library
By the mid-2010s, desktop usage at Temple University's Paley Library, first opened in 1966, supported virtually none of the aspirations that librarians held for desktop computing in days past. Fortunately, as noted, a new library building was under construction, to replace the Paley Library. This gave us an opportunity to rethink the infrastructure investment needed to support row upon row of desktop computers. The library IT team gathered months of data about student desktop usage, incorporating activity at nearly 100 desktop computers. The team found that nearly every desktop computer session was less than 30 minutes, with many sessions lasting only 10 to 15 minutes. Next the team analyzed a small group of loaner laptops that were available to students as part of a pilot project. While calculating the exact time spent in computing on the laptops was not possible, the team found that on average, students borrowed the laptops for 4 or more hours at a time.
An analysis of the functions that students were performing clearly showed that desktops were primarily used to check email and to print documents, rather than to conduct deep coursework or library research. When students used desktops for longer periods, they often did so for connections to entertainment and sports websites. Over this same period, with the availability of self-service laptop borrowing, desktop computer usage declined approximately 15 percent. The results led the building planning team to question if dedicating a significant portion of any floor to general desktop computing, along with all of the necessary wiring and electrical infrastructure, made any sense.
As a result, the vision for a mobile-first library technology infrastructure was one step closer to fruition. The remaining challenge was how to best implement the vision. Designed between the years 2013 and 2016, constructed between 2016 and 2019, and opened in the fall of 2019, the Charles Library at Temple University, designed as a mobile-first building, provides a new vision for next-generation academic library buildings. One of the numerous infrastructure decisions required in the construction phase was the installation and placement of data jacks and electrical outlets throughout the building. When staff visited new libraries that had opened between 2016 and 2018, those buildings consistently featured large numbers of permanently installed data jacks to support hardwired desktop computers, typically configured in and furnished for lab space arrangements. These facilities also provided an abundance of electrical outlets to power those machines, as well as outlets built into tables, chairs, floors, and just about anywhere students could conceivably plug in devices.
The Charles Library designers chose to opt for an academic library computing vision based on supplying and powering mobile computing devices. Rather than invest significant amounts of a limited project budget on the data, wiring, and electrical infrastructure needed to support a desktop computer lab, along with the commitment of future monthly data-service fees, the plan called for a mobile-first approach supported by kiosk-delivered technologies. With the accumulated cost savings, the project budget shifted allocations to a robust wireless environment to support a building full of connected mobile devices. The considerable square footage of space required to house furniture for desktop computing would be freed up for other study and learning needs. The only remaining desktop computers would be a small number of high-end machines, located in the Digital Scholars Studio, dedicated to specialized tasks such as 3D design, gaming development, and complex graphics rendering. The absence of floor-embedded data jacks and outlets provided vast flexibility for tomorrow's generations of librarians and learners.
Going Mobile at the Post-Desktop Library
A linchpin of the mobile-first vision for the Charles Library was the availability of laptop and battery vending kiosks. Even though our student computing data, along with what we observed day-to-day, informed us that more than 90 percent of students owned laptop devices, we realized that on occasion students would need a library-supplied computer. Also, laptop owners will occasionally, for any number of reasons, prefer to leave their device at home. Our system introduced two innovations to the traditional library laptop-lending program. First, the library laptop kiosks were envisioned as a branch of a developing campus-wide laptop-share system. Similar to urban bike-share programs, students borrow a laptop at kiosks spread throughout campus and return the laptop there or at any other conveniently located kiosk. Second, we worked with the kiosk vendor to create a wireless version of its equipment. That would allow for easy relocation of kiosks as needed. Although kiosks can be configured to vend both laptops and power packs, we opted for kiosks dedicated to either laptops or power packs. The power packs charge multiple devices and accept a three-prong plug and a variety of smartphone connectors.
How did students respond to this new system? Those who had previously used desktop computers in the old library building wanted to know where the desktop computing lab was located. When staff indicated that the new building did not offer a desktop lab, most students readily accepted the change. Occasionally, the response was more harsh. Directing students to the new laptop-lending kiosks failed to placate the most resistant students who simply wanted what the old library offered. We learned that old habits do indeed die hard. In addition to negative comments to staff, we observed students voicing their displeasure on the Temple University Reddit channel and occasionally on other social media outlets. Had we made a bad, shortsighted decision? Time would tell.
Acquiring automated kiosks, filling them with laptops or tablets, providing even the low maintenance they require, and doing much the same for battery kiosks is by no means an inexpensive commitment of resources. The cost must be weighed against the long-term expenses of hardwired desktop computer stations, as well as the opportunity cost of sacrificing valuable library real estate to computer labs when students increasingly function in a mobile technology landscape. Despite the challenges, academic librarians have experience and technology strategies to overcome potential barriers to transitioning to a post-desktop library. The following are just a few possibilities to ease the path to change:
- The desktop computer lab can be rethought as a design project. Start by identifying the computing wants, needs, and behaviors of undergraduates. Use interviews, observations, and collected data to identify how mobile-ready these students are. They may have already moved on from desktop machines to their own version of mobile learning.
- Libraries have long offered laptop lending, typically managed through their circulation and reserve units. The equipment is managed the same as circulating books. Although the initial investment in lending kiosks is considerable, so is the staff time spent managing laptop-lending programs. Consider the tradeoff value and potential long-term savings in shifting laptop lending to a self-service, automated process that provides a better experience for students.
- Desktop computers situated in labs are often frequented by students simply as devices for sending jobs to nearby printers. Eliminate this practice by enabling any mobile device to manage and send print jobs via email or text message. This will enhance the students' mobile library and campus technology experience.
- The Charles Library experience demonstrates that transitioning from desktops to laptops works best when done as a collaboration with campus IT colleagues. Even if the institution is not quite ready for a campus-wide, coordinated laptop-sharing system, look for ways to engage with the IT organization for ongoing laptop support, maintenance, scheduled replacement, and other technology needs that a mobile technology infrastructure requires.
What about the digital divide? Will the post-desktop library hurt the most academically vulnerable students? If well executed, the elimination of labs should still reasonably accommodate students who lack the resources to acquire personal mobile computing technology. Laptop kiosks, or other lending models, are simply replacing desktop-centric labs. All students should maintain access to computer technology that mirrors whatever features are found on the campus desktops replaced by laptops.
I asked several community college library leaders, whose students are often those most likely to lack laptop computers owing to financial challenges, about how eliminating desktop computer labs might impact their students. Given the option, would these leaders eliminate the lab at their own library? Most confirmed that their students lag when it comes to personal laptop ownership. No leader thought that a laptop-lending program would be detrimental to students' academic success in the absence of computer labs. The leaders stated that they are seeing more students with personal laptops as the technology has grown more affordable. Still, no leaders said they planned to eliminate their computer labs anytime soon. One leader had proposed doing so but was overruled by a provost. The primary reason was due more to a lack of resources to make the transition than to the possibility of disadvantaging a segment of students.Footnote6
Designing for an Uncertain Future
Two years after the opening of the Charles Library, the choice to design a post-desktop, mobile-first building is widely acknowledged as the right decision. Although this transformation faced some initial backlash from students, incoming students today show no concerns about the absence of desktop computers. Having never experienced our desktop lab in the past, they are typically equipped with their own mobile technology and are adjusted to and comfortable in the post-desktop library. If there is any concern, it may be that these students are so well equipped for mobile computing that laptop kiosk usage could diminish ahead of expectations. The challenge facing academic librarians, whatever the age of their building and its technology infrastructure, is whether they will be able to keep pace with the technology sophistication and expectations of the incoming and next generation of students.
The academic libraries being designed and built, or renovated, today should be envisioned as spaces for more than just those who will use the libraries in the present. The design must serve all those who will inhabit the buildings far into the future. The desktop computer lab is but one legacy technology that was an essential component of academic libraries at the dawn of the age of personal computing. Although desktop computers are hardly an obsolete technology, mobile devices are simply the technology of choice on campus today.
Tomorrow, some other new technology will very likely erode the value of current technology. The lesson learned from the Charles Library experience is that in higher education, we need the will to break the mold and try new ways of supporting students' academic success—even if we know that the expectations of some community members will go unmet. This is especially true when we must build the bridge between the technologies that we use today and that we know will grow obsolete and the technologies we can hardly even imagine having tomorrow. Working under conditions of technology uncertainty has become our de facto mode of operation in higher education. To err on the side of getting it right, we must design the technology infrastructure of any new building for maximum flexibility. Only then will our academic libraries be as useful to their future owners and inhabitants as they are to us now.
- Lynn Silipigni Connaway et al., New Model Library: Pandemic Effects and Library Directions (Dublin, OH: OCLC Research, 2021). Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
- Tom Sens and Kyle Moll, "University Library Research Results: What You Don't Know Might Hurt You," University Business, July 15, 2021. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
- Donald Beagle, "Conceptualizing an Information Commons," Journal of Academic Librarianship 25, no. 2 (March 1999). Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
- Joseph D. Galanek, Dana C. Gierdowski, and D. Christopher Brooks, ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2018, research report (Louisville, CO: EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research, October 2018). Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.
- Jenay Robert, "EDUCAUSE QuickPoll Results: Flexibility and Equity for Student Success," EDUCAUSE Review, November 5, 2021. Jump back to footnote 5 in the text.
- Author email correspondence, December 1, 2021. Jump back to footnote 6 in the text.
Steven J. Bell is Associate University Librarian, Temple University Libraries.
© 2022 Steven J. Bell. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 International License.