CSL-93-21 December, 1993
Ó Copyright 1993 Xerox, Mark Weiser and Vicky Reich. All rights reserved.
In discussions of the coming of the electronic library, a library is often assumed to be just a repository of information. But libraries are more than this, and there is a danger that in the rush to networked information we will lose the significant non-informational (what we call "situational") features of libraries. This paper is speculation by a technologist and a librarian on these features of today's libraries, and how they might take shape in the electronic future. We have identified three library functions that deliver no information, but meet essential human needs, and so should not be overlooked in the design of the national information infrastructure. The three are: providing a reference for community identity; serving as centers of community culture; and entering into the minutia of people's lives. Based on these three, we describe some possible principles and policies for electronic information that will help expand the situational functions of libraries to their networked form. Among our suggestions are to: (1) fund the creation of distinctive and diverse community information nodes (physical terminals), (2) encourage wide-spread, free, public information displays, (3) encourage community members to create customized local networked information, (4) use physical proximity as a way to control access, so some local information is easily available only to locals, (5) experiment with loaning pagers, radiomail systems, and other future information sources.
CR Categories and Subject Descriptors: K.4.0 [Computers and Society]: general -- Community information systems; H.4.3: [Information Systems Applications]: Communication Applications -- Bulletin Boards; H.3.5: [Information Storage and Retrieval]: Online Information Services; H.3.6: [Information Storage and Retrieval]: Library Automation
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A new national information infrastructure is inevitable. Many papers have been written on the technical and economic issues that are part of creating this infrastructure. The issues dealt with are usually those of gathering, storing, and retrieving the information; or distributing it; or charging for it; or preserving the intellectual properties rights of the creators, distributors, and users of the information. A national information infrastructure though, is not just about information.
The United States has a national information infrastructure today. The wire services, the newspapers, the radio and television broadcast systems, and the national telephone system all provide a national grid of information. More importantly from the point of view of large, reliable, distributed information systems, our national information infrastructure today consists of tens of thousands of public and school libraries all across the country. These libraries are in nearly every elementary, junior high, and high school; and they are in nearly every community, even the very small . In the long run, it is these widely scattered and local community information sources that will be strongly affected by the NII. For instance, already many community pubic libraries are networked via the FreeNet system .
Community public libraries provide more than information. If one is considering replacing or augmenting them with electronic information systems, then it is important to consider the effect on the situational aspects of the present and future NII. We believe that these situational functions have come to exist because they fill a valuable role in the community. Their existence provides valuable lessons for the policies that should govern electronic information systems.
The most easily available source of networked library information today is the catalog; and yet 35% of library visitors have never used the catalog [4, page 139]. Up to 12% of library visitors use no information in the library at all, but bring their own material [4, page 102]. Clearly libraries now are doing much more than providing information, and as they become more networked they will need to continue to provide more. This paper is about some of that 'more', and how to carry it forward to networked libraries.
There has been little consideration of the community situational uses of electronic information systems. Turkle , and Sproull and Kiesler  take a more social approach to electronic systems such as email, but don't spend much time on the situational physical aspects of such systems. Kidder , Levy , and Brand  describe anecdotally the culture surrounding new technology, but not the specific ways that technology serves to provide situational functions.
Marshal McLuhan once described a thermonuclear explosion as information, but we think it is dangerously misleading to say that everything is information. There is an important difference between things considered as information, and things that are simply part of everyday activity without any imputed purpose of conveying knowledge. While a dictionary also has situational aspects, such as its distinctive smell and weight, its informational aspects dominate, and so dictionaries were computerized early. While a library reading room has informational aspects, such as a clock or posters on the wall, the situational aspects dominate; greater posters do not make up for uncomfortable chairs. This paper is about to what extent networked libraries can have comfortable chairs.*
* Some early reviewers of our paper took us to be arguing for the preservation of physical libraries. While we do believe that physical libraries should be preserved, not least for their situational features, our arguments may not be taken at full force if they are only applied to physical preservation. This paper argues for something different: that we early make room for the new forms of comfortable chairs that will be needed by online information.
Public libraries know they are not only about information. A widely used planning guide for public libraries  lists eight public library roles: community activities center, community information center, formal education support center, independent learning center, preschoolers' door to learning, popular materials library, reference library, and research center. The first of these is completely non-informational, the next four have large non-informational components. Only the last three are predominantly informational and so are easily convertible to networked libraries. For instance, preschoolers' door to learning requires common comfortable space for parents and children to come together and to have fun; community information center requires arrangements for casual walk-by and for the display of physical objects; formal education support center and independent learning center require the ability to move objects (like car repair manuals) to their source of need (under the car). Below we discuss three ways that existing public libraries server non-informational functions: community identity, community culture, and minutiae of life.
A library is not just an information source, it is also a place to go after school, a place at which to "turn left" when giving directions, a part of the community skyline and streetscape, a place for interesting trees and gardens. A major part of planning a new library is working with the community for site and appearance .
Libraries provide important non-information space. Only 20% of the floor space in a small library is devoted to shelves [12, page 21]. Among the situational space is an informal (comfortable) reading room, washrooms, staff offices, and community meeting rooms.
We believe that the networked library should strive to provide the following functions for community identity: distinctive "places"; geographically local networked meeting rooms, and a physical community presence.
* It is important for the library and the librarians to play a leading role in providing this service. Librarians are familiar with handling information, they understand confidentiality and free speech, and although many libraries are government-funded, librarians strongly value being independent of political special interests.
Going one step further, there could be networked rooms for very local areas, such as people living on the same block or same street. This is similar to branch libraries (even tiny storefronts), that provide the primary function of bringing information to local areas, but also secondarily create social spaces for small, local groups.
Currently the physicality of communities is part of their charm and value. The man who has never been more than five miles from home adds community value by the richness of his knowledge of those five miles, and by the reduced dilution of that knowledge from the outside. Libraries too reflect their physical place, and visitors to a new town frequently drive by the library, or even drop in to look at the displays, in order to get a quick taste of this particular community. This distinctive linking to a place can be preserved in the future if some local networked information is partially restricted to people who are local.
Restricting access is a tradeoff many free networked systems have already made. Most Freenets divide users into visitors and users, with different capabilities. The free Princeton networked information service restricts some information to identified members of the university community .
Restricting information goes against the grain of libraries, who have generally encouraged increasing access to information. Yet libraries have always had to make the tradeoff between local service vs. widespread access. For instance, a library choosing between a building and a bookmobile is choosing between a fixed but better local situation, and a mobile but more widespread distribution. Spending on the library building gets information less far, but makes it more accessible to those sufficiently local, and is crucial for the functioning and recognition of the library in the community. Similarly, some aspects of functioning well for the local community will require restricting access from the worldwide community. Although it may even cost a little more to restrict access (as a building costs more than a bookmobile) the payoff in community functioning is worth it.
Browsers from other communities might be able to look at the topic headings and how much activity each has, without actually joining. This is not unlike the information a visitor gleans while driving through a town and noticing how "alive" it is. The internet community could get the feel for a "place" that one can get visiting a vibrant town without really being a member of it. Scholars and expatriate community members might still be permitted access, providing a vital extended community of neighbors.
The community might also put up on street corners large electronic displays of the results of continually operated queries on national databases. Examples of such queries are those that mention the community in the national press, or a topic of the week chosen by the library staff. For instance, a large downtown display might be continually scrolling through articles that are relevant to some local community concern, such as clean water or healthcare. The choice of articles could be manual, or the librarians could choose the search query of the week, and have the full text of the query results show up on the community display screens, with new matches replacing old once each day.*
* These kinds of facilities would enable the library to present to the community such information as weather or local access TV programming. These are not services the library currently provides; whether libraries will or should take a more proactive role in providing 'real time' information to the community as opposed to 'information suited for repositories' is open.
These physical presences would make the community unique as does distinctive building architecture. They could become significant sources of community pride and competition much as the electrification of downtowns once drove the spread of electric networks early this century . They could serve the simple community function of places to meet, excuses for gardens and landscaping (such as pleasant seating near the large electronic displays), and references for directions (turn left at the kiosk).
Another possible form of merging networked and physical necessities is the distributed physical room. Parents not infrequently ask their children to go to the library after school, because it is a relatively safe and familiar place associated with what is good in the community. If one's children could be tracked via a community-wide active badge system , a parent could be confident of the child's location at a friends house, and the child would be spared from frequent checking in (and for teenagers, saving an actual conversation with a parent).
Public libraries contribute to culture by nurturing the distinctive culture of their local place, by providing homes for minority community cultures, and by providing access to other cultures. Some of this nurturing is by access to information sources, such as books and newspapers, that are already the focus of the networked library. But situational aspects of libraries are also part of their cultural presence.
A community culture is formed in part by its common institutions and ways of life. Coffee houses in Berkeley and deli's in New York are situational cultural institutions that also enable certain ways of life. Libraries contribute to cultural ways of life in at least four ways:
- providing bulletin board space
- providing display space for local artists and community groups
- providing selected and organized displays from the local collection
- providing non-interactive parallel work space (e.g. carrels)
The first three items above are a regular part of library life . 10% of library users view the bulletin boards, 15% the displays [4, page 102]. While not a large percentage, it is a large number of people nationwide. The first three items also do provide information via their posters, artworks, and organization of information. But the information is of a situational sort that is often overlooked in thinking about networked libraries: it is primarily of local interest, and its value is very transient. The items posted on bulletin boards ("guitar lessons for children, $20 per half hour") are of no interest nationwide. The interest of local artists is often that they are local (e.g. your neighbor), as is their subject matter. And the selections from the local collection assume their interest especially because they are from the local collection, selected by local librarians. Our fourth item, parallel work-spaces, is distinctively non-informational. We discuss each of these below.
Local library bulletin boards are special in part because of where they are. Any posting there was probably by someone in the community, certainly by someone who has visited a library. Already one knows a little about who it was, how easy they will be to contact, and so on. Networked library bulletin boards will want to preserve some of this implicit context to the postings.*
* Of course there is a context to many networked bulletin boards now: that the poster is likely male, computer-oriented, and a college student. Encouragement by both social and technical means to achieve truly wide use will eliminate this particular context, while adding a variety of others.
Local artists and community groups also help generate community interest. The subject matter of the art may be of local interest, as is simply knowing that the person lives in the neighborhood, and so cannot help but be working out of a context partially shared by the community. For instance, postcards and landscapes of a particular area sell more copies at the site.
A related local context is implied when a display from a local collection is organized by the local librarians. Not only is it these librarians, in this building, paid for by this town, for this community, using this collection who created it, but I know that my friends and neighbors who come to this library are all going to see this same display. This locality and commonalty of exposure are a crucial part of community culture.*
* Researchers working on newspapers of the future have remarked on a similar significance of shared context. The fantasy of a custom newspaper is just a fantasy because it deprives the reader of reading what everyone else has read .
Networked systems already have bulletin boards, chat lines, ascii art forums, and constructed displays of interesting information (digests). However, these are almost never community localized. The over twenty thousand FidoNet and K12Net nodes are all locally based (accessed by a local phone call), but our sampling of them leads us to think that their primary service is their interconnection with other nodes around the country. Most of their offered services do not mainly work to promote a local community culture for local residents.
Another situational activity enabled by libraries is non-interactive parallel work spaces. That is to say, a place to work alone, but in the presence of others. This kind of participation in shared work is common; providing for it is part of good architectural design . Coffee houses are a more public form of locations for non-interactive parallel work. It is interesting that so far computer systems have not very well provided such spaces, except in some multimedia experiments . We predict that going on-line to do one's own work, while being peripherally aware of others on-line with you, will be an important characteristic of future networked systems. (Perhaps already part of the attraction of CompuServe and America-On-line is in part being there with others, even if one is just checking the encyclopedia).
One promising new kind of interactive interface is the Multi-User Dimension, or MUD . These systems provide a multi-user virtual space over textual terminals. By entering simple commands, such as "get clock", one can interact with electronic objects and with other people. Some MUDs are programmable, so users can create new objects with complex properties. From our point of view, this means a MUD can be a medium for cultural expression, and change. Rather than providing a static view of a community, the view can be commonly constructed by community members. This is similar to how the streets and downtowns of communities change now, through hundreds of individuals taking individual actions in their yards and gardens, putting up posters, and visiting places. A downtown that in the 60's might have had psychedelic posters today might have AIDS posters. No authority decides these changes, in our towns now or in MUDs.
The 'library MUDs' may be more structured. The librarians could designate areas for quiet work (no LOUD SHOUTING), an area for joint study, postings for community service, etc.
The past few years have seen the beginning of work on a new kind of relationship between people and electronic information. Sometimes called "ubiquitous computing" , this relationship is based upon the computer as invisible, as getting out of the way so that people can get on with their lives as effortlessly enhanced by the computer and its information. The most powerful information is that which we do not need to attend to in order for it to effect us. For instance, a very important part of a novel is the choice of the author's voice. Yet for most novels this choice of voice must recede into the background for the reader in order for the author to achieve her intended effect.
Ubiquitous computing predicts that there will be several hundred little information-providing devices around the home in twenty years. These are a medium by which the networked library could continue to participate in the minutiae of life. Here are some ways this might work:
- the library could loan physical devices to members of the community who wanted to follow some community activity, such as local soccer or city council. The devices would be programmed to follow that activity. The patron would not need to log on, know any commands, or do anything other than glance at this physical item in their home from time to time. The devices would be reusable with reprogramming that would require bringing them back to the library.
- the library could distribute and maintain networked posters of community activities. These posters would physically reside in the community, perhaps even in people's homes, but would be continually connected to a steady source of community information, perhaps via paging. Then, in one's home, to see what activities are happening in your community that day, just glance at this poster hanging in your kitchen. It always shows today.
We don't think it very likely that the networked book will be widely used in the next 20 years. The pleasures of trivial access, light weight, high contrast, and unbreakability will not be achieved in expensive handhelds in that time, and it is these properties that make participation in minutiae successful. But we can imagine more and more non-books being borrowed from libraries; libraries may lend the special software that enables handheld equipment to access community information. People will want different community information at different times. Libraries loan videotapes, video games, cassette tapes and CDs. Library patrons borrow videotapes either to view movies not available for commercial rent or purchase, or when they don't wish to pay $5.00 for each rental. The circumstances for borrowing software, and possibly the hardware to access community information, will be similar.
To summarize our remarks, we recommend that planners for the NII and networked libraries adopt the following recommendations:
- Encourage, and fund, the development of distinctive and diverse community information nodes. The NII is not just the wires, but what is at the ends of them. Let each community be unique.
- Creatively use widespread community information displays. Think beyond the terminal to the community posterboard as an additional model of community network information access.
- Encourage community members to create, and post, distinctive community information. Let each community create its own network culture.
- Provide a way for network access to be controlled on the basis of physical proximity, so only those physically in a community could access some of the community information.
- Encourage, and fund, library loan programs for electronic access. Loan out pagers, as well as books.
Many may think it strange for us to be arguing for the preservation of local substance, and sense of place, when it is exactly to be free from the limitations of a particular place that causes people to be attracted to the internet. But like anything else, absence of place can come in excess. The creation of various kinds of "placeless" communities like the National Academy of Sciences in our society have not obviated either people still needing homes and communities, or these "placeless" communities themselves needing distinctive places (such as the NAS retreat in Wood's Hole). As network resources replace placeful resources, we will reach the point that we need more electronic "places". This paper tries to head off going too far with placelessness, to add constraints to internet architecture today so it can be placeful tomorrow, and to temper naive enthusiasm for a completely placeless existence.
The past few decades have seen an explosion of work on information access, databases, and user interfaces. Compared to these, work on situational computer access is just beginning. As more people in the U.S. are more networked, situational aspects will become more important, because it is these aspects of our lives that make it comfortable and fun. We will need to learn how to effectively construct the situational aspects of our information systems. Libraries have a major head start in this area, because like networked systems they already
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