I don’t make it out of my building very often at work, but I needed to go over to our library this morning to reserve a computer lab and to look for a particular book. I didn’t know the call number for the book, so I went to the nearest available kiosk computer to look it up in the online catalog.
I should have known it was going to be trouble when the nearest computer was an ancient, beige tower PC with a sticker on the side proclaiming it to be “Designed for Windows 98 and Windows NT“. And it was turned off, which is unusual for a public kiosk. So I turned it on, and it proceeded to literally rattle and whine while it booted. After entering in my login information, I was able to access the web browser — after 15 minutes had passed. 15 minutes from login to usability! I couldn’t even walk away and get on with the stuff I had to do today, because once the interminable login procedure passed, I’d be logged on.
After trying to use Internet Explorer to get to the library’s catalog — which resulted in a stuck browser — I finally just gave up and shut the thing down. Or at least, I initiated the shutdown procedure and walked off. For all I know, the thing may still be trying to shut down.
It occurred to me that university libraries are in a state of transition, and they could look like a lot of different things in the future, but one of the things that library must be is a repository of both information and the technology to access and connect that information. And increasingly, that dual role is shifting from books to computers and networks. If the public kiosk computer, to be used by any person randomly needing information about something, takes 15 minutes to boot and an unknown amount of time to actually use a web browser to get to the library’s internal web site, then something’s not right. And if there’s any truth at all to the digital natives idea, I think most students would have gotten a negative impression after the first 90 seconds had passed and they weren’t online.
[Disclaimer: There are other computers that work much faster in our library; but they aren’t prominently positioned to be used by the general public. And I mean no disrespect to our library staff, who really are smart when it comes to technology and are probably just as appalled by a 15-minute startup time as I am.]