May 11, 2013

The Price of Technology

I was in deep conversation with a mentor-professor a few months ago, and she told me that the brand new campus library was unlike anything she had ever seen before--in fact, she likened it to the sci-fi films and books she remembered from childhood: robots and all.

Let me explain further.  This new library boasts a spacious open-floor plan with clean tables and cushy armchairs, floor after floor of cleanliness and orderliness abounds.  Interspersed between tables and chairs and empty carpeted space are a mere handful of computers.  Based on floor plan and aesthetics, the new building reminds me of the communal space of a posh college dorm where everyone owns a new laptop and a pair (or two) of expensive dress shoes.  Heck, there is even a Peet's Coffee on floor 1.  However, there was one monumental thing missing from this picture: books.

Where the heck were the books?

The mentor-professor stated that this state-of-the-art library was built with an insanely large room, inaccessible to the public, that spans from the bottom floor to the building's ceiling--seven or eight stories high, in total--where all the books are housed.  Organized, these books were, by size and color...not by the traditional subject, call number, title, or even author.  To access them, students and faculty must access the online library database and enter in a subject or title.  If the books are of interest, the next step is to request them.  Since the book stacks are housed in one gigantic room, even a handy ladder cannot not reach the ones highest up from the ground level.  So, instead of a ladder or human retrieving a book, the task is designated to a robot who grabs the book based on color and size--not title, call number, author, or subject.  Robots, in a library, grabbing books from a room that spans seven stories high indeed qualifies as strange, to say the least.

The wise mentor-professor then said something that really made me stop and think about the long-term cost of technological advances.  With this state-of-the-art library set-up, students and faculty are no longer able to physically go at random from aisle to aisle in search of interesting books.  More importantly, gone are books arranged by call number, so the public cannot access titles with similar call numbers or subjects without first requesting a book pick-up. 

Maybe I'm being too critical here, but I'm sticking to my belief that technology can be cool, sleek and modern--making life far more easier for you and I--but when it takes the place of critical thinking skills (i.e.: physically walking through aisles and searching for books), I see a glaring problem.  Imagine if your neighborhood library took this approach of stashing all books in an inaccessible area, and patrons could only blindly search the online database for them--it sucks the fun out of book finding.  It also increases our foolhardy reliance on technology to serve as a collective critical thinking cap that will, undoubtedly, affect later generations...and it is to that that I weep.


Unknown said...

And we all know that computers, via algorithms, can conveniently omit the precise - or controversial - information your'e searching for. He who controls the language.... as they say ...

Give me an old fashioned library any day for aesthetic purposes alone. I agree. This is a shame on many levels.

EmeraldCut said...

I'm glad that I'm not alone in this perspective. Everyone seems to hail any--and all--forms of technology as wonderful and exciting, without looking at its far-ranging consequences. That being said, I think that it's so important to take that a minor step back before "progressing" forward.

Unknown said...

That wisdom applies to everything I think. The minute the cheerleaders tell any of us to jump on the bandwagon, it's a red flag. imho. : ))