Collaboration technology, high or low?

The  student newspaper here recently included an opinion piece advocating for dorms to get the paint that lets you draw on the walls like a whiteboard, and favorably mentioning our new library annex building as a precedent:

As stated, such a system is already in place within the Brody Learning Commons in the form of the several group study rooms whose walls can be written and drawn on. They are always in high demand and short supply because of their limited number and availability – clearly, these rooms are popular and well received. I believe the new hallways would be met with equally positive reactions and would provide far more positive benefits.

It doesn’t surprise me that the “whiteboard walls” have been a hit with students. It’s really cool technology — I’m going to call it ‘technology‘, but let’s say it’s not “hi(gh)-tech”, it’s “low-tech”.  Good job to those who came up with and approved and implemented this “whiteboard wall” idea in the new building.

It’s really useful, really fun, and quite an efficient use of library resources. While I believe the whiteboard wall paint is significantly more expensive than ‘regular’ paint, and presumably does need some amount of ‘maintenance’ including eventual replacement — it doesn’t use electricity, it doesn’t involve any yearly licensing fees, it doesn’t require troubleshooting by technical staff when it’s ‘down’, in fact it doesn’t go ‘down’ at all, it doesn’t require staff to train users in how to use it, it doesn’t run on hardware that can go bad and need to be replaced every 2-4 years. (I don’t actually know what the lifespan of the paint is, but I bet it’s more than 4 years).

We have another piece of collaboration technology that was also installed in the new library annex.  There are flat screens installed in all the group study rooms (and some other places), that run vendor-licensed software meant to turn them into “collaborative public worksurfaces.”  I have to admit I have never used it, don’t really know how to use, and don’t really understand what features it offers. (My job responsibilities here are about web/enterprise software, not about desktop or device support).  But the website for the company suggests “anyone in the team can send to, and manipulate content on, the shared Host desktop that no one person owns but everyone can share.”

That does sound cool. But I wonder how much it gets used.  I have seen those shared flat screens being used once or twice — but only as a ‘display’ for one person’s computer, to show slides or whatever. I’ve never seen it actually being used as a shared workspace. But I’m not really a heavy observer of the library, it’s possible it gets used all the time and I don’t know about it.

But I feel safe predicting there are certainly plenty of patrons who don’t use it because they don’t know how to use it, can’t figure out how to use it — or at any rate, aren’t sufficiently motivated by whatever promise it offers to take the time to figure out how to use it.  In contrast, the whiteboard walls don’t take much training.

I’m not sure how you’d measure “usefulness per dollar”, or “love-for-the-library-generated per dollar.”  But if there were a way to do it, I’m confident that the whiteboard walls would come in as producing much more utility or love-for-the-library per dollar spent, than the shared workspace collaboration software/hardware — even if the software/hardware is used a lot, I suspect it’s much more expensive to ‘run’.  Of course, there’s no reason you can’t provide both collaborative ‘technologies’ which may both have their place if you can afford it.

I am not at all retreating from my belief that high-technology expertise and capacity is crucial for libraries to continue to serve our patrons.

However, sometimes technology expertise and wisdom will guide you to a low-tech solution. Not only may it be a more efficient use of resources, but effective well-thought-out low-tech solutions may be more likely to engender passion from your patrons — I am having trouble imagining a student editorial asking for complicated collaborative software to be made available in the dorms.  I suspect “technological burn-out” is going to increasingly be an issue in our very high-tech world — if you can meet patron needs in very clever ways without making them look at an electronic screen or learn yet another piece of complicated software, they may love you for it. 

Of course, the more you understand technological capacity and our patrons relationship to technology,  the better you’ll probably be at deciding it’s appropriate use! Neither avoiding it because of lack of capacity, nor blindly adopting it because a salesperson convinced you that you had to go hi-tech to be contemporary.


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