I’d grown up with online communities, places where the conversation was great but you never got to meet the people you were talking to. And I’d grown up with real-world communities, the people around me, my neighbors, friends and family. But with Occupy Seneca, it felt like we’d finally married them. When online discussions got too heated, someone would always suggest meeting up on one of the sofas at Occupy and talking it out face to face. When face to face discussions seemed to be going in circles, we’d take them online. It was the best of both world. Maybe the best of all worlds. – Cory Doctorow, Lawful Interception

I love the the idea of the lines between the virtual and physical worlds blurring to create one world.  Many have explored this relationship in fiction – William Gibson – in software – Second Life – and in practical application to the real world – David Weinberger, Library as Platform.  While society has, by necessity, focused on the virtual side of the equation as we have developed the technology to create and explore these virtual worlds, it is only recently that we have started to see the beginnings of true overlap between the two.  The main character, Marcus describes the blending of his two, often very separate lives in the Cory Doctorow’s Lawful Interception above.  But even this only expresses the tip of the iceberg as we look at how augmented reality and other emerging technologies will continue to break down the wall between our physical and virtual worlds.

The concept of the library as platform is one that has intrigued me for some time and speaks to the overlap in our two worlds.  Weinberger’s metaphor clearly emanates from the virtual world of dynamic software environments where a basic slate offers opportunities for the user to build or modify existing structures to better suite her needs.  It speaks to the idea in Rushkoff’s Program or be Programmed that we need to think of technology, and indeed our worlds, as environments that are to be used to our benefits, not to conform to existing structures and let our behaviour be dictated by those that create those structures.  But how does this operate in a physical world or better a hybrid world?

Based on an image by  Graham Steel used under a Creative Commons License

The movement in many libraries is toward flexibly furnished spaces.  The school library that I work in is about to start a major renovation and a key element in that renovation is that almost every piece of furniture in this space will be easily mobile.  Almost all of the shelving will be on the exterior walls, and those shelves that aren’t will be low and on wheels.  Almost all tables and all chairs will be easily movable.  Even half of the floor will have configurable floor tiles that we can either get under to reconfigure wireless hubs and power or actually rearrange the tiles to offer such things as power outlets in different parts of the space.  Our existing desktop computers will be replaced by laptops so that students can work in flexible groups and move to where they need to work.  There will be a variety of seating styles to serve everything from quick in and out use of the library (bar height stools) to quiet solitary reading (soft individual chairs).  It will be interesting to see how the students reconfigure these spaces and for what purposes.  It has also been interesting to think through the balance between these flexible furnishings and the non-flexible items.

If we continue to think of the purely physical for the moment, but put it in virtual terms, it will be very interesting to see how the platform is modified by the user and how the existing structures in terms of choice of furniture in the space and the configuration of fixed pieces influences the use of the space.  In virtual terms, it will be interesting to see how the students and teachers hack the space.  At a certain time, hackers were considered to be an evil group of counterculture folks who built viruses or hacked into government databases or big businesses either for personal gain or for the thrill of the challenge.  Hacking has taken on a broader use for anyone who modifies an environment to get the most out of it.  Readers of this blog might be most familiar of this use of the word through blogs like Hack Library School or Hack Education.  The first use of the word hacker would conjure up the image of a, potentially, self-centred individual who has little regard for how her actions impact those around her.  The second might indicate a person who is interested in personal or group benefit, but is conscious of how his actions affect others.  I see Doctorow’s Marcus as a prime example of a respectful hacker who operates comfortably in both worlds (he has a history of social activism through networked technology and at the point of the story where he is quoted above, he is in the midst of rebuilding Oakland after a natural disaster.)

In a library space, how do we encourage a respectful hacker ethic?  How do we encourage the personalization of physical and virtual space while ensuring that that personalization doesn’t impede others use of that same space?  I don’t pretend to have the answer to that question outside of articulating and maintaining high expectations of the users in terms of their respect for the space and the other users.  I think that fixed pieces, whether that is a circulation desk or text box on a web page, will help influence use of the space and will hopefully encourage that respectful use of the space.  Likewise, the idea of pulling the space back to the same start position each day (resetting furniture or wiping virtual workspaces) will have an influence, although I’m not sure that I like the idea of starting from scratch everyday when prior mods could actually have lasting benefit.  In my situation, this will be an ongoing experiment that will start as soon as we re-open after the renovation.  This will certainly be a space that will remain in perpetual beta.

The next step is in engaging our community in the idea that the physical and virtual worlds serve each other and do, in fact, cross over if not actually blend.  This blending of the two aspects of the library/educational world will not occur unless the members of the community think of it as one world.  Many of our users, particularly the younger ones, have no trouble seeing their social communities as being a blend of the physical and virtual.  There is often significant cross-over between members of their face to face communities and their online ones.  Because learning communities are united by interest rather than location, this blend is harder to see.  There is more distinction between the online and offline communities simply because the tools used to communicate are necessarily different.  To a large extent, the nature of schools, whether they be K-12 or post-secondary, is that there is already a local uniting of people with common interests and needs (whether those needs are forced on them by a mandatory curriculum or by the choice of a certain academic program of study.)  We can leverage that commonality of interest and need to develop services in a blended or hybrid library environment and encourage the thinking of the blended physical/virtual environment as being aspects of the same.  As Marcus recognizes, even within a community that is blended in that the membership spans both spaces, there are definite advantages to operating in a specific mode for specific purposes.  I wonder if there will come a time when we don’t make a distinction between the physical and virtual worlds.  Will virtual worlds become ‘real.’

While these ideas are very much still forming in my mind, I will endeavour to pursue them in a more specific manner in an upcoming post looking at building engagement in a specific hyperlinked library community.

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