Write Stuff – E-volution

Ever since the first Neolithic family hunkered down around a fire in their cave, technology has altered our homes. Heated floors signalled status in wealthy Roman houses. Televisions became the focal point in modern living rooms. Now, the digital revolution feeds us constant streams of data on ever-smaller devices. And while those screens might be tiny, they’re changing our physical spaces in a big way.

Take bookshelves, for instance. Long a staple in the typical family home, bookshelves were filled with, well, books. You might find a few photos or trophies mixed in with the Reader’s Digest set, but for the most part books filled the space. Today, e-books have sent furniture designers back to the drawing table.

As The Economist notes, IKEA has redesigned its ?BILLY? bookcase, introducing a version with glass doors and deeper shelves. With e-readers growing in popularity, many people just aren’t filling their shelves with books anymore, and IKEA ?reckons customers will increasingly use them for ornaments, tchotchkes and the odd coffee-table tome.? Fifty years from now, bookshelves may be nothing more than a curious relic of the past. Either that, or a status symbol for wealthy collectors of limited-print editions.

Other pieces of furniture have simply disappeared, and future generations may be puzzled by a museum display labelled ?telephone table.? Complete with a seat, light, and phone book storage, these compact communication centres have given way to smart phones that can access millions of numbers in a browser?and then dial them for you.

E-readers and digital texts have brought change to public spaces too?like hospitals. Soon, the sight of a doctor or nurse carrying your chart on a clipboard could become as rare as house calls. In a recent article, the magazine Medical Electronic Design hailed the benefits of electronic paper displays (EPDs) in medical settings. Besides storing patient records, EPDs can ?communicate securely with cloud-based applications? to do everything from downloading test results to submitting insurance claims. I wonder what Dr. Marcus Welby would think.

If you’ve sat in an airport and waited for a flight recently, you may have noticed architectural changes there, too. Library-type carousels are becoming common, giving passengers space to perch laptops and recharge tablets or readers, while smaller desktops and extra outlets have been added to some existing seats. And It’s easy to see how e-readers and tablets could change the way we design other public spaces. In classrooms, chalkboards and whiteboards could give way to wireless synching from the teacher’s tablet to students? e-readers. No more chalk dust or erasable markers.

But the biggest changes will be to our libraries, and Stanford University’s Engineering Library has embraced that change. In 2005 the library needed more room to house its growing collection of texts?more than 80,000 of them. As this NPR article, explains, ?administrators decided to build a new library. But instead of creating more space for books, they chose to create less.? In fact, they pared their collection down to 10,000 engineering books for the library’s opening in August 2010. The remaining titles are available in digital form.

As the popularity of e-readers, tablets, and smart phones grows, It’s easy to foresee a time when libraries are designed very differently than even a decade ago. If we look at them not as sources of a specific format but as sources of information?in any form?the shift makes sense. As the same NPR article notes, the engineering librarians ?are looking forward to spending less time with books and more time with people,? interacting directly with students through workshops and other services.

So the next time You’re absorbed in the text on your tiny screen, take a look around. It might just be changing the room You’re sitting in.

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