Books as wallpaper, iPads as libraries

A panel from a NASA satellite, the Long Duration Exposure Facility

In almost every law firm project we’ve designed in the past several years, the law library has been the among of the first components to disappear as these firms sought ways to reduce their spatial footprint in areas of high cost real estate. Online legal information services allow an attorney to access almost any reference information at the desk that used to be in books and journals.

I do not recall any conversation or concern about any detrimental impact this might have on the intellectual potential and accomplishment of the firm. Yet, in the continuing discussion about the relevance of libraries in law firms, schools, and communities, and similar discussions about physical newspapers and journals, it was interesting to come across information about a study of the influence of the physical presence of books on educational attainment.

As reported by Miller-McCune

“Home library size has a very substantial effect on educational attainment, even adjusting for parents’ education, father’s occupational status and other family background characteristics,” reports the study, recently published in the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility. “Growing up in a home with 500 books would propel a child 3.2 years further in education, on average, than would growing up in a similar home with few or no books.”

Does the presence of a physical library have similar impacts on the professional attainments of law firms as well as other similar organizations? Does the mere presence of a library act as a symbol of certain values in family, firm, or community, influencing the way it behaves?

And does the reduction of the scale of technology down to the size of a magazine (enabling it to become a booklike-portable part of the flow of life rather than a desk-bound device) give it a similar resonance about intellectual openness and curiosity that the library did? What influences occur in a home with a half-dozen iPads sitting on the kitchen counter and on the coffee table instead of book in the library?

The library, in a pre-digital age, was not only a place of study and reference, but also an important magnet for community. Whether in the community or in the firm, the library drew people together and contributed to a sense of shared values as well as providing the context for the serendipitous exchange of information and ideas that was a significant contributor to trust, openness, idea development and innovation.

Digital technology provided an eventually more rapid and diverse access to information, but its initial physical heaviness and wired infrastructure made us more isolated. In order to rebuild the sense of community and shared values, and to assure development of a common culture, we began to reinforce the importance of the social in the design work we did, replicating the “third place” attributes of Starbucks in the office landscape. (However, in many cases, especially in corporate and professional firm contexts, the provision of the casual space where people can stop and unselfconsciously chat and exchange ideas, is still something of a challenge in project programming.)

So the emergence or the iPad, or more generically, the portable tablet computer, injects a rather provocative catalyst into this discussion. When you and I and everybody else are walking around with small, light, connected, and powerful communication and display devices that give us access to the world’s information and allow us to spontaneously produce and exchange content, what will the places and spaces of law firm, or corporation, or community look like? (We’ve reflected a bit on the urban space impacts of this before, here.) What will the characteristics of “working” or “studying” or “reading” look like? Will a casual array of iPads around the house, or office, have as much influence on educational or professional attainment as the library apparently does/did? When the books and the desktops have disappeared, will a law firm have individual attorney offices anymore? Will its attorneys become more collegial and collaborative? For any organization, what will be the relevance conventions of the “office” building when work begins to look so different, when its technologies significantly modify the even the postures – and therefore the behaviors – of work? (Separately – what’s the relevance of the desk, anymore?)

For all organizations, will the apparent influences and impacts of the presence of books be restored – and activated, amplified, and augmented – by the emerging forms of information mobility and presence?

We’d be please to have your thoughts in the comments.

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