The Public Digital Media Lab

Recently, I read an interesting article in Wired Magazine about the rise of the netbooks. The article, “The Netbook Effect: How Cheap Little Laptops Hit the Bigtime,” talks about this realization that people don’t want more out of their laptops – they want less. Most people will prefer to have a smaller, lightweight device that is great for browsing the web and not much else. Most people don’t want to pay megabucks for a larger laptop that can handle something like Photoshop. The writer, Clive Thompson, concludes the article with this:

“Because this is the future of hardware. For a few users who need a high-performance device, PC makers will offer ever-more-blisteringly fast, water-cooled boxes with screens the size of your living room—at $2,000 a pop. For everyone else—lawyers looking for something to do on the train, women desperate for something that fits in their handbag—netbooks will dominate. It’s the rise of the very small machines.”

Digital Media Lab LUIC

This got me thinking. If this truly is the future of hardware, maybe people will look for other ways to have access to hardware and software that are capable of ‘high-performance” tasks. Maybe they’ll flock to public digital media labs. 

Funny thing…one of the projects I’ve been working on this past year involves setting up a digital media lab (DML) at mpow. The basic idea is to create a space where the public can come in and use up-to-date hardware and software to create all kinds of digital media, including music, videos, photographs, podcasts, websites, publications, and other digtial art work. To my knowledge, there aren’t a lot of public libraries out there that have this type of lab set up. Sure, there are lots of libraries with computers and software that can be used to create some of the stuff I mentioned, but very few have the complete package of everything one would need to create something from scratch. The plan is to offer not only use of some sweet Macs (hopefully Mac Pros!) and software packages (Adobe Creative Suite!), but also other equipment like cameras and microphones so people can truly create without worrying about purchasing some incredibly expensive tools.

So, we met with an Apple representative today to talk about our ideas, hear his ideas, and request a quote for some of the hardware and software we’ll need. It’ll be interesting to see what they come back with. In the meantime, these are some of the things that are on my mind:

  • Usability and Usefulness – The last thing we want to do is create a space that people don’t find useful and don’t find easy to use. I think the DML will be really popular with students (in fact, I had an impromptu focus group with a few high school students the other day and they were very excited about the lab), but I’d like it also to be something that appeals to the adults in our community. And we want to make it easy for people to use this room and the equipment!
  • Storage – Our DML users will likely be working with some pretty large files, especially for video projects, so we need to come up with a solution in which people can save their work, just not on our computers’ hard drives. Right now, I like what the people at the Loyola University Info Commons’ media lab are doing, and that is checking out external hard drives to their users. This would allow us to keep our machines clean of people’s work files, and allow our users the storage space they need to finish their projects. Plus, it has the added benefit of allowing the user to take their work and continue on another machine (e.g., their school’s media lab) and still come back to finish up in our lab if they wanted.
  • Staffing – Right now we need our full tech assistant team to work with users in our other computing areas like the 2nd floor adult lab. It’s unlikely that we can afford to have someone stationed in the media lab for the entire day, especially during slow periods when the lab is not being used at all. What we might do is have someone staffing the DML during busy hours (after school to closing? weekends?) and just make the room appointment-basis only for all other times. 
  • Staffing Part Deux – Even if we do have enough people to provide staffing support in the DML, there is the question of how qualified our existing staff is to assist people with things like video editing, photo editing, working with something like Garage Band, etc. We have some people who already feel comfortable with this kind of stuff, but we have others who don’t. We’ll need to figure out a way to offer extensive training on these topics so our staff feel at least comfortable enough to answer basic questions in the DML. Maybe we’ll send people out to the Apple stores to receive training or maybe we’ll hire 3rd-party trainers to come in for some intensive workshops for staff.
  • Security – We want to believe that no one will be messing with our stuff, but we also need to take the necessary precautions to make sure we’re protecting what will undoubtedly be some very costly items. There’s been talk of perhaps putting a lock on the door and giving users a security access card to get into the room when there isn’t a staff person monitoring it. What about the video cameras, mics, tripods, external hard drives, etc? We’ll need to figure out how to check these things out in a safe, organized manner.
  • Remote Management – Something for our IT staff to consider is how to maintain a set of Macs so updates and other changes can be pushed out in a timely and efficient manner. 
  • Design and Layout – Beyond just the technology in the room, we need to think about the look and feel of the room. We want it to be a fun, cool environment where people can get their creative juices flowing. 

So there you have it. These are just some of the random thoughts that come to mind when I think of this project. It’ll be interesting to see what the end result is. I’m hoping we come up with something similar to the Digital Arts Lab in Salinas, the Digital Media Labs at Loyola University, and the Dynamic Media Lab at UNR.

What do you think of this project? Any suggestions? Any ideas? Please share them in a comment below or contact me directly :).

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