It probably won’t have escaped your notice that today has special significance in popular culture. Yes, today is The Future!
While it’s true that we don’t have flying cars, hoverboards or 18 installments of the Jaws franchise to watch on our Sky box set collection (with a new one hitting cinema screens today), there are quite a few things that Back to the Future II got right about October 21 2015.
The mainstream media have delighted in creating entertaining segments on TV and articles in newspapers about this, pointing out that video calls, 3D movies, flatscreen TVs, fingerprint recognition devices and all manner of other predictions are now part of our everyday lives. But what would a University of Portsmouth student from 1985 think about their library if they could visit it now, from the past? In the spirit of the day, I decided to get all Marty McFly, and find out!
The first year undergraduates of 1985 would have been born in about 1967. They will have gone through school listening to the music of the 70’s, and playing in the streets. When they found themselves at Portsmouth Polytechnic (as it then was) they would have been among a far smaller cohort than that of today, with numbers in the hundreds rather than the thousands. Approaching the library from Cambridge Road they would have walked past a collection of pre-fabricated classrooms and then down a path into Ravelin Park to find the entrance, situated on the side of the building in a larger and more open green space than remains there today. They wouldn’t have imagined automatic doors or turnstiles…
The library catalogue of 1985 was arranged on a card system, filed in small drawers, with dowling rods to keep them in place. Special collections had paper lists. An undergraduate of this time wouldn’t have imagined a computerised catalogue, never mind a Discovery search or the many and varied databases students today take for granted. They wouldn’t understand self service, the returns sorter, or the information kiosks. They would be amazed by the group study room keypads, and the endless rows of computers we have. Laptops would have seemed impossible, and as for tablet computers and mobile phones which access the internet… witchcraft!
Some things though, would be very familiar. The inside of the building, in it’s oldest section, would be structurally very recognizable. The shelves on the upper floors of this area too, would be as they knew them, albeit in a slightly different arrangement. They would have recognized the red filing cabinets too, and if they explored as far as the second floor, possibly even some of the chairs!
Services would have been unfamiliar however, with the issue and returns desk replaced by automated alternatives. It’s possible they wouldn’t be surprised to see IT staff working alongside librarians, but that could only be because there is such a wealth of technology in front of them. They may be startled to come across staff roaming around the building rather than sitting behind desks, offering help among the shelves and where people are studying. And they would almost certainly be amazed to discover that you can get help from a librarian in real time by typing onto a screen using online chat.
While it’s undoubtedly true that some of our books have been on the shelves continually since 1985, the wider variety of subjects studied and the range of books available today would probably impress them. If they were told about our huge ebook collection they would scarcely believe it could be real, let alone be available from anywhere at any time.
If they’d wanted a drink or snack in 1985 they’d have to have left the library and headed over to the recently opened Students Union building at the south-east of Ravelin Park. They’d find the concept of a cafe inside the library unthinkable, and struggled to reconcile eating and drinking with study within it’s walls. I doubt they’d understand what a vanilla chai tea or skinny mochaccino were if they did venture as far as the cafe counter, where they might have expected a choice between tea or coffee. The same would be true of the more social aspects of behaviour in the library, with the relaxed seating, group study areas and movable furniture of today seeming inappropriate within the setting.
Walking around and observing student activity, they would most likely be fascinated to see that it was possible to watch television programmes on computers and mobile devices. They might also be bemused to see people still watching the antics of Walfords finest in Eastenders, which had only just launched on the BBC in 1985. Streaming news channels broadcasting onto plasma screens inside the library might seem strangely intrusive to them. And coming from a time when the Nintendo entertainment system had only just been released (with it’s flagship game Super Mario Brothers) they would also be amazed to see how far computer gaming has come…not that we see anyone playing games on the library PC’s…no, not us…
I’d like to think that our 1985 fresher would, with all the customer service focused staff we have on hand, be able to navigate their way around the hugely enlarged, semi-re-purposed, and several times refurbished library without too many difficulties. Maybe our terminology would confuse them though, maybe the more informal relationship between staff and students would make them feel uncomfortable? Would they feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information on offer to them? Trading a collection of heavy, bound copies of indexes and abstracts for the almost impossibly small but unbelievably powerful searching of the internet might be too overwhelming to cope with.
Perhaps the thing they’d be most surprised by though, if they visited today, would be that the member of staff on the enquiry desk was wearing a Back to the Future T-shirt…