Person, place, thing: Ada Lovelace, Brooklyn Public Library, Personal Computer

Person: Ada Lovelace 

Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) was an English mathematician and writer known to have written the first algorithm ever, way before computers existed. She worked with Charles Babbage (1791-1871), the inventor of the Analytical Engine, a project for a mechanical general-purpose computer. In 1842 Babbage asked Ada Lovelace to translate a review made by an Italian mathematician of his Analytical Engine. The result was the translated review plus a set of notes explaining how the machine could work and what kind of computing it could make. One of the notes was a detailed method for computing the Bernoulli numbers, a calculus of math theory, using the Analytical Engine. This set of instructions to be done by a specific machine to produce something more than a calculation is known as the first algorithm and because of it, Ada Lovelace is also known as the first computer programmer.

Portrait of Ada Lovelace, possibly by Alfred Edward Chalon

At that time it was not common that women were trained in maths or science as she was. Ada was the daughter of the famous English poet Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke, Lady Byron who was also trained in mathematics. Her mother made sure that she got a solid science and overall education through private tutors so that Ada would keep away from the insanity she accused Lord Byron of. Thanks to one of her tutors, at a very young age Ada Lovelace met  Charles Babbage and despite the age difference, they worked as peers. Babbage recognized Lovelace’s analytic skills and outstanding intellect calling her “The Enchantress of Numbers”. 

Ada Lovelace’s contribution was not only the algorithm itself but in the set of notes, she also wrote about her auspicious vision of what the Analytical Engine could achieve.

The operating mechanism can even be thrown into action independently of any object to operate upon (although of course no result could then be developed). Again, it might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations, and which should be also susceptible of adaptations to the action of the operating notation and mechanism of the engine. Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expressions and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent. (1)

Ada Lovelace was definitely ahead of her time. The first actual computer came to life around a century later and it, in fact, accomplished what she envisioned. 

Place: Brooklyn Public Library

Brooklyn Public Library Central Library is one of the most iconic buildings in Brooklyn. The construction of the building started in 1912 commanded by architect Raymond F. Allmirall but it didn’t open to the public until 1941. The structure is built to resemble an open book, with its spine facing Grand Army Plaza. The great entrance is ornamented with fifteen sculptures of famous characters from American literature like The Raven from the poem by Edgar Allan Poe, Tom Sawyer from the novels of Mark Twain and Moby Dick from the novel by Herman Melville. The entrance also has two massive columns decorated with reliefs representing the evolution of arts and sciences. 

Brooklyn Public Library, Central Library, photo by Gregg Richards

My favorite collection within the library is the Brooklyn Collection, a collection of documents of Brooklyn from pre-colonial times to the present that includes books, photographs, newspapers, maps, atlases, directories, prints, illustrations, and posters among other media. In this collection, I could see the designs and photos of the construction of the subway station I use every day.

The Central Library consists of 352,000 sq feet organized in ten different departments and collections offering numerous programs and services. One of the services that I use the most is the Shelby White and Leon Levy Information Commons that offers a wide range of programming related to digital media and technology. There is an amateur recording studio equipped with and editing workstation that I used for recording an episode of a podcast. 

Reflecting about BPL’s services and collections takes me back to the text about Information Ecologies by Nardi and O’Day (1999) where they go beyond considering a library as a place for accessing information, focusing on the relationships within the ecology of the library, including the relationship between people, people, and their environment, and people and technology. 

Thing: Personal Computer

The access to information we have today wouldn’t be possible without two things: the internet and personal computers. Before turning into a mass consumer electronic device, computers were used by experts in scientific settings. The earliest example of a personal computer, meaning a computer made for a single user, dates from 1956. The LGP-30 developed by physicist Stan Frankel was meant to be used for science and engineering as well as simple data processing, the price of the LGP-30 was $55,000, a good price for that type of machine at that time.

In 1962 MIT Lincoln Laboratory engineer Wesley Clark designed the LINC, which was meant to function in a laboratory setting. Some end-users from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) participated in a workshop at MIT where they built their own LINCs and brought back to their own institutions. 

In 1965’s New York World’s Fair appeared Olivetti Programma 101, which was the first to be described as a desktop computer. 40,000 units were sold including 10 sold to NASA for use on the Apollo space project. The cost of the Olivetti Programma 101 was $3,200. Let’s jump to the year 1971 when the Kenbak-1 was released. This is considered the earliest personal computer by the Computer History Museum. It was designed by John Blankenbaker and the price was $750. 

The world would have to wait until 1973 to see a personal computer that looks somewhat like the computers we know today. The Xerox Alto had a graphical user interface (GUI) with windows, icons, and mouse. It also allowed users to print documents and share files. As per the software it had a word processor, a paint program, a graphics editor and email. From that moment fort the development of personal computers occurred rapidly and all the designs that came after the Xerox Alto were in one way or another inspired by it.

Xerox Alto, 1973, photo by Martin Pittenauer

End notes

(1) Menabrea, Luigi Federico; Lovelace, Ada (1843). “Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage, with notes by the translator. Translated by Ada Lovelace”.


Brooklyn Public Library Website

Computer History Museum Website

Essinger, J. (2014). Ada’s algorithm : how Lord Byron’s daughter Ada Lovelace launched the digital age. Melville House.

Meriwether, D. H. (2018). Ada Lovelace. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Nardi, B. & Day, V. L. (1999). Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart.First Monday, 4(5), May 3, 1999.

Blog Post 1: Person, Place, Thing

by Jay Rosen

I recently spoke with Jennifer Gellmann, Assistant Division Manager of the Society, Sciences, and Technology (SST) division at Brooklyn Public Library’s (BPL) Central Library. Given my interest in adult services and reference librarianship, I was eager to learn about Jennifer’s work and the day-to-day challenges and rewards of her job.

Jennifer began by giving me a brief overview of SST’s scope and collections, and explaining its relationship to the greater Adult Services department at Central Library. SST is staffed by 8-full time “Adult Librarians,” and has a large and diverse physical collection with books on philosophy, psychology, social sciences, science, technology, and industry. SST also has digital collections, special collections containing government publications and legal documents, and a small reference collection.

SST is but one of four divisions making up the Adult Services department at Central Library. Other divisions include “Languages & Literature,” “History, Biography, & Religion,” and “Art & Music.” Related adult-centered divisions include BPL’s Business and Career Center, which offers services for jobseekers and small businesses, the Information Commons, which delivers technology-related programs and services in lieu of a physical collection, and the Brooklyn Collection, a local history archive. BPL’s Central Library is also home to an Adult Learning Center, which provides ESOL classes, test prep, and related educational services to adults. In Jennifer’s view, the various divisions and distinctions among adult service oriented departments are “unnecessarily complicated” and a vestige of prior administrations. For the most part, these departments stand alone, with little inter-departmental communication and collaboration (more on this later).

Jennifer described her role as involving a combination of supervisory, administrative, and public facing duties, with the ratio among these tasks varying depending on particular staffing and library needs. However, she did emphasize that public service is the most significant aspect of her job and the work of her department more generally, with all other responsibilities following from this priority.

Public service duties in SST include working at its reference desk and contributing to virtual chat and email reference services. When I asked about the typical information needs of her patrons, Jennifer told me the “vast majority” of patrons visiting SST are looking for a book on a particular topic. She pushed back on the notion of print being less important in today’s digitally connected age, despite circulation statistics dropping slightly each year.

For the most part, SST is able to successfully meet patron requests, but Jennifer did mention a couple of common issues her department runs into. For one, certain popular books are always in demand to an extent that BPL can’t accommodate. This means patrons often have to place holds and wait several weeks to get materials they need. SST also receives occasional requests for textbooks, but does not purchase them for their collection; as a result, they have to refer patrons to local universities and academic libraries. Despite having one of Central Library’s most expansive physical collections, “you can’t make everybody happy.”

Contrary to many branch libraries that serve fairly defined and specific local communities, Jennifer explained that Central Library serves people from all over Brooklyn. As a result, SST does not serve any one particular demographic. Jennifer emphasized that her work experience varies from branch library service in a couple important ways. For one, there is a great deal of segmentation between different departments at Central Library, with many patrons never stepping foot in the SST division. Because of this, Jennifer’s staff is less familiar with their information needs, which is usually more apparent in smaller branch libraries. In addition, Jennifer explained that branch library staff tend to “wear a lot of hats”, whereas staff at Central Library by and large have a narrower set of responsibilities.

Jennifer was refreshingly honest when describing the challenges of her work. In her view, SST’s primary public service challenge is dealing with the anger and confusion of patrons with undiagnosed and untreated mental illness. “It’s a problem no one has really solved yet,” she told me. Though her staff takes a patient and tolerant approach in these moments, and does their best to regard every request as legitimate, “there’s only so much we can do.” And while SST staff occasionally refers homeless patrons to local service agencies, they choose not to refer mentally ill patrons due to their lack of expertise with mental health issues. Interestingly, BPL hired a full-time social worker a few years ago to help respond to this need, but are currently without one. Until a new social worker is hired, Jennifer and her staff will continue to be seen by some patrons as “de facto social workers,” without the necessary training, expertise, or support. From what I have heard, this appears to be a major unsolved problem for many public-facing library staff around the country.

In further describing the challenges of her job, Jennifer highlighted a general lack of communication between higher administration and the rest of BPL’s staff. I witnessed the same dynamic firsthand during my time at Cleveland Heights Public Library system, and in Jennifer’s opinion this problem plagues most other larger library systems. Though I’m sure it’s easier said than done, I find it both strange and deeply ironic that institutions built to efficiently organize and distribute information suffer from such poor inter-departmental communication.  

Jennifer also acknowledged the difficulties of finding and retaining good staff on a limited budget. As she put it, “it’s hard to make a life and have a family in New York City on a particular salary level.” This unfortunate fact this has led to a sharp distinction between “lifers” (Jennifer’s term)— those Jennifer’s age and older who have worked in libraries for decades and live with relative financial stability — and younger staff who are unable or unwilling to commit to the field indefinitely for financial reasons.

Though very frank about the challenges of her position, Jennifer expressed a very clear enthusiasm for her work. She described the main benefits of her job as providing good public service and helping people locate materials that are meaningful to them. Jennifer also expressed contentment with working in “middle management,” citing the mix of public service, committee participation, and administrative roles inherent to her work, as well as the increased “headaches” that seem to come as one moves higher up in library administration.

Significantly, Jennifer told me that the information needs of her patrons have remained relatively stable over time, with the main change being a gradual decline in “reference ready” questions. Erik Bobilin, an Adult Librarian at SST I briefly spoke with, spoke to a more general decline in reference transactions in his experience, likely due to the ease of independently using information technologies. However, both Jennifer and Erik claimed that their division still regularly receives open-ended and more involved research-related reference questions.

When I asked Jennifer what qualities she thinks are needed to succeed in adult services, she emphasized soft skills, including communication skills, the ability to work with a wide range of people, a willingness to answer a variety of different questions, and, above all, patience. This last quality is so important “because the patron doesn’t always know what they want,” and so public-facing staff may need to spend significant time interviewing a patron before unearthing their ultimate question. 

Observation: Ridgewood Community Library

Ridgewood Library buildingThis week, I visited the Ridgewood Community Library, a branch of the Queens Library. Even though this is my neighborhood library, I had never spent time there except to pick up books I’d had transferred. The library is a fairly small branch housed in a beautiful brick building built in 1929. It was the first branch of the Queens Library to be constructed with funds from the city rather than from Andrew Carnegie. Renovated most recently in 2011, the library is fully accessible, with elevator access to every level. It is clean and well lit, with lots of natural light on the main level.

Ridgewood Library plaque


After entering the building at street level, I went downstairs to see the large meeting room for events, as well as a dedicated children’s room, which houses all of the children’s material. This room has its own circulation and reference desks, computers, and bathrooms.

The indoor book drop is located on this level just outside of the children’s room. The outdoor book drop is located down a ramp next to the main entrance, which allows for 24-hour book return. Both book drops use a computerized system with a retractable metal flap that opens when materials are placed on a conveyor belt. This system usually works smoothly, but I have had issues such as the machine being out of order or not sensing books that I placed on the belt.

I next went up one level from the entrance to the large main floor of the library, which houses the teen and adult sections. At the circulation desk at the center of this room, as well as the one in the children’s room, checking out books is fully automated, with a touchscreen monitor and a pad that senses library cards and books. This system is fairly straightforward to use, although in my experience, it’s not always clear how to complete the checkout process, and I’ve seen other people having difficulties as well. I think that instructions for checking out could be relayed more clearly on-screen.

The reference desk on this floor is positioned by the back wall toward the middle of the room. At the reference desk, patrons can sign up for the 20 teen and adult computers located in a balcony area, which offer free internet access, Microsoft Word, and limited free printing. A desk near these computers provides technical support. There is only one single-occupant bathroom for the entire floor, although I do appreciate its being labeled with the inclusive term “all-gender.”

This branch has different hours every day of the week, and is closed on Sundays. Ideally, it would have more consistent and longer hours to better serve patrons. I visited on a Tuesday, when it’s only open from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. I asked the librarian at the reference desk if this issue was budget-related, but he explained that Tuesday has always been a short day due to staff training in the morning. The reference librarian did mention austerity measures currently in place that affect how many new materials the branch can acquire. The library’s programming, fortunately, is robust and seems to reflect the diverse population it serves. On its website, I saw a wide array of free programming, including kids’ Jeopardy, English as a Second Language (ESOL) lessons, a class on dealing with stray and feral cats in the neighborhood, a Financing Your Education session, and Flamenco dancing.

This branch is also impressive for its collections in languages that reflect Ridgewood’s immigrant population. In the adult section, there are designated shelves for languages including Albanian, Polish, Serbian, and Spanish. There is also a “New Americans” section geared toward immigrants, with videos, books, information pamphlets, and ESL materials. The literature near the circulation desk advertising library and community resources is printed in many languages. Having lived in Ridgewood for more than five years, I can attest to the large Eastern European and Spanish-speaking populations.

Ridgewood Library New Americans area


When I arrived at 1:30 p.m., the library was very quiet. Once school let out though, the teen section filled up and became loud and boisterous. Conversations reached the point of yelling, and because there weren’t enough tables or chairs, some students sprawled out on the floor. Since the teen and adult sections share the main floor, this noise filled the entire area and made it difficult to focus or hear the reference librarian as he answered a question.

While I think it’s great that teens are using the library, a more separate teen area like the younger children have would be ideal, as it would allow the rest of the library to remain a (reasonably) quiet environment. The reference librarian on the main level said that it can be a challenging place to work just because it does get so busy and loud. To me, these issues speak to the ever-present tension between providing access to everyone and ensuring that all groups of patrons have a good experience at the public library, all while dealing with space and budget constraints.

It seems like the best option for addressing the high volume of patrons at the Ridgewood branch would be to expand the building or move to a new location. Alternately, perhaps an additional neighborhood branch would help to address some of these issues. Of course, this is dependent on funding from the state and city governments as well as private sources. This blog post from YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) gives recommendations for dealing with noise and disruptions from teens after school when expanding isn’t an option. Suggestions include rearranging shelving and furniture to create noise barriers, opening up meeting rooms for teen use after school, and scheduling programming and activities for teens during this time.

Overall, while the Ridgewood branch faces challenges, I do think it’s doing a great job of targeting materials, programming, and resources to the needs and interests of the community it serves.


Observation of the 58th Street Public Library

The 58th Street branch of the NYPL is one of their smaller locations. My observation took place midday on a weekday. Some patrons did appear to be stopping by during a lunch break, quickly picking up hold materials before leaving. However most patrons did linger in the library, many for the entirety of my observation.

Physical Library Space

When you walk into the library it is all one room. To your immediate left are a handful comfy chairs and behind that a small children’s area. This has two small tables with three or four chairs around them, and a very small open area. Then on the left are the stacks. To your immediate right is the reference desk. This library does not have self-checkout, so it is the only location to check out materials. (There is a book drop in the vestibule of the library so you can return books without entering the main space.) Beyond that, on your right are a dozen or so computers, which can be checked out for 45 minute intervals, and the DVD collection. Straight ahead of you there are some more comfy chairs, two long communal tables to work at with outlets built in and hold/reserve shelves which line the back wall.

One of the first things you notice about the space is that it is designed primarily for adult patrons. There are mostly places to sit and read/work individually. Some parents/caregivers have modified the space to suit their needs. An empty space in front of the reference desk, where the line forms when the demand is higher, is taken over by unofficial stroller parking. There isn’t enough space in the children’s section to store any belongings and have space to move around.

Use of the Space

Patrons at the time of the observation seem to be coming to the space to either work independently or pick up holds from the hold shelves. Only a handful of patrons even visited the stacks during their time in the library. Those working either at the computers or communal tables didn’t visibly have physical library materials with them. Over the course of the observation there were two older patrons who read periodicals that the library had on display. But only two patrons visibly had library books at their spaces. And only one of them spent time reading their book. Patrons primarily took advantage of the computer/Wi-Fi/digital resources that the library offers, as opposed to books or periodicals.

This library fulfills a very important role as a ‘third space,’ somewhere that is not home or work/school where people can congregate and just be. For example, there were many retirees, who came here to spend time outside of their homes. While not apparent from the layout, according to their website there is also a second floor, which houses a space that can be reserved for community events/needs as well as their tech classes.

Library Staff

During my observation I saw four different members of staff working the reference desk. Only one of them was a women. Considering the stereotype of the middle age white female librarian this felt noteworthy. Additionally two of the men were people of color. This felt important because as you look around the library, they have a diverse range of patrons. Having a body of staff that reflects your patron-base allows them to best serve their patrons, and be aware of any special needs or considerations their patrons might have.


This is not a high-tech library that is going to have a maker space or a lot of automated systems. However there are small areas where they could probably integrate more digital services. The addition of a self-checkout station would allow patrons who are just picking up materials, and not asking questions, to quickly get their business done.

There also felt like a need for a more designated child friendly space. Some patrons verbally complained about the strollers left in front of the reference desks. Many also made faces when navigating around them. While space is at a premium in a library of this size, the reading area next to the children’s area could probably be rearranged to have space for the strollers. Then those seats could be moved to another area of the library.

Another option would be to take advantage of the second floor space. Maybe when there aren’t events up there have the space open for children to use. That way there would be space for them to run around or read aloud without disturbing the people working downstairs. However I have not seen that space so I don’t know how difficult that would be or if there is a computer set up that would make that difficult.