I am now a member of the Institute for Advanced Study and I had my first tour of the place on Friday. It resembles nothing so much as a cloister designed to facilitate scholarship. The campus is isolated from Princeton University and all shopping — even food and coffee, while within reach, are rather limited. (I've brought my own coffee delivery system.) The whole institute is compact but has plenty of room for walks to stimulate thinking and conversation.
The administrative staff bends over backwards to ensure that scholars have the material support we need. I am impressed at the range of equipment that is available and the speed at which what isn't gets delivered. I requested a second computer monitor and it came within the day; I asked for help setting up a proper standing workstation and by day's end had a visit from someone who knew all the options — although he said it was the first such request he'd ever heard of — and arranged for adjustment of the furniture and delivery. This goes well beyond anything I've ever experienced in an academic setting before. Money is available to buy equipment and pay the staff to administer it, but more than that, the Institute is willing to spend it the money and deploy the staff for my comfort, and to do so on almost no notice.
In the library, too, it's clear that someone has gone to trouble to make sure that there are scanners, capable of batch work or oversize imaging, and a range of other mechanical tools to aid research. But I was surprised to see that the system for checking out books is still manual. The borrower fills out two cards for each book. One is filed under his own name and the other by call number. Since the catalog is already set up as a modern database, someone could write a program to track books and users in a couple of hours, as if one did not already exist. Why has the Institute not moved to do so? A puzzle.
Perhaps it is because the need is not pressing — there seem to be no more than a couple of hundred users at any time — and because retaining the cards, with the signatures of previous borrowers on them for anyone to see, allows a pleasant old tradition to survive. It's pleasant for me, anyway. I realize that most library users today may never have encountered this, but I used to take great pleasure in seeing the names of people who had borrowed a book before me, especially when it was decades earlier or the borrower was someone well known.
I see the use of cards as another sign of care for the study environment.