Horse tales and suspension bridge design
Julia, one of my students, was working on a study of the analysis of suspension bridges. She referred to the classic text, D.B. Steinman’s A Practical Treatise on Suspension Bridges: Their Design, Construction and Erection (Wiley and Sons, 1929). This old but great reference develops analytical procedures based on the deflection theory and provides pages of charts and graphs for practical design. At least it was practical by 1929 standards, when civil engineers were analyzing and designing modern suspension bridges without benefit of computers.
The book’s basic approach is to painstakingly develop pages and pages of analytic theory, and then to present the results in somewhat more digestible graphs and tables that can conveniently be applied via slide rule. It is amazing to think that engineers once could design a suspension bridge without computerized analysis and data management tools, but they did, and the book illustrates how.
The book was not available from our university library, but we were able to find a loaner in Worcester. Julia worked on her analysis for several weeks using the borrowed book. Unfortunately, Julia still needed the book when it was due to be returned. To check the book out again, it first had to be returned. The good news was that there wasn’t a huge demand for 1929 books on suspension bridge deflection theory analysis. The bad news was that this was the only copy of the book we could find. If it had to be shipped back to Worcester, checked in, checked out and then shipped back again, Julia would be book-less for at least a week.
Julia was not ready to part with the text. But the overdue fees were starting to pile up, not at a level comparable to her graduate student fees, but still of concern. Being good engineers, we decided to design Plan B. What if we could Google a copy of the text and purchase it? The book had been out of print for decades, but maybe there were some copies floating around in the “electronosphere.”
A horse, of course
It was not exactly what we had in mind.
The next five eBay hits didn’t help, either. We thought about the implications of this new relationship between horses and suspension bridge design. eBay, through some algorithm, had evaluated millions of references and focused on the term “practical treatise.” Through this tenuous connection, the computer decided that this was what we were looking for. Algorithms used by the other search engines apparently were more discriminating. Amazon and other search sites correctly realized that they didn’t have what we were looking for, and they avoided the distraction of listing marginal or false matches.
However, the newly identified equine-suspension bridge relationship has some implications for both infrastructure design and engineering analysis. The item that we searched for was a printed book, but in the age of electronic everything, what is to become of printed books? Students have gotten used to research via the web. In the past, the gold standard for generic research was the Encyclopedia Britannica. Nowadays, students are very familiar with the web-based Wikipedia, the informal, democratic online encyclopedia. The idea that you have to physically go someplace to find information is becoming passé. Tufts students have access, via the library, to electronic journals from their laptops. With wireless, they can study and research anywhere, and they do. So there’s less motivation for going to the library. This becomes a challenge for figuring out what to do with the physical library space.
Many libraries have addressed this challenge by rethinking what the space should be. They have added cafés, computer rooms, media rooms and all sorts of peripheral spaces. None of these rooms or uses fits the old library definition of volumes on shelves, with Dewey Decimal card catalogues and librarians patrolling the stacks and shushing the talkers. The old draw of a library as the source for all information is being supplanted by the diffusion of that information. So it’s not clear what a library will be needed for in the future. If a central storage space for books is no longer required because you can simply Google the information, it’s not clear that you need a space for cafés, reading rooms and the like.
The elegant and painstakingly developed charts in Steinman’s book likewise seem to be an anachronism. Today numbers are easily managed by MathCad. Number crunching that used to take months can be completed in minutes. Whatever you don’t know is a Wikipedia click away.
Likewise for the library. While the web makes analysis and data management possible in diffuse settings, perhaps the old central function of a library should not be so easily discarded. This is because human beings are ultimately social animals who analyze and solve problems best in collaboration, not individually. Maybe the in the future, the common space will be provided by Starbucks. But it’s probably better for libraries to be the place to go when it’s time to think and collaborate, even if you are no longer compelled to visit for the books.
When it was time to return the text to Worcester, Julia received some good news: A second New England-based copy of Steinman’s book had been found in Rhode Island. So there was no downtime in her studies of the deflection theory, and at least for now, we had no further need to consider the implications of horse management.
Brian Brenner is a professor of the practice in civil and environmental engineering in Tufts School of Engineering. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.