I’m sure there are people who think that technology is the be-all-end-all and that every bleeding-edge technology should be implemented in libraries. But I don’t happen to know any of those people. The “tech-savvy” librarians I know are interested in better meeting the needs of their patrons with technology. Apparently, Chuck has met a whole different group of librarians or he wishes to see the library world as a “them-versus-us” paradigm. Here’s my quick answer to Chuck’s rant, entitled Primitivist OR Luddite AND Librarian.
You have to be an innovator or you are a dinosaur. Libraries that aren’t playing with the latest tech are backward centers of uncoolness.
I agree wholeheartedly that in the library world you have to be an innovator or you are a dinosaur. But I don’t think that just applies to technology. It’s also about improving programming for children, teens, and adults. It’s about reevaluating the library’s print collection in terms of how it is meeting the needs of the entire community (and not just white, middle-aged, wealthy folks). It’s about finding new and better ways of teaching information literacy that respect the fact that not everyone learns in the same way. Technology can help with that, but it isn’t the only solution. And I’ve never heard anyone argue that it is.
The catalyst for today’s rant are a few items on “innovation in libraries” that Jessamyn posted on her blog, Librarian.net. These conversations usually entail talking about how libraries are resistant to technological change, usually with the blame being placed on librarians who aren’t “tech savvy.”
I guess he means George’s post and my post, which weren’t critical of librarians for not being tech-savvy, but for not keeping up with their patrons. Many un-innovative public libraries I’ve been to are disinterested in reaching out to hard-to-reach groups (like teens, minorities, Spanish-speakers) with programming and marketing. They’re perfectly happy serving the limited population who visit the library and don’t want to think about why other members of the community are not visiting the library. Lack of technological innovation is only one (important) sign of a lack of interest in library innovation.
Do you want to talk about innovation in libraries, especially public libraries? How about this innovation: chuck all of the tech crap, fire the webmasters, settle on the current version of the OPAC software and get back to providing books and printed materials to readers.
How are users to find the print materials they are looking for these days without a good, usable OPAC? Wouldn’t it be great for users to get lists of books at their library on subjects they’re interested in from their RSS reader? Many of these technologies are designed to make it easier to find books. How many people leave libraries empty-handed because they’re looking for something interesting to read and can’t find that just browsing the shelves?
My philosophy about library services is simple: give the patrons what they want. If that’s technology, great! If it isn’t, that’s fine too. But I think people like Chuck think they know better than their patrons. They think they should give patrons what they think the patrons should want rather than what the patrons actually want. Librarians should never think that they know better or that a one-size-fits-all approach works at all libraries. We need to know our service population, understand their needs and wants, and constantly reevaluate what we are providing to them.
I definately never been part of the “give them what they want” crowd. In my view, this is one of the most odious memes to infect libraries in the past 25 years. This doesn’t mean that I’m an elitist or think I know better than my patrons (I don’t have any patrons). Giving people what they want has turned into “let’s put hundreds of copies on Harry Potter” on the shelves. Patrons may want to read Harry Potter, but public libraries shouldn’t be in the business of subsidizing the mainstream publishing industry. A smart librarian makes a few extra copies available of Harry Potter, but also understands that if people have to read the book immediately then they can go buy it. Money spent on “giving patrons what they want” has turned into pandering to patron’s needs for immediate gratification, at the expense fo the rest of the collection. What if most of your patrons “really want” books that aren’t on the shelves because your system bought 200 copies of Harry Potter? The books aren’t there to be discovered by your patrons. The “give them what they want” ideology also leads to a narrowing of our culture. Just look at what happened to publisher mid-lists when the corporate bookstore chains became popular. Look what happened to all of those indie bookstores which had great selections and knowledgeable staff. Public libraries have turned into Barnes and Noble. They suck.
“Many un-innovative public libraries I’ve been to are disinterested in reaching out to hard-to-reach groups (like teens, minorities, Spanish-speakers) with programming and marketing.”
This has nothing to do with innovation. These public libraries simply aren’t doing the things they should be doing. Innovation is a fetish with newness and uniqueness. You are complaining about libraries which aren’t doing the basics.
All this yammering about tech-savvy versus primitivism, “give em what they want” vs “give em what they need” and so on, presumes a standard purpose for libraries in society. Chuck implies this purpose is “providing books and printed materials to readers” while Meredith seems to imply a more broad strategy of information technology (and books are an information technology — just read Harold Innis’s The Bias of Communication).
I’d like to challenge the presumption that libraries have a standard purpose. If you look at Canada (where I’m from), public libraries are a provincial responsibility and fall under a variety of departments from province to province. In Nova Scotia, it’s focus is education; in Alberta, it’s community services; in Ontario and Quebec, it’s culture. At the federal level, the library falls under a Department of Heritage.
In other words, the assumption that public libraries have a unified purpose in society is false. They are instruments — services that should do whatever it is that their governing institutions tell them to do, or they lose their funding. Their magic tool is organized information. Information is not a product, but a currency and Libraries hold no standard mandate from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. If the library is member-driven, it better do what the members want it to do. If it is privately funded, it better suit the funding criteria for the relevant institutions. If the institution says circ stats matter, then libraries should increase circ stats. Why? Because (right now) policy makers are more likely to see the problem that libraries are able to solve.
So, the issue is less a problem of “to tech or not to tech,” and more about whether powerful institutions (not just multinationals, but NGOs, governments, lobby groups) will trust the library profession with society’s most important socio-economic issues: the free (or not so free) access to information, education, and public assembly. Society’s education, which is directly related to productivity levels and, let’s face it, human happiness are some of the big issues that, quite frankly, might be better served by some other institution if public librarians don’t start to show some leadership in the world.
I’ve definitely heard librarians say things like “it’s all about the technology” and I’ve also heard librarians go on about how crazy all this technophilia is while they sit at a desk bored waiting for a student to get up off their computer and ask them a question. I say both of these librarians are not where it’s at. But these folk are so few and far between that if you want to take them on, you might as well build a scarecrow in your back yard and argue with that. These librarians are made of straw, as are both of your arguments.
True service leadership in libraries requires an understanding of community behavior, lifestyles and norms and the ability to find solutions that increase 1) knowledge 2) happiness or 3) the opportunity for equality.
This is not being user-focussed or “giving them what they want.” Nor is it about being society’s mom or dad. It’s about providing innovative solutions to real human problems using whatever model works.
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