Thursday, March 22, 2007

Why do I need to know this stuff, anyway?

Back at the end of February, Michael Stephens was visiting my institution, talking about The Hyperlinked Library. In the middle of a whirlwind presentation, he posed a question that’s been burning my brain for a long while:

Is one of the purposes of a library a place where folks can come in and learn more about the technology in their lives? Do we all need to be knowledgeable about the tech?

Let’s break these out, and reverse them:

Do we all need to be knowledgeable about the tech?
In a word – yes! I discussed all this in a previous post but that’s a bit long and rambling. How about a list:
  • Librarians still have the reputation of knowing everything. This is one of our greatest assets and one we can’t afford to lose. When we can’t answer a question about "the tech," we lose part of that reputation.

  • More of our patrons – and a more diverse grouping of them – are asking us questions about computers and technology. Everything from "How do I apply for a job at Home Depot?" (no paper applications any more) to "What computer should I buy?" to "How do I send photos of my grandkids to my sister?". Nowadays, those questions include blogs, wikis, Wikipedia, Flickr, handheld mobile devices, iPods, digital cameras and more. In order to answer those questions, we need to know even a little about all of it.

  • The days of "you’ll have to ask our computer expert" are over. Technology has permeated our patrons’ lives, in ways too varied to list. Having just one person on the staff who’s "good with technology" limits our ability to serve all of our patrons in the same way that "You’ll have to talk to the Children’s Librarian." does.

  • Also, since the "computer expert" in a smaller building is typically a librarian or library assistant who happens to understand tech, they’ve got plenty of other things to do. Answering basic technology questions should be something all staff in a building can do.

  • Similarly, having this knowledge means that each of us can educate our patrons and help them find information and answers to their queries, both through workshops and in-the-moment training.

  • Speaking of which, much of what we're teaching patrons is how to use our own library’s electronic stuff! Online catalogs, electronic databases, downloadable audio/video, library blogs, social computing-enabled OPACs, instant messaging and web-based chat reference, new book shelves on Shelfari, newsletter RSS feeds and more – we need to understand how to use this stuff before we can expect to teach our patrons how to use it.

That’s quite a list, and I expect to be adding to it over time. The point is, there are now too many compelling reasons why all staff in a library building – not just the one or two more 'tech-savvy' folks – need to understand current technologies.

Okay, question #2:
Is one of the purposes of a library a place where folks can come in and learn more about the technology in their lives?

Again, it seems that the answer should be a resounding YES! because libraries are the keystone to lifelong learning, the cornerstone of a democratic people. People should be able to come here and learn about computers in the same ways that they learn about philosophy or biology or French.

But we don’t (typically) teach philosophy or biology or French in our buildings, other than in special programs and events. So why this focus on teaching technology? Why have many libraries taken on this role with an almost religious fervor?

I'd guess the chain of events started with the switch from card catalogs to OPACs, from the Periodicals room to database terminals, from Date Due cards to heat-printed receipts. The tools that libraries used for some of their primary functions – information retrieval, circulation of materials and cataloging – entered the computer age, and computers entered our libraries. As first computers and now the peripherals (MP3 players, digital cameras, scanners, thumb drives, etc) have spread through our culture, we’ve bought the books and some of the devices and made them available to our patrons. Just this moment, a parent came and asked if we had any educational software for children (PC-based, mind) available for loan. He fully expected it to be here, because other libraries have it to offer.

It only follows that we need to be able to explain how to use the things we offer. When we started carrying LPs and then cassettes, patrons asked us questions about the players and used-vinyl stores. VHS, CD, DVD and now MP3 – if we carry the usable product, we must know something about how to use it. Why would we offer things we couldn’t help patrons to understand and use?

Now, it’s all of the stuff I’ve mentioned earlier in this post, stuff our patrons use to a greater or lesser degree in their lives. And, with offering that stuff, our patrons still expect us to be able to explain it. More importantly, they have “librarian” fixed in their heads as a person who can help them make sense of the ever-increasing whirlwind of information and expected ability to figure things out. We created this expectation, perpetuated it by being able to answer their hardest questions time and again, and now they’re coming to us asking about the Web and email and online forms and so much more.

So, yes. I believe that all of the staff in a library should know something about the technologies that our patrons encounter, at least enough to ask good questions and find out what the patron doesn’t know yet, or get them started with a basic understanding that they can explore further on their own. I’m really not that savvy of a technologist, not compared to my husband the network engineer or my friend the software developer. But as long as I know enough about how email works to find the attachment buried at the end of a forwarded message, or enough about how firewalls work to explain why ours is on the fritz, or enough about online shopping to help a teacher find 24 copies of an out of print book...that’s part of being a good librarian.

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