Technology and Libraries: Salvation or a Tool?

First, it is very important for me to acknowledge that I am NOT against the use of technology in libraries. I think we can all agree there are massive technological advances on the horizon which will greatly impact the future of libraries (and maybe even be the impetus for redefining the role of libraries in communities and how/what services we provide the public).  We are just beginning to see the tip of the technological iceberg which is coming our way.

As I have been attending conferences, or reviewing conference programs, I am seeing a lot of presentations around change within libraries – specifically and almost exclusively focusing on technology.  Some of these discussions are being framed – that technologies are or will make us more relevant to our communities. (For example I recently saw a presentation titled: “The Future of Libraries” –  New customer expectations are being driven by the new ecology of the web and big players like Facebook, Bing, Hulu,YouTube, Amazon, Google, and more.  Is your library ready?).  So, is this the future for libraries – or should technology be viewed as one of many different tools which will ensure our relevance to some of our community members?

On that point, I recently saw John Teskey, the President of CLA, speak at a conference.   It was interesting to note that he said that technology which has been implemented in libraries has not necessarily made libraries easier to use by members of the public.

This really struck a chord and I am not thoroughly convinced the future of libraries, and the relevance of libraries to our local communities, rests solely on the technological products which we put into library spaces.   I do not think that technology in and of itself will make us more relevant to our communities.

Where is this coming from?

Technology as a solution to problems cuts across various industries and organizations.  For instance, as discussed in the NY Times, the recent oil disaster in Gulf of Mexico, demonstrates the deliberate and hidden consequences of technological innovation.  While technology was viewed as providing the solution to oil shortages and US national oil independence, it also provided as mechanism for the disaster to unfold.  People tend to look for solutions to problems through the use of technology.

Parallels can also be found in the food industry, where Genetically Modified Foods [modified via technology] are marketed as the solution to a worldwide food shortage, although there is already enough food in the world and food shortages are actually caused by distribution and policy decisions.

Putting this back in a Library Context – The Impact of Social Inclusion and Exclusion

As we all know, one of the primary perceptions members of the public have about libraries is books.  We, as librarians, can contest that libraries are much more than a depository of books (it also includes computers, varying collections beyond books (DVDs), spaces for community engagement, etc.).   However, the perception of the library as being a place where people go to get books, while comforting for those with the literacy skills to access collections, is scary to others.

At the beginning of the Working Together project, we tried to understand  how people gain access to information.   As we discovered, people who are socially included tended to:

  • have a broad range of social networks (friends, professional connections, family) which they would tap into regularly to discover information, and
  • have access to, use multiple sources and resources, and feel confident to draw upon these resources when making decisions (e.g. library, personally owned or public technology, other organizations, and skills to use technology).

For them, accessing information via books and new technologies is normal behaviour.  However, this dramatically differs for socially excluded (or underserved) community members – who primarily use other resources for decision making including:

  • personal experiences, or the experiences of a close friend,
  • asking a close friend or someone they trust for information.

In addition,

  • their social life is more restricted and they may have fewer locations where they will seek information in public,
  • they are less likely to have technology at home (because of cost) or will have older technology which has been passed down,  and
  • they are less likely to be as ‘proficient’ using technology because they have not had the opportunities to learn them.

Technology as a Tool – Amongst many different tools

I believe that if librarians (all librarians not just those ‘working in community’) spent as much time thinking about working with and engaging our communities as we focus on technologies, libraries will be more likely to become community spaces which are (or will become viewed as) inclusive to all community members. Technology needs to be viewed as one tool, amongst many different tools, that (some) people currently feel comfortable using to retrieve information.

As we found  through the Working Together project people are much more likely to come to the library, and continue returning, if they have developed relationships with others (e.g. other members of the community, library staff etc.).  People are much more likely to return to the library if you introduce them to other people, than if staff introduce people to a book – or a new method for accessing information.  Once these relationships are built, librarians will be strategically placed to fill a gap which currently exists in Canadians communities.  Librarians as experts in the use of technology can help to develop community capacity using these tools – once relationships with non-library users and those afraid of using these tools are developed.

However, we should not view technology as a panacea for engaging with community – or making us more relevant to community – outside of those we (or the technology) are already relevant to.  Buying and building the technological infrastructure in and of itself will most likely only make us more relevant to individuals who are already comfortable with using the tools and make us more inaccessible to others.

If we position ourselves by developing new skill sets and repositioning ourselves in the community to discover and respond to information needs – and if the community identifies technology as a response – we will definitely be well positioned.

Additional Thoughts:

So, some important questions that we need to ask ourselves when investing in technology in libraries in the future may include:

  • While we are aware of the digital divide, and regularly talk about the concept in library school – how are libraries responded to those impacted by the divide? (e.g. Are we taking the technologies we have into the community? How are we determining how to make the technology accessible to people who not only fear technology, but also fear the concept of entering a library?)
  • Have we adjusted our approaches to teaching technology, making it more accessible etc.?
  • How is technology presented as an inclusive tool – especially when the same people you are talking to may be intimidated by libraries since they do not know how to read/write?
  • Are we building relationships with people, and based on those relationships able to determine information needs and determine role of technology in addressing those needs – or are technological purchases based on technological trends?
  • And, if Pateman (2004) is right, that ~30% of the public are actively using library services, what portion of those users are tech savvy?  What about current library users who are leery of technology?

~ Ken

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Filed under community development, public libraries, technology

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