It comes as no secret to anyone in the library world that libraries today are in a state of flux, forced by the needs and desires of our patrons to move away from the traditional concept of the library as keeper-of-books to something more. Far from the Doomsday cries of some in the field who proclaim that the library is a dying entity, I reside firmly in the camp that says, if anything, libraries and librarians are needed even more today. Yes, we need to reconceptualize the library, but that’s just a matter of recognizing how libraries and library services need to evolve to meet the needs of patrons today.
Arguably, even as technology transforms patrons’ lives, their needs remain ultimately the same: they need to locate certain materials; they need to answer a research question; they seek recommendations on the best resources to fit their needs. The only difference today is perhaps the format: the materials they want to locate might be housed in a database rather than on a bookshelf; their research questions might be best answered using electronic resources rather than print; and these days more than ever, librarians are called to help patrons find the best [often electronic] resources to address patrons’ needs. Information illiteracy, ironically, seems to increase as the amount of information available increases.*
While the needs of patrons may not have changed, the resources we use to answer their questions, we can see, have changed (although I am also not in the camp that believes print will entirely die out; books are still important and in many cases much easier to use for research than print databases). But it’s no secret that technology demands have (and will continue to) changed in libraries. Beyond the basics such as internet access and database subscriptions to facilitate research, libraries are finding more and more ways to evolve their services, such as creating library apps, offering chat reference, and maintaining a library blog. Indeed the knowledge that libraries need to keep up with technology has been embraced so voraciously in some respects that we might be seeing circumstances where libraries are embracing a technology just because it’s there, skipping the ever-important step of assessing how that technology will enhance their services.
I’ve written about this concept previously in terms of social media use and neglect, but in this post we’ll look more generally at technology in libraries. As an example, we have recently installed a touch-screen only computer for quick access to our online catalog. The machine is slick, and operates like a very large tablet. But its on-screen keyboard is quite small and cannot be enlarged, some unaccustomed to smart screens had difficulty using it at first, and shortly after installation the question came up as to why there couldn’t be a physical keyboard. The answer to that immediate question might simply be that the machine is not built to have a physical keyboard, but to me this actually posed the greater question of whether this was a useful addition to the library, or simply flash-and-bang. The answer, I think, is – it depends.
First, I think it depends on who’s using the machine. There are many patrons these days who are so accustomed to their smart devices that a large touch-screen monitor might be a welcome addition to the library. There are others who will find it difficult to get used to. Second, it depends on how it’s used. If we were replacing all of our computers with these smart screens, I would be concerned; but this is a dedicated terminal for accessing the catalog only; it is meant to be a quick stop on your way to finding a resource, and I think the touch screen nature of this machine fits that purpose well. Finally, I think it depends on how often it gets used. Sometimes with new technologies, you just have to dive in and try it out to see whether it will take hold. Technology use anywhere is an experiment at first, so I think time will tell better than any other assessment whether this particular use of technology in libraries is a success.
Yes indeed, the evolution of libraries is a true evolution – it’s survival of the fittest: the libraries that survive will be those who can look at traditional library services at their most basic level and match the appropriate technologies to these services to adapt our methods of meeting patrons’ needs in a digital-run world. Some tech attempts will succeed and some will fail, but it’s those who refuse to adapt who will ultimately perish.
* The image used in this post is from a Publisher’s Weekly blog post from 2011.