Librarianship has lost its focus—our professional concern for people has been eclipsed by a preoccupation with collections and technology. This is understandable. Historically, libraries have been centered on bringing the world to our members through our collections. This problem of access was important to help solve, meeting a vital societal need. Likewise, our focus on information technologies and the web is natural, too. Throughout the years, these tools have presented some outstanding challenges, though generally they have aided tremendously in our mission to expand access to accumulated cultural knowledge and output. But our fixation on collections and technology is no longer serving us—nor our members.
Let’s take a closer look at our attention to the web. Web technologies are tools, but we’ve been concerned with them as ends in themselves. “We need a responsive library site!” excited web librarians might say. What they mean is that the library needs to deliver information in a convenient way. “The library would benefit from a vibrant Facebook profile,” another librarian might say. This is probably true but only because having a vibrant Facebook profile can create conversation and community connections [for more on this kind of engagement, see “Social Media: Libraries Are Posting, but Is Anyone Listening?”].
Take a look at the debate on what to call the people who come into our institutions—patrons, customers, users, members, etc. I would argue that the rise of the ugly word user in our profession and others is, at least in part, tied to this shift in focus away from people and onto the tools they use, as if their tools define them.
Finally, our spotlight on tools can also be found in the titles of conference sessions and articles. Oftentimes, the technology functions as the subject, while the outcome—if it’s there at all—is the predicate. Our communities, again, if present at all, are unspoken direct objects. Here’s what I mean:
- Augmented Reality & Next Gen Libraries
- Top Technology Trends
- Gamifying Your Library
- 25 Mobile Apps for Librarians
- Circulating iPads
This is a subtle but meaningful difference. Focusing on the technologies rather than the outcomes changes the way we talk about these topics and the way we learn about them. When we aim for the outcomes, we’re more likely to think deeply about the problems we’re trying to solve and consider multiple strategies that speed us to our goals.
Let me be clear: I’m not downplaying the importance of technology in libraries or setting up a false dichotomy. As a profession, librarianship has developed many mechanisms to learn about technology and the web. This is important, and we need to keep learning about the broader world of resources that can help us efficiently deliver our services. But let’s shift our collective eye to learning about people first, so everything we know about technology can be put in service of supporting meaningful goals.
Shift the focus
Our collective focus on technology also prevents technology from being as deeply integrated into our libraries as it should be. When we fetishize technology, we can only look at it shallowly. When we depend on emerging technology librarians to be the ambassadors for relevant technologies, we take the rest of the organization off the hook.
In fact, if we put the emphasis on people, library technology will become even more important. Currently, it is all too easy to implement tech solutions halfheartedly, check the box that the project is complete, and more or less be done with it. Think of our websites, catalogs, and self-check machines. There’s plenty of room to improve these things, but since we can check the box of “yes, we have those” we don’t strive to do better. In the future, when we emphasize peoples’ needs and their ideal use of libraries, we’ll spend a lot of time ensuring our technology is useful, usable, and desirable. “What sort of checkout experience are we providing members?” is a much bigger and important question than “Are our self-check machines working?”
Once we shift our focus the right way, we can encourage larger efforts. For instance, in addition to the Library Information Technology Association, we need the Library & Community Knowledge Association. In addition to the conference Computers in Libraries we need the conference People in Libraries. A complement to the American Library Association’s (ALA) TechSource? You guessed it: ALA PeopleSource. When we focus on people, we can acknowledge that technology is an important but subservient tool that helps libraries meet the needs of their communities.