November 19, 2017

Security, Virtual Reality, and Smaller Maker Spaces Among Top Tech Trends | ALA Annual 2016

Library Information Technology Association (LITA) logoThe discussion at this year’s Library Information Technology Association’s (LITA) Top Technology Trends panel at the American Library Association’s (ALA) annual conference in Orlando, FL spanned topics ranging from online privacy to “superfast application development” on the near horizon.

LITA revamped the session format this year to be more interactive: rather than offering individual trend presentations each panelist quickly summarized one trend they’ve been following, and then participated in discussions sparked by questions from moderator Maurice Coleman, technical trainer, Harford County Public Library, MD, and host of the long-running “T is for Training” podcast, with debates emerging on how long libraries should support old devices, and which tech trends may be overhyped within the library field.

Panelists included Blake Carver, systems administrator for LYRASIS; Lauren Comito, job and business academy manager, Queens Library, NY; Laura Costello, head of research and emerging technologies, Stony Brook University, NY;  Carolyn Coulter, director, PrairieCat Library Consortium, for Reaching Across Illinois Library System (RAILS); and Nick Grove, digital services librarian for Idaho’s Meridian Library District and developer of the library’s unBound technology lab.

Top picks

  • Pointing out that libraries help patrons work with a variety of tech devices and operating systems, Comito said that her top trend was technology instruction that focuses on concepts. “We spend a lot of time teaching people to use Android tablets versus iPads, or Macs versus Windows. And [librarians] jump between different platforms all the time,” Comito said. “I think we should expect that our patrons are going to be doing that, too. We should be teaching underlying concepts so that they can move forward with any device they come across.”
  • Costello discussed how libraries can now offer patrons real-time information about facilities and services. “Is my favorite chair available in the library? Is my liaison librarian on chat? Is the library really busy right now, or is it empty? We should be sharing this information, in real time, with our patrons.”
  • With the recent launch of the Oculus Rift and several virtual reality–capable smartphones, virtual reality (VR) devices have become accessible to consumers. Grove picked VR as his trend, noting that, “it’s really interesting to see how it’s going to play out in libraries” and elsewhere. The technology will likely impact many fields beyond gaming, including healthcare, offering “ways of simulating things that are too expensive to simulate in the real world.” And libraries, even small ones, can now afford to offer patrons access to this technology via smartphone headsets.
  • Coulter described the balance between online privacy, security, and functionality as her top trend. “There are so many security concerns these days with data and with personal information. But we have to balance that against the access that we all want to provide to our patrons,” she said. “Not letting one or the other outweigh the access that we need to provide is our mission.”
  • And “superfast, super-easy application development”—using platforms such as the Amazon Web Services cloud, and tools such as Meteor and React—was Carver’s top trend. “We’re getting to the point where I think [application development] will be point and click and drag things around, and a fairly technically literate person will be able to build really powerful, huge applications…that will be able to do all sorts of really cool things that only big teams of programmers can do right now.”

Privacy and security

The discussion  began by addressing what’s on the horizon for information security.

Carver noted that, for public libraries, there had been a few positive developments recently. The “slow but welcome disappearance of Flash and Java” on the web has helped make public computers more secure, he noted as an example. But new threats are arising, such as ransomware—malware that enables hackers to remotely encrypt the files on a computer, and then demand money for unlocking the files.

“There’s big money in that, and of course, the bad guys…are building really really good tools to do this,” he said.

Reiterating the concepts that she discussed as a top trend, Coulter argued that “libraries need to, again, balance that fear and overreaction in some ways to security concerns. You can get yourself tied up in knots about this stuff. You have to balance it against what’s practical in your own library. If you do the practical things—if you have good backups, you don’t have to pay ransomware. If you are running your patches properly [and are performing other] good solid, everyday IT practices,” libraries will be able to mitigate most threats.

Also, patrons are becoming more aware of online threats, Carver said. “These things are becoming more front-and-center issues, partially because things are getting so bad.” If someone is a victim of ransomware, for example, their friends and family members will hear about it and many will take steps to learn more about security, he noted. And libraries are well positioned to be a resource that can help interested patrons with this increasingly important topic.

By the same token, Coulter said that libraries need to ensure that their own staff follow good security habits internally, and eliminate bad practices such as common logins.

“There’s a lot of people out there that don’t understand these things, and it’s our responsibility [as IT staff or technology experts] to educate our administration as well as our patrons,” she said.

An institution’s “security is only as strong as that one employee that doesn’t know not to click” a malicious link or file, Comito added.

Coleman agreed, noting that “common sense isn’t so common. Someone is going to click that [malicious] link. As frontline staff and system administrators, we all are responsible for training our users, whoever they are.”

On a related note, panelists later discussed the challenges and the necessity of providing continued support for older devices, operating systems, and applications used by patrons.

“There’s got to be a cutoff somewhere,” Carver said. “I’m not in a position to make this decision for a library anymore, but I would cut it off really fast, especially with [security problem–prone applications such as] Internet Explorer, Flash, and Java.”

Continuing support for older equipment can also slow projects like website development, Coulter noted.

“How long do you have to limp along with old screen resolution?” she said. “There has to be a tipping point where you say we’ve moved on to what’s popularly accepted as modern technology. And you can get that from looking at your [website] analytics.”

Comito countered that many patrons may not have the money to upgrade their personal computers or phones, and that if a library discontinues support for older devices, those patrons may no longer be able to access a library’s services offsite.

Makerspace trends

The Maker space trend has continued to grow, and Grove noted that smaller libraries—possibly encouraged by successful projects they’ve seen at larger institutions—have begun developing projects of their own.

“It’s not as scary for that one-person library that serves a town of 400” to develop a hands-on workspace for its community. However, Grove emphasized, the Maker movement is not defined by trendy equipment. “Just because you have a 3-D printer doesn’t mean you have a Maker space, and you can have a Maker space without having a 3-D printer…. It’s about making Makers, not spaces…[and] focusing on having a dedicated space is not as important.”

Costello said that Maker spaces and other types of hands-on workspaces have been evolving in academia as well. “Spaces that support different types of learning, whether they are Maker spaces or different, more active learning spaces in libraries have been a huge trend—anything from a learning commons to something like a learning theater space…. I think we also, in academic libraries, see different groups of users using Maker spaces…differently.” 3-D printers, for example, are used for different purposes by students and researchers in the health sciences, architecture, or business departments.

Unfortunately, many library systems provide uneven access to these hands-on tools and programs, Comito noted. “I think we need to start thinking about where we are putting them,” she said. “Are you putting them in the shiny central library, or are you going out into neighborhoods and making sure everyone has access to a Maker space, even if they each need to be a bit smaller to accommodate that?”

Not so hot

The panel rounded out the session by discussing what they considered to be overstated trends.

Yik Yak. Never go on it,” Costello said, drawing laughs from the large audience. “Don’t read what [students] are saying about your library on it. It’s just going to make you cry.” The anonymous, location-based commenting site is often used by students as a “slam book” for harsh criticism.

On a more serious note, Grove said that he believes the Internet of Things is still a few years away from living up to the potential that manufacturers and vendors are already hyping. “Long term, I think it has a lot of applications, and it could be a really big thing. But short term, let’s say three years, [for the] mainstream? I don’t see Internet of Things being as big as it has been proclaimed to be over the last few years.”

Coleman agreed, and added that a lot of these new Internet connected smart devices that manufacturers have been creating have security flaws, and can leak personal data both to manufacturers and potentially to malicious third parties.

And Carver encouraged the audience to take a look at shodan.io “if you want to see what a horrible nightmare the Internet of Things [is for privacy]…. It’s a horrible security afterthought at this point. I’m hoping that Nick [Grove] is right and it will be a few years before these things really take off” and some of the security issues will be addressed during that interval.

Referencing an alarming WIRED article from last summer, Coulter pointed out “I bet a great many of us in this room are driving cars that are hackable.”

Matt Enis About Matt Enis

Matt Enis (menis@mediasourceinc.com; @matthewenis on Twitter) is Senior Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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