One of my students was telling me about her public library job: “It just breaks my heart some days…. There is such a disconnect between the technologies our management wants us to explore and implement and what our patrons need and want. Our patrons are the city’s most vulnerable citizens.” She went on to describe requests for fine forgiveness because of an eviction with library books locked inside the apartment.
Her question came down to this: When people are asking for help so their basic needs can be met, how do we balance that with emerging technologies?
This incongruous situation is not specific to public libraries. It might be the academic librarian who recognizes the tension between a pricey new discovery tool for access vs. student hunger as a documented issue on campus. Or the school librarian who must decide if it is better to buy books or technology for her underfunded space.
MAKING THE CONNECTION
Using and offering access to technology —new and old—are part of what we do. This is literacy just like reading is. I can understand the disconnect and mixed signals, but those same people need to learn about digital literacy just as much as they need other services. Library staff on the front lines see all types of people, and those who are vulnerable need literacy help just as badly as other patrons.
Maybe emerging is the word that’s tripping us up—3-D printing isn’t emerging, it’s here. Digital skill sets are the norm, not the cutting edge. Knowledge of computing environments, social networking, and ever-evolving gadgetry has the potential to help someone every step of the way in their lives. Consider the needs of a person joining the workforce: a job, an apartment, perhaps a degree. To get those will require finding and filling out online forms. The job might demand more skills to advance. Parents will have to understand certain basic digital skills to help their children with schoolwork. Regardless, these people must understand the basics to live in today’s connected and hyperlinked world.
Services to the vulnerable and technology offerings are not polar opposites. Librarians have to stop seeing it that way. These are all points on a continuum, and without technological skills, some folks will fall right back into the world out of which they’re desperately trying to pull themselves. Technology is not some future we have the option of ignoring—it is the present. It’s the world in which we live. There will always be people who need to be directed to housing resources, but those are not the majority of our users. Pew’s 2015 “Libraries at the Crossroads” study found that a majority of individuals believe that library services should include learning opportunities related to computers, smartphones, 3-D printers, and apps as well as the more general “help people upgrade their skills.”
As we seek equilibrium in our offerings, a few thoughts come to mind. First, library higher ups should empower staff to waive fines as they see fit, if not do away with fines altogether.
Second, seek partnerships that can extend the reach of the institution. Colorado’s Anythink Libraries recently announced the One Kind Word Project, taking a creative slant to sharing and caring. This weeklong initiative invites community members to write notes of kindness to strangers that will be distributed nationwide via various service organizations, including local food banks, Meals on Wheels, and more.
Finally, we should consider our users through a lens of compassion and empathy. What would make their lives easier? At Exploring Kindness, a blog written by New Zealanders Joanne Barnes and Cath Sheard designed to explore implementing kindness in the library, Barnes writes, “What can we do to be kind to women using our libraries?” The solution: in her academic library, student parents are allowed to bring their children because child care is a barrier to studying and financial resources oftentimes don’t stretch to having a computer or Wi-Fi at home. As you find your way forward, remember technology, emerging or otherwise, is no longer an add-on if it helps people where they live and learn. It’s a necessity.