February 16, 2018

Technology for Technology’s Sake… Not So Much | Not Dead Yet

I actively loved library technology from about 1985 to, oh, around 2001, during which time I jumped on every techno-bandwagon there was. Library databases, OPACs, desktop computers—I loved ‘em all. Indiscriminately. Because back then the technologies that were being developed helped me a lot, so I didn’t have to discriminate among them. They all located and stored and printed things for me, they were (relatively) easy to use, they were (pretty) reliable. The learning curve involved was about a 5- to 15-degree angle. During that era, you did not have to be a programmer to use really good technology—sure, it helped to have a computer professional friend for when you wanted to install a router, but you didn’t have to be a programmer yourself to use most technologies you were likely to encounter.

Nowadays I’m falling out of love with technology. Some of it, anyway. See, I believed it when they said that computers would all be plug-and-play in the near future. Still hasn’t happened. In fact, some tasks involved in getting new hardware and software up and running are harder than they used to be. I believed it when they said “end users” could search for themselves just as well as we librarians searched for them. Does anyone believe this today? Especially the end users themselves? I believed it was all going to be magic; when J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series became so popular I figured it was because in Harry’s world, everything was magic, and it was what I (and all those other readers) longed for in our lives, at work, and at home. Maybe I just haven’t found the right wand yet, but I don’t see library technology improving anywhere near the rate at which it developed in the golden era referenced above. And it sure as heck isn’t working like the magic at Hogwarts.

It seems like many technologies are breaking now. I admit that link resolvers figure largely in my mind in this respect. When I first encountered the link resolver in our catalog, I sank to the ground and sang Hallelujah! (metaphorically). It was magic. Real magic. Now…not so much. Now the catalog may come up with a result, or it may come up with multiple results, and they may be right, or…not. It may simply confuse the heck out of you and the patron you’re working with.

I also admit that once I’ve mastered a new technology, I’d like to be able to work with it for a bit before it changes so much I have to relearn how to use it in a major way. If critics want to say that I’m averse to change because of this, I’ll respond that major change in a technology every one to three years is something I’m used to working with. Major change every six months…not so much.

But what is irking me most is the sneaking suspicion that some of the technological change that’s being wrought upon us is a combination of conspicuous consumption and divergent series theory. I’m already a generation behind on my iPad, and I refuse to add the cost of a smartphone web service to my wireless and broadband bill, although I realize this makes me a bad (technological) 21st-century citizen. And this drive to buy the next new thing seems to go on into infinity, no matter how satisfied I am with any single state of technological presence I attain. On a larger scale, we see libraries install expensive technologies not necessarily because they’re needed, but because they’re “neat.” Of course, if a library has so much money that it’s feasible to spend thousands of dollars on spec because somebody saw a technology they thought was “neat,” that’s fine. Anyone know of such a library?

Now about the “us” versus “them” thing and technology: I don’t believe that the library generations diverge on this subject. I think there are people of all ages who feel the need to acquire the latest gizmo as it comes out, that they were like this as teens, and that they will continue to be like this into their dotage. Just as I believe there are others across the generations for whom having little or no technology is a badge of honor, a way of life they treasure and will not forsake, even to text and Tweet. I also think there are those of us who want to use technology to do what it’s good at, and not use it just because we can (shades of Jurassic Park here).

What does concern me about the role technology can play in libraries is the sense of exclusionariness (I think I just made that word up) that pervades some heavily-technological circles. In the spirit of shamelessly pandering to that exclusionarity (another just made up word), I offer this QR code to convey, to those with smartphones, the secret of the day:

BTW: I had to ask friends with smartphones to check the code for me—I couldn’t do it!

BTW2: Let me add that some new library-related technology is giving me hope for the future: I’ve just reviewed the new version of JSTOR and Oxford Universiy Press’ new Oxford Scholarly Editions Online, and loved ‘em both! Look for my full reviews of these in the November 1st and November 15th issues of Library Journal.

Read eReviews, where Cheryl LaGuardia and Bonnie Swoger look under the hood of the latest library databases and often offer free database trials

Cheryl LaGuardia About Cheryl LaGuardia

Cheryl LaGuardia always wanted to be a librarian, and has been one for more years than she's going to admit. She cracked open her first CPU to install a CD-ROM card in the mid-1980s, pioneered e-resource reviewing for Library Journal in the early '90s (picture calico bonnets and prairie schooners on the web...), won the Louis Shores / Oryx Press Award for Professional Reviewing, and has been working for truth, justice, and better electronic library resources ever since. Reach her at claguard@fas.harvard.edu, where she's a Research Librarian at Harvard University.

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  1. get quickmark, http://quickmark.com.tw/En/basic/index.asp and you can use your pc’s webcam to scan QR codes from print or open the program and scan a QR code on your screen and even make them… and it’s free.

  2. I think what differs among generations is what combinations they use, at least for personal use. The Gen Y and Millenials may have the newest ipad and/or “loaded” smartphones, but they don’t have a landline or cable TV. Part of this is economics, but it’s also a question of what “works” for them. If your technology matches your needs and interests, so much the better for you, Cheryl.

    Me, I am wondering if people are spending more time “synching” and setting things up than they are actually using content.

    • Hi Joneser,
      Now I’m really wondering just where I fit in. I’ve got an iPad but just a regular ole’ cell phone (don’t want to pay for the web service on a smart phone), no longer have a landline, and got rid of all cable except the most basic. For me it’s definitely a matter of economics AND what works for me — I was at a conference this past week during which I had oodles of cable access in my room and found nothing on TV I wanted to watch. It was all drek! Your point about the time spent setting things up resonates strongly with me, since I love technology that I buy and start using immediately, and don’t spend significant portions of my life synching or reconfiguring, etc.
      Having technology that matches one’s needs and interest definitely sounds like the way to go, if one can continue to do so (and not have to engage in needless conspicuous consumption).
      Thanks for writing!

  3. Lets do this:

    Public Libraries offer the world of content and search ad free. They pay out on a second by second privacy protected basis. The cost of a second of attention is (GDP/(national seconds of waking attention)).

    Right now we have a sponsored (censored) society, this could solve the problem and give us a society for sake of society instead of a society for the sake of business. We are learning the hard way that sponsorship and democracy are ultimately incompatible, lets cut to the solution.

    • Hi RWB,
      Mostly I’d like to go back to free TV with shows you’d actually want to watch…. But your point about public libraries and the enormous benefit they give to society is well taken — public libraries give me hope for the future!
      Thanks for writing,