May 24, 2018

Adopt or Adapt? | Office Hours

michael-stephens_new“I already feel behind. I’m not an early adopter and do not want to be. Is there a place for those not drawn to the newest and shiniest tech?” read an email from an LIS student expressing concern about finding her way through the discussions and applications of emerging technologies in the field. There is a place for you, I replied, but it requires shifting perspective a bit and looking beyond technology.

Environmental Scan

LIS has become a technology-driven field. Information technology is impacting every industry right now, and libraries are no different. This is not going to change—you can’t escape it—as evidenced by current user research from Pew Internet and Technology or Horizon Reports. Note also the influx of job descriptions for emerging tech librarians, UX (user experience) specialists, innovation catalysts, and others who guide technology-focused projects and departments in information institutions.

LIS education has responded with updated and evolving technology curricula because there is demand for grads who know their way around a web server, a stylesheet, or a Drupal installation. There’s also a demand from students to get a marketable and current degree (and skills). Other classes in LIS programs emphasize the importance of human interaction and information exchange (no matter what the channel) as part of technology coursework. I teach in that vein and am drawn to the writers and thinkers who make connections between hard tech and soft skills.

Emerging technology is a continuum. One library’s bleeding edge service may be another library’s “That’s so 2012!” There will always be early adopters, but what I recognize in our field are those librarians who mindfully try out new things for the sake of understanding how they work and share their insights with others. I am thankful for them. They are pioneers. Not every librarian has to be a pioneer, but that’s not the same as being uninformed and closed to what’s happening in the technology landscape. There is no mandate to use new technology in libraries, but these tools can lead to the best way of doing the job and serving users.


The following points came to mind for students and working professionals who might feel behind the curve or far away from that bleeding edge.

Be open to tech innovations and change. You don’t have to accept every “next big thing” but at least be aware of it. Did you just hear about beacon technology? Follow up with a web search to see how libraries are using it. Seeing the practical use of an emerging tech might balance out the initial wow factor to put it in its proper place as part of a toolkit of options. Just hearing about QR codes? Feel free to move on.

Play, explore, and experiment. Keep a list of the emerging technologies that intrigue you—maybe those you read about or are introduced to at a conference. Seek out an opportunity to test drive the tech and think about how it might play a role in the lives of your patrons. Does Pokémon GO seem weird and off-putting? Give it a whirl. I did, exclaiming at the beast crouching on our refreshment table at a lakeside party. I explored a bit more and then deleted the app. The time I spent gave me a reasonable grasp of the game and the bigger trend behind it. I’m not an expert, but I perk up when someone tells me their library is a “gym.”

Mind-set is often more important than a single technology. Probably the best fit for today’s thriving information center is someone who has mastered the mind-set that there will always be a cutting-edge technology just over the next hill, and the best response to that tech is, “Bring it on.” You don’t have to like it, use it forever, or drop it like a hot potato when the next thing arrives. But you should spend some time, investigate the details, test it if possible, and reflect on what it means for people and information.

Learn always. ‘Nuff said.

Emerging tech is just one part of the bigger picture. If you don’t understand the view from 30,000 feet then you can’t understand the library in which you work. The best librarians will be creative, fearless, and curious about everything—what people want and how we might deliver services to them wherever they are. If you are worried that you will never be an early adopter, you may want to try being an early adaptor.

This article was published in Library Journal's January 1, 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Michael Stephens About Michael Stephens

Michael Stephens ( is Associate Professor at the School of Information, San Jose State University, CA

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  1. I like your approach to developing a mindset to be open to new technologies and other new ideas that impact libraries, but I would say we should not view libraries as a tech driven field. We exist to provide services to students in academic libraries, community members in public libraries, researchers in special libraries, etc. Emerging technology that improves and moves our services forward is integral. Technology that doesn’t is not, especially technologies that have the practical effect of limiting services to vulnerable populations. Sometimes we have difficulty telling the difference. The perspective that we are a service driven field can help with that.

    • That is a good comment; I’d split the difference and say it is an information based, service oriented field, and that technology should serve, not drive, those goals.