Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Libraries, Give Us Kindles and iPhones

A column in last week’s Philadelphia Inquirer about how libraries’ “experts on call” – presumably, reference librarians – were a dying breed.

The last time the columnist visited the the information center at the Free Library (1991!), there were 14 librarians. Now “one full-fledged Know-It-All left…backed up now by nine less-seasoned librarian assistants.” It’s amazing what 21 years will do to a place.

That’s a pretty drastic drop, but probably not too much more than other libraries with once booming reference staffs. The reason, as we all know, is because the Internet killed ready reference.

Now, most of the questions for the know-it-alls are about technology and tech support, and that’s when we get to the interesting part of the column. Here’s the final paragraph:

To keep up, Morse [the full-fledged Know-It-All] has had to become a gadget guru. “I just bought my young niece a Kindle. When iPad2 came out, I got one. I’m on my second e-reader. I can’t help people unless I know these things myself.”

That paragraph signals two things to me: the dedication of reference librarians to helping library patrons and the lack of support they’re getting. This librarian buys her own tech gadgets so she can use them and understand them enough to help people she’s paid to help. So the library pays for the help, but not the tools necessary to learn how to do it.

This seems pretty common from what I’ve heard, and there aren’t good cheap solutions to it. The question is whether librarians can support or train people regarding tech gadgets without having a strong familiarity with those gadgets themselves. I vote “no” on that one, along with the librarian in the article. But how do they get this knowledge?

In the most common solution I’ve read about, a library will buy a supply of these gadgets and put them somewhere the staff can play around with them. Throw in a Kindle, a Nook, and an iPad. For the ambitious libraries, maybe a digital camera, camcorder, and a couple of smartphones.

This seems like a pretty weak solution if what you want is intimate familiarity, the kind of familiarity that reference librarians have traditionally had with information sources, both in print and then online. A reference librarian who doesn’t know the ins and outs of print indexes or online databases would be pretty bad.

But what about librarians who don’t know the ins and outs of tablets and smartphones with various operating systems? How are they supposed to get this familiarity? Apparently, by buying the stuff themselves.

If this is stuff librarians need to do their jobs effectively, then why aren’t the libraries buying librarians all their gadgets? Every reference librarian, and even “less-seasoned librarian assistants” should be given a Kindle, a Nook, an iPad and iPhone, and an Android tablet and phone.

Or we could break this down. There could be Apple Librarians and Android Librarians, and they could compete against each other in bookcart drills.

I’m not sure who should get the Kindle or the Nook, so everyone should be given one of each depending on their choice.

This isn’t the kind of spending libraries want to undertake or can even afford, but that’s the sort of spending they should be doing if they really want to adapt to the technological future. Librarians often claim that info technology like this is growing more all the time, and yet libraries haven’t really caught up.

Thus, just like librarians now usually have desktop computers or maybe a laptop, they should also be have tablets, smartphones, and ebook readers from the library.

I could be wrong. I don’t know of any libraries that issue tablets, smartphones, and ebook readers to all their public services staff. Are there any ? Does it make a difference?



  1. Yes. A library near mine gave all their staff a choice of three ereaders. They also gave them a small budget to initially buy books for the ereaders as well. They belong to the staff, and in return the staff become “experts” on these particular devices. Of course, this doesn’t help when new devices come out or somebody shows up with an ereader they bought at Bed Bath and Beyond that nobody’s ever heard of, or the particular staff expert is gone that day.

    After two months of hell at my library around last December, and our adult svs librarian threatening to quit, we introduced the policy that we only assist in downloading books, specifically from the Overdrive service. We have brochures and lists of resources people can use if they need “gadget help” but we are not free customer service for Amazon and friends. Our adult svs librarian does teach computer, ereader, and other gadget classes periodically.

    • E-readers are a royal pain, and libraries should limit their support to only those things that pertain to any ebook material they provide. Once you give the impression that the staff is there to tutor people on every E-reader under the sun (1000s of models), you will become inundated with people looking for free tech support and someone to do what they cant be bothered to learn from the instruction manual.

      This goes triple for tablets, smart phones, and laptops.

      If you want to assist people with learning how to use these things then stock up on better books and less copies of that Shades of Gray novel, or limit it to structured classes at scheduled times.

      Otherwise you are turning your library into a glorified Geek Squad outlet, where the staff is going to be asked to provide all types of maintenance and advice to cheap-Os for free, where in an actual job of that nature they would be paid much more. Unfortunately, because so many libraries are so desperate to try to be “relevant”, they are all too happy to subject their staff to this torture.

      I’ve had people wanting me to de-junk their malware-infested laptops, show them how to email crap to Facebook from some free phone they got form the government, provide chargers for their 7 year-old iPods, and preform all types of other diagnostics.

      Libraries are not gadget repair/maintenance centers, so please stop encouraging them!

  2. They bought one of each type of ereader and sent them around our libraries so we could play with them for a week. Then they were sent away to the next branch. This gave us each a teeny tiny amount of familiarity with the items, but mostly what it taught was how annoying it was to download ebooks through Overdrive. It also taught us that we don’t have enough time during the work day to play with gadgets when there are actual patrons in front of us that need help.
    There are a few librarians that actually own e-readers, and they are pretty well-versed in that one type. That’s really the only way to get to know a piece of technology. But no way is the county going to spring for ereaders for each and every one of us. Can you imagine the public outrage on how their tax money is being spent?

    • Joneser says:

      I hear you – we got a bit of a trial period as well, but on “the library device”. It’s difficult to open up your own account, have your own Adobe Reader etc. on the same machine, so it didn’t help us work through everything.

      But we received more training for the containers than we ever do for the actual content (e.g. RA).

      I just make it pretty clear to the patrons that, no, I don’t have an ipad, so I can’t help them (we have a policy of not “touching” patron’s equipment), hoping that they “get” that I can’t afford one.

  3. Either an iPad, or a Kindle Fire, or a Nook Tablet should do the trick. If you’re the type of person to really dig into the features of any one of those, you’ll learn easily transferable concepts for the others. If not, more doohickeys won’t help.

  4. Development Arrested says:

    “I can’t help people unless I know these things myself”

    See… I don’t know if this is true. I worked at a small library where this was my official unofficial job, and I saw a ton of different things come through the library: various species of digital camera and tablets and Ereaders. All of which patrons needed help using in someway. Did I have any first hand experience with these devices before I got my job at the library? No, not really.

    So how did I help? I found information through the Internet, shared the information with the patron and then sometimes printed said information off. Yeah, quite often I asked the patron if I could see their device, and I would quickly learn without a manual the basics like how to turn the WiFi on and off, so I could show them. Often times, I walked people through how to download Ebooks with Overdrive, but I also tried to get them resources for when they left.

    Isn’t that pretty much the definition of what a reference librarian should do just applied to modern technology? I certainly didn’t get paid that of a reference librarian (as meager as I’m sure that is, I guarantee that I made at least half probably 1/3). And maybe… just maybe, we’ve gotten to the true reason of why reference librarians are a dying breed.

  5. Yes reference is dying. Yes, people see us as tech gurus. Yes – it is essential that we have & live by the devices (just as we do w/databases & searching), if we want to help others. Yes, my young librarians have them already. Among us we have/love all the types. No, the institution will not buy them for us. Unless we establish ourselves as the Tech Innovation Lab, Business Info Center, or as the Info Consult Center, our users and our funding will not grow to accomodate either funding or staffing.

  6. I just taught a Kindle class last Saturday. Our branch manager wants all the ref people to teach e-readers, so we can better help patrons on the desk.
    Our generous Friends group (sitting on $70,000+) graciously bought ONE Kindle touch and one cheapass Nook for the entire branch to learn on.
    And no, our library won’t buy them. We need to save that money to send our director and her friends to conferences.
    I think we should teach e-readers. If we’re gonna offer e-books, we should at least show the ignorant masses how to get them.

  7. our library got us nooks, kindles, ipads, a set for each branch (not each librarian). so we can play with them until we figure them out. so after that 8 minutes, they went back into the cabinet where they have remained. that’s the thing about modern tech; it’s pretty simple to use. maybe a field trip to the local Best Buy – Walmart – Apple Store could satisfy the same need for the poor librarians.

  8. I think Joe Walsh has the right idea from his new album and title song, “Analog Man”:

    Welcome to cyberspace, I’m lost in the fog/Everything’s digital, I’m still analog/Something goes wrong, I don’t have a clue/Some ten year old smart ass has to show me what to do.

    Sign on with high speed, you don’t have to wait/Sit there for days and vegetate/Access my email and read all my spam/I’m an analog man.

    The whole world’s living in a digital dream/It’s not really there – It’s all on a screen/Makes me forget who I am – I’m an analog man.

    PS, I have the album and it rocks. 10 thumbs up.

  9. pt frawley says:

    I worked at FLP at one time and suspect the term “know-it-all” was invented by the reporter for this article – the “reference wheel” was what one heard about: a kind of circular bookcase that the individual taking phone questions could turn and from which select the likely source of information (paper books at that time, 1990’s).

    My local branch librarian helps people use their Nooks and Kindles but still mostly does searches in the system for books, explaining how ILL works, etc. Reference now extends to helping people use pieces of technology.

  10. gatoloco says:

    Will library services be provided by IT professionals or librarians in the future? We have been competing with IT for some time now, and what’s scary is that some universities think the Ph.D. & IT library is the way to go. Would library students be better served with an IT degree? There is a certain degree of fungibility to the IT degree, and I know many institutions would not bat an eye at hiring someone with library experience and an MS in computer science vs. an MLS.

    • Development Arrested says:

      I personally don’t see why someone with a computer science MS would put up with working for library money. I know the job market for computer science major is bad, but so is the job market for librarians.

    • Development Arrested says:

      I personally don’t see why someone with a computer science MS would put up with working for library money. I know the job market for computer science major is bad, but so is the job market for librarians.

    • gatoloco says:

      I agree with you, but if a library staff were totally dismantled, and duties given to IT & select subject specialists, along with an increase in budget, then things really start to change.

  11. Librarian says:

    I think the IT degree is very useful to librarians. If I do go back for a second masters (which I have heard is expected of a successful academic librarian) I would get some sort of IT degree.

    I think public libraries with small budgets should not try to turn into free Geek Squad. Instead there should be some very basic classes, taught by a staff person or volunteer enthusiast who owns and uses the technology. Personally I wouldn’t mind doing such classes. I all ready teach a class on digital photography which is quite popular.

  12. I’m a tech support reference librarian, and I own quite a few devices. Using a device personally on a regular basis certainly helps me help others, especially over the phone when I can’t see the device the person is using. Sure, you could look everything up and we make lots of brochures and handouts to give out, but there are always people waiting and the more you can do off the top of your head the better. That said, I don’t own any Apple products and don’t have problems helping people with their iPads. Most modern devices are pretty intuitive. If you’re not familiar with at least some of them though, I imagine you’re probably at a disadvantage.

    My library has purchased some devices and encourages staff to take them home and use them, but the devices mostly just sit on a shelf. Some of my coworkers don’t take advantage of this “professional development collection,” while at the same time complaining that they aren’t receiving enough training and continuing to refer questions to other staff. I don’t think the library buying everyone their own closet full of quickly-outdated devices will help with that.

  13. Rendering basic assistance to people with consumer gadgets hardly requires a background in IT. But it does require some knowledge of that class of device, a general understanding of what one should expect the device to do, and how it’s probably set up.

    Is it reasonable to expect librarians to provide this assistance for all classes of device? Certainly not. We loan cookbooks, but I don’t want people bringing their food processors or stand mixers to the library for us to show them how to use it. But I don’t think this fact makes it unreasonable at all for patrons to think the library is a good place to go for some basic ereader help.

    Can every librarian provide the same level of assistance? No. But the blind panic I’ve seen take over some librarians when faced with ANY sort of tech question — something which would never happen if faced with an obscure question about Bolivian maps — is a problem. If you don’t know the answer off the top of your head, direct them to the many books we have purchased on that very subject! Teach them how to navigate the manufacturer’s website to all of those FAQs that are just sitting there with answers to their questions. That’s what you’d do in any other situation without feeling inadequate.

    For what it’s worth, our library has bought a number of representative devices for staff to practice with, but it hasn’t really helped most to become comfortable with them.

  14. Last year I drove with a small group of staff to the closest library that does lend the popular stuff (we don’t) so we could check them out. It was a good excuse for a staff trip.

  15. We have a tech sandbox, where staff can take one of about 8 devices home for a week. It’s more immersive than just playing with it at work. You get a chance to try it on your home wifi network, hook it up with your own email, and just generally “live” with the device for a week. It’s been really popular (depending on the device) and there’s a long waiting list for some of them.

    I think it’s the taking it home part of the equation that makes this work, you can’t get familiar enough to troubleshoot without really getting into the device, and you can’t do that during your breaks at work.

  16. Our library purchased an iPad 2 for every member of the reference team and for each branch. This in itself has significantly improved our ability to assist patrons with ebook downloads through overdrive in particular and these devices in general. I am not saying that EVERY staff person is better able to assist, as I am keenly aware that a few of these devices sit in staff drawers unused by those who for one reason or another feel uncomfortable using them.

    I do consider it part of my job as a librarian to help members of my community solve problems- whatever they might be- in order to improve their quality of life in some way. Since I have begun to bring the iPad with me on my desk shifts, there have been numerous times where I have been able to offer impromptu one-on-one instruction that has helped people get what they need.

    Our library has also written the acquisition of new technology into the budget. We recently purchased a number of Nooks, Nook Colors, Kindles, Kindle Fires, iPod Touches, MP3 players, and a couple of infuriating and cheap Android Tablets for staff to experiment with. These can be checked out by staff for long periods of time. We now have enough people who have become familiar with at least one of these devices to be able to help most people who come in with questions about one.

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