Libraries in Balance | Office Hours

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.”

michael-stephens_newOne 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.


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.

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Either/or and false dichotomy. "Basic needs" vs. "Technology". Um, where does content, including print content, literacy, and reading fit in here? In 2016 print sales were HIGHER than ebook sales. There is a return to print and a digital backlash occurring. Are these "basic" and fundamental needs being met? They aren't "emerging"; they are here and have been for years, and continue to be popular and necessary, yet somehow 3D printers and "spaces" and "whole person librarianship" must be at the top of our lists. In the "noughts" we wrote off physical spaces and print in order to be "relevant" and "cutting edge" and "change-y" and just like bookstores. It was to our great disadvantage. Now, with even greater needs and fewer resources, we have to stop our dichotomous thinking.

Posted : Apr 26, 2017 09:15

Frumious Bandersnatch

In all fairness, it's been documented that the decline in eBook sales was exacerbated by publishers increasing prices and limiting accessibility for their eBooks, through proprietary file formats, DRM, etc. It proves nothing except that the more difficult and expensive you make a product, the fewer people buy it.

Posted : Apr 26, 2017 09:15

cranky pants

gee it'd be really nice to help our folks learn how to use 3-D printers in our remote rural library so they can develop mad skillz to work 12 hour shifts 7 days a week in a food processing plant. on a $175,000 annual budget and a community with an incredibly low literacy rate. books and children - that's what i learned to be our priority while a student a sjsu. plus a $0.15/kw electric rate. really worth our effort?

Posted : Apr 25, 2017 03:14

anonymous coward

I think a problem that often comes into play when thinking about this is missing the forest for the trees. People remember those that need more help (or cause more problems). They don't think about the thousands of people who use them with limited or no interaction at all, due to technology, proper selection, etc. If we are constantly trying to solve the problems of the exception we can lose focus on serving the majority of those who continue to use us without problems.

Posted : Apr 24, 2017 08:08



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