BackTalk: Look Beyond Technolust

By Scott Condon

The library field is often inordinately entranced by new technological developments. As new gizmos, devices, and software appear in rapid succession, libraries scramble to put them into service, many times before we've even assessed their suitability. The question is: Are we becoming the tools of our technology? I'm all for applying technology to serve our purposes, but we must carefully scrutinize new technological developments and hit the brakes when they would lead us astray.

Text messaging

With the proliferation of features in cell phones and other handheld electronic devices, instant messaging (IM) has become a popular way of socializing among the younger crowd. But just because kids have adopted IM for their informal communications, there is no reason to believe people will contact libraries in substantial numbers using this technology. Some years ago, we assumed that libraries needed to provide 24/7, interactive chat reference only to find, after spending millions on software and training, that this service took twice as long to deliver as other reference services and that most patrons did not want to use it.

A number of articles and high-profile blog postings have promoted the use of IM in libraries. But any reference librarian can tell you that the most difficult and important part of the reference transaction is determining specifically what the patron wants. Because of the small screen size and the tedium of 'thumbing' text into whatever miniature device is in hand, IM communications tend to reduce the language to cryptic strings of characters. Why encourage this type of communication when the mobile patron could easily and with much greater accuracy call in the question?


Hands-free walkie-talkies for library staff use are another trend. The problem with these voice-activated devices is that they broadcast patrons' questions to all within earshot, in violation of patron privacy. The elevated noise-to-signal ratio means the librarian must strain to separate the words from background static and hum. Given the improved clarity, range, and functionality of wireless telephone headsets, these retro Star Trek communicators appear obsolete already.


A recent craze among some bloggers and wired librarians is to attach their own 'tags' or indexing terms to web content they find or create, allowing for a democratic and interactive social network. Advocates assume that most people would want to do this, but I am reminded of Tom Sawyer getting the neighborhood boys to whitewash the fence for him. Indexing as a hobby? Do we really want any and all netizens tagging library content? Problems stemming from the lack of controlled vocabulary and the prevalence of virtually meaningless tags, created on the fly, require attention.

To use or not to use

Not long ago, some early-adopter libraries committed themselves to installing radio frequency identification (RFID) technology before there had been adequate professional or community discussion. This prompted significant consternation among librarians and civic groups concerned with patron privacy. Nevertheless, we just as often see missed tech opportunities.

As I prepared to attend the 2005 American Library Association conference in Chicago, I was dismayed that there was no online conference schedule, even though the programs were spread across several square miles of the downtown area.

Catalog, anyone?

For all the technology we have embraced, I do see a pressing need for improvements in a tool that we've largely forsaken: the library catalog. If the library field truly wants to be known for its technological savvy, we should get to work on an open source catalog. Since our nation's information schools are some of the most vocal proponents of networked technology, perhaps they could spearhead and coordinate the effort to initiate a more effective, dynamic, and flexible catalog.

As part of this effort, the catalog could offer controlled, wiki-like capabilities so bibliographic records could be modified as our knowledge of the source material grows: as librarians and scholars read and analyze works, they could add specific subject headings and tag the headings for major or minor emphasis. We could also index series fiction in ways that transfer with the bibliographic record. Currently, the ability to identify series fiction in our catalogs is abysmal.

When libraries fail to improve their catalogs and yet evangelize tangential services such as video gaming, it's clear that we've lost sight of our priorities. We can consciously wield technology or unconsciously yield to it. The decisions we make will determine our future.

Author Information
Scott Condon is a Reference Librarian at the Everett Public Library, WA.

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