the search for the next big thing, ctd

Awhile back, I had written about trying to figure out the next big thing for libraries and library science. This past week, I had the fun privilege of attending the 2009 NJLA conference. I would not say that the conference provided an answer about what the next big thing is as that would suggest a conclusion to the search. I did feel that the conferences I attended indicated a new direction worthy of following. Well, a “new to me” direction, for I don’t think I had a true original revelation for my profession, but the concepts presented have consumed my thought processes for the couple of days afterward.

There is a saying in library circles that goes like this: “a good library should have something to offend everyone”. I’d like to add a corollary to this well known collection development mantra: “a good library should have a feature for everyone.” The advent of the internet and other information transmission technologies have displaced libraries as the information monopolies that they enjoyed since the days of Alexandria. Much in the way that the United States have switched from a manufacturing to a service economy, libraries are still experiencing the postpartum pains of transforming from information gatekeepers to guides. Knowledge and learning are the old buzz words that get thrown around when people talk about the library; enrichment and service should be the new ones. Our academic credentials are well established, but we need to aggressively break that mold and show patrons that we have more to offer that can enhance their lives. We need present ourselves as having features and services available that compliment their interests and desires.

And what sort of services and features should we offer? In my opinion, it is to meet the patron on the communication medium of their choice (a.k.a. “where the rubber meets the road”). Whether it is in person, phone, email, or text, we need to be able to act and converse on all of those levels. With the glut of information in various forms out there, we need to provide guidance for people to get to the right information, to find the proper resources, and sage advice on how to navigate the barrage of potential sources. In exchange, we learn from our patrons (directly or indirectly) what communication tools they use in their lives and what they prefer. I think we are in another case of trying to catch up with technology, only with much worse timing than the internet during the business boom of the 1990′s. It is falling right in the midst of an economic recession and government interested in trimming budgets where libraries are viewed as cost centers rather than valued citizen resources.

Right now, I know how the budget at my branch is fairing. I know that if I want to do something with text service, I’m going to have to get pretty damn creative and look for free and/or open source solutions to add that to my branch’s services. It frustrates me since I know some of the solutions are within “easy” reach save for the fact that I lack the technical knowledge to fully understand them. I’ll have to get someone smarter than myself (not a real stretch) to be able to explain whether or not it can be implemented to me.  As our system blocks Myspace and Facebook, I am less inclined to start a presence on either site. But I am eager to learn more about Facebook opening up its API to developers, so any sort of foot dragging may be rewarded after all. Twitter, which has caught my fancy these days, presents a mixed bag as there are user retention issues for this microblogging/micromessaging social site. The limitation of the 160 character box for both Twitter and text works well in focusing a message, but it does poorly for presenting larger concepts, instruction, library news, or issues. Yes, there are url shortening services out there that are coming into heavier use, but this would rely on the end user clicking on the link rather than having the sum total of the message presented in the text or Tweet. Beyond that, we get into library philosophy debates as to whether we are able to provide all the answers for a patron on such a short format, regardless as to whether it is the patron’s preferred method of communication or not.

The one concept from the conference that most intrigued me was mobile reference. It’s very simple deal, really: take a librarian, add a smartphone with a data plan, and cut them loose into the wild. I’m not necessarily talking about a door to door salesman approach, but the purpose of mobile reference would be engage people outside the physical setting of the library and provide a sampling of library services. For more information, a mobile reference librarian would say as they handed over the library pamphlet, you can visit, call, or check us out on the web. Ok, perhaps there is some salesmanship, but that is no different than when a person is seated behind a desk talking about a new program, service, or event. It also establishes a presence outside of the library and creates a new way for the patrons to use the library.

I can see what the arguments against mobile reference might say. Where is the patron need for this service? How do we target an audience? Is this is a good use of staff time? I don’t have those answers at this time. What I do know is this: whether we like it or not, the internet has blown the walls off the libraries as a knowledge center, yet our single focus remains on what we can do within the confines of the building. Mobile technology has liberated us from the land line and given us the potential to do library service anywhere there is a viable internet connection, yet we are content to sit at the reference desk window and watch the world go by. It is hard enough to compete with the convenience of the personal computer versus driving, walking, or even phoning or emailing the library; we should not limit the ways in which we offer ourselves to our patron community. This is more passion than facts, for certain, but I do feel strongly enough about it to do more research into the subject.

Is all this talk pie in the sky? Maybe. But I do think we run a constant danger of putting ourselves in a perpetual catchup situation for adding emerging and/or established technologies. We need to become better at identifying technology trends, budget for it in due time, and make it connect with what we have to offer while it is still a popular technology. We won’t be able to sit on our duffs as much anymore, but that reference desk chair is not as comfortable as it once was for me. Not after the conference. We see how our patrons use technology everyday. We need to pay closer attention, see what it is, and then start looking where it is going. That will put us back on the forefront of the information age.

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