The Digital Divide Inside the Library

By Kate Sheehan |

Technology and reference are intertwining strands of public service. The task of keeping up with Librarians (and their jobs) is getting techier. As our systems get more sophisticated and our desire to overhaul and remake those systems gets more intense, libraries need librarians who are tech savvy and back office staff who are pure tech. It's not uncommon to hear librarians declare that "Technology is Reference", but is that a one-way street? There's no doubt that reference librarians need a strong technology skill set, but do our techies need to have public service experience or skills?

I often tell people that I have a Sesame Street job. That is, "librarian" is a job that just about everyone has heard of and everyone has some idea of how it works. Of course, as we all know, most people believe that we read books all day and are incredulous that graduate school is required for wielding a date stamp (I once told a doctor that we had a "whole semester on using that stamp"). But I suspect that doctors, police officers, firefighters, teachers and everyone else with a Sesame Street job has the same problem with outsiders' perceptions of their work. I can't tell you how disappointed I was when I learned that astronomers had to be really, really good at math.

As with any job that we've watched a muppet perform, it can be surprising to folks outside of libraryland that getting a first library job is often a challenge. Like many professions, we subject ourselves and our pools of applicants to a newbie paradox: you need experience to get a job, but how do you get a experience without a job?

"Experience" in this case, usually means something fairly specific: public service. Like many other librarians, I leveraged retail experience in an interview for my first job at a reference desk. Librarians are frequently mid-life career changers, so we are often open to letting people learn on the job when it comes to many aspects of library work. Despite that, we never want to gamble when it comes to face-time with our patrons.

In large part, this is due to the unteachable aspects of working with people. It's much easier to teach someone to use an ILS than it is to teach a new hire to be personable. Technology can be learned in a way that service skills can't. Sort of.

Technology and reference are intertwining strands of public service. The task of keeping up with Librarians (and their jobs) is getting techier. As our systems get more sophisticated and our desire to overhaul and remake those systems gets more intense, libraries need librarians who are tech savvy and back office staff who are pure tech. It's not uncommon to hear librarians declare that "Technology is Reference", but is that a one-way street? There's no doubt that reference librarians need a strong technology skill set, but do our techies need to have public service experience or skills?

The answer may just be a personal one. I have been a back-office techie and found that I was somewhat unmoored by the experience. I felt that I was a walking bundle of solutions looking for problems. But I did have time to explore technology I wasn't as familiar with and I learned a lot. Keeping up with technology isn't something easily done from a public service desk.

The highs and lows are different, too. Every technology worker knows the doldrums of a seemingly unfixable problem and the ecstatic thrill of technojoy when a solution is finally found. Working with the public can provide similar ups and downs, but it more frequently offers a fuzzy middle. It's easy to see librarians as overly cautious, but that caution is often the result of the endless shades of gray that public service offers. Even the smallest decisions invite feedback, both good and bad. Librarians are secretly brilliant actors, maintaining a poker face and neutral body language no matter what the question or comment.

That seemingly effortless neutrality does have a price, though. Human nature makes it easier for front line staff to remember (and try to avoid) complaints. Public service also puts staff in constant contact with the library's least tech-savvy patrons. Dedicated librarians see themselves as advocates for their patrons, which, when combined with sufficient time on a public desk can result in a more tempered enthusiasm. There's a reason our tech folk often start sentences with "wouldn't it be cool if..." while librarians are seen as pushing back with "how is that going to work?" It's not that public service makes us negative, just that it inspires a let's-think-about-this-a-minute outlook that can come as a cold splash of water.

Each area of librarianship offers a valuable perspective, but I see a lot of snark online that's veering towards a dismissive attitude toward public service librarians who seem hesitant about techie insights and ideas. Like any good bipartisan, I think it's important to remember that we're all driven by the same goals--we want to provide the very best to our patrons. Often, that librarian with the "negative" perspective is thinking of patron complaints she has handled in the past. Chances are, those angry patrons have been mollified and assuaged by the very person who seems to be raining on everyone's parade. That's not always the case, of course, but if we think it's important to listen to our crankiest of patrons, shouldn't we also pay attention to our coworkers who help them?

I've been advocating for kindness as a guiding principle for working with patrons, but it's an equally important value for working with each other. We can celebrate each other's "wouldn't it be cool" moments and projects with fervor and still appreciate the learned caution of the public service staff. Rather than rolling our eyes about unions or veteran librarians who haven't mastered the new CMS, kindness encourages us to ask those front liners about their concerns and get to the root of their caution. Online, librarians are focused on pushing forward those who are resistant to change. We vent on twitter and blogs about the luddite librarians who don't understand why they can't change the text in an image on their library's website or who panic at the prospect of migrating to an open source ILS.

Libraries need change and we need to get better and quicker at adapting--there isn't room for actual luddites in the library. But when it comes to working with our colleagues, I think we're headed toward a double standard. We need our front line staff to understand tech, to be sure, and even in the short time that I've been a librarian, I've seen huge leaps forward in that area. Tech savvy is increasingly like public service experience--it's something organizations are unwilling to take a chance on. We expect librarians to keep up with tech and be willing to learn more about it, but we're less skilled at differentiating between problematic resistance to change and thoughtfulness.

In any organization, the IT staff has a lot of power. They know things the rest of us don't. Passwords, how to get the printer to work, why the screen on that public machine is upside down...but I think we're doing them a disservice if we don't give them access to our end-users. Our patrons are at the heart of our libraries and time spent with them shapes and informs staff perspectives. It's easy to huff at experienced librarians who seem slow to learn new technologies and dismiss their concerns, but it's also lazy and immature. We owe it to our users and our colleagues to take the time to look for insight from all corners of our organization.