Keeping Up with Keeping Up

By Kate Sheehan |

This summer, I was fortunate enough to attend a leadership institute led by Maureen Sullivan. First and foremost: if you get a chance to attend a workshop with her, do not pass go, just sign up.

The workshop began in earnest with everyone listing challenges and opportunities facing their libraries. “Keeping up with technology” cropped up early on. It always does. In my inside inside voice (the one that stays in my head), I wondered why we haven’t figured that one out yet. Shortly after the workshop ended, I came across the WebJunction report on library staff’s use of online tools. Roy Tennant has crunched the oh-so-depressing stats in a couple of different ways. Several good questions have been asked about the methodology, but I would not be surprised if more tightly worded questions yielded a similarly unplugged set of answers.

Of course, use of social networking does not a good librarian make. However, keeping up is pretty darn important. Many of us have had the experience of starting a search at Google, only to be told by our patron that “I already tried that, and there isn’t anything on Google.” Of course, we happily pull up the website needed on our first search. Personally, I have seen patrons react with everything from unadulterated joy at my Google prowess to something approaching rage that I had used some kind of secret Google trick. It is our job to be good searchers. It is unrealistic to expect that we will know how to use every single website out there and no, a personal Facebook page is not a job requirement. However, considering that many (most?) of our patrons are using Facebook, we should be able to show them how to adjust their privacy settings or use the search interface on the site.

Amongst the super plugged-in, there is a hierarchy of kept-upedness. A select few really do seem to know everything that’s happening in libraries. The rest of us do the best we can. Power bloggers and Twitter users discuss strategies for keeping up within their particular areas of interest (hint: areas of interest are a big part of keeping up). The plugged-in see it as part of their jobs to keep up with technology and how their patrons are using it. It helps that they’re passionate enough to pursue these topics in their off-hours as well. But I think the biggest difference in those who feel that they keep up and those who don’t is a small shift in attitude (and to be clear, I am talking about people who feel that they're not keeping up, but want to, not people who eschew staying up on technology).

Whenever I get a chance to talk to people about why they don’t feel like they can keep up, they always site their busy-ness, both on the job and off. Depending on their inclination, they either marvel at the ability of other people to consume and process information or they grouse about the “real” work of libraries and slackers on Facebook with fake people.  Let’s assume if you’re reading this, you belong in the former group (sorry, haters).

By and large, the very well kept up do not necessarily have some magic ability to read the internet and then blog about it (some do, but we can’t bottle it yet). What they don’t do is beat themselves up over their ability to keep up and they don't think that they have to know everything. At my first full-time library job, I was half reference and half IT. Keeping up was part of my job description. I read a lot of blogs and tried out every social networking site I saw just so I’d have a sense of how they worked. But I always felt like I wasn’t keeping up enough. Coworkers and patrons alike liked to try to stump me, “hey, Kate, have you seen yet?” It all felt a little relentless.

Eventually, I developed more of a personal learning network and realized that keeping up with technology is very much like keeping up with books. We don’t read everything we buy and we don’t only recommend books we’ve read. “I haven’t read this one, but the reviews have been good and I think it will be right up your alley” is the paper equivalent to “I don’t use this site myself, but I know people have found it useful for what you’re looking for.”

“Keeping up with technology” seems overwhelming and huge and ridiculously hard if it’s presented as a monolith that must be scaled. Keeping up doesn’t mean knowing every single tech trend that’s out there. It means being engaged with your community and knowing what your patrons are using. You don’t have to spend your evenings on Facebook to know that there’s some controversy about the privacy settings and that Read Write Web is a good place to look for a detailed explanation of how to manage the new options. Just like the rest of librarianship – it isn’t about being an expert; it’s about knowing where to look.

Everyone at the workshop I attended seemed to me to be keeping up. They just defined “kept up” as something impossible to achieve. Using and staying abreast of technology is tremendously important to remaining relevant. Letting a fear of imperfection get in the way is a mistake we can’t afford to make. If you don’t feel like you’re keeping up, pick an area of technology you’re interested in (ebooks is a good place to start) and go learn more about it. Looking at the Webjunction data again, I’m uncertain of the utility of this post. Maybe I should send it to a listserv.