The Sacred Cows of Library Technologists

By Cindi Trainor |

Hearing Rick Anderson's recent KLA talk, titled "The Five Sacred Cows of Librarianship: Why They No Longer Matter, and Why Two of Them Never Did,"  made me wonder what "sacred cows" exist in the field of library technology.  I posed the question, "What are the sacred cows of library technology?" in Google Wave.  What followed was a discussion about digital technology among library technologists that generated many ideas and was a great way to try out this new communication tool.  Some of the ideas offered up were "sacred cows" to those in the field, but others challenged ideas held more widely in librarianship.

"Our users haven't asked for that." 

Some libraries do not experiment with offering services and resources digitally because the patrons in the building say that they do not want them.  Matt Hamilton writes, "When I asked our Reference staff if they'd consider IM reference I was told 'Well, our patrons haven't asked for that.' However the university up the hill actually tried it--and it was so popular they had to readjust staffing for it."

A good way to estimate whether a digital service will be successful is to ask users of your website, though even users of your digital spaces may not know right away whether they would use a service if offered digitally.  For example, users might tell you now that they are not interested in asking information questions via Twitter or SMS, but when those same people get into Twitter because their friends do, your library will be there to met their needs.  "A question is a question is a question," writes David Lee King, "in-person services should not be weighted as more important than using a similar service digitally."

"Library technology=Windows or Mac."

While the majority of the use of digital library services and resources takes place via desktop or laptop computers, mobile use is rapidly increasing.  Computers are everywhere—our DVRs and cable boxes are computers, as are our in-car GPS units. Perhaps most widespread, our cell phones and other small-screen devices that can access the web, like Apple's iPod Touch and eBook readers like Amazon's Kindle, are computers.

What does your library website look like on these devices?  Can your users send call numbers or phone numbers to themselves via a text message?  Can your users chat with a librarian via SMS? Do you provide directions via Google Maps?  Event information via Google Calendar, iCalendar or RSS?  Is your library's Facebook page mobile-friendly?  Is there an iPhone app that searches your library's catalog? 

There is an important lesson here for library administrators, and it's not that every library MUST have all of these things, but rather that technology budgets must be nimble enough to arm your technology staff with the tools and training required to create mobile-friendly services. Robert McDonald asserts that libraries must "look at new communication tools and how we can partner with vendors to be viable in this area."

"Right now," he writes, "I am talking about SMS text and mobile devices—soon I guess I will mean wave or some other technology. Email and Chat are for old people like me, not for our current users."

"Cutting-edge is better; bleeding-edge is best."

Just because a shiny gadget or tool is available, it doesn't mean that there is a need for it in each library. "Anytime we fetishize the container over the information we're creating a golden idol," writes Joshua Neff, extending the "sacred cow" metaphor. Amy Buckland agreed, writing, "I'm always amazed that libtechs are so enamored of tools long before they come up with uses for them.  Then we try to shoehorn library services into a tool just so we have it."  Experimenting with low-cost or no-cost tools like Twitter will only cost staff time, but implementing expensive (think federated search) or complex-but-free technologies (think Drupal) because it's the cool thing to do can be a very costly lesson for a library to learn, in terms of budget, staff time, morale and user satisfaction.

"<insert your favorite software or vendor here> is the only way to go." 

This is a many-horned "cow" that deserves quick and painless slaughter.  Roy Tennant was quick to offer open source software as one of our sacred cows, "Not that it isn't important and useful," he says, "I've been involved with open source projects myself, but it also is not our total salvation. We need to get beyond a religious-like fervor and view all possible solutions more rationally."  David King offered the idea from a different angle: "Having a 'complete Microsoft shop,' meaning those IT departments that are proud of the fact that their server room only has Microsoft products, Microsoft operating systems, etc." Jason Griffey chimed in with the "belief that dealing with 'library vendors' for services is the way to go. I'm trying to find ways to get away from that, and go wherever the best stuff is (often NOT library vendors)."  Whatever goes in that blank, it's important to realize that it's ok to diversify.  Not all library systems HAVE to be open source.  Not every server HAS to be Microsoft.  Libraries can partner with vendors outside libraryland for tools and services.  There is an awful lot of content delivered directly to users via Netflix, iTunes, Amazon—how can libraries become integrated into what Jason Griffey calls these "patron-level content distribution systems"? Should we be trying?  Will libraries as we know them survive if we don't?

"Technology is the domain of the few."

Library staff who are comfortable with using and experimenting with technology are no longer solely in the Systems Department.  The "technology-minded" can have a role in every department.  A library organization whose librarians and staff are empowered to experiment with technological solutions or who are given tools to create their own digital content will be more nimble and able to respond to the changing technology needs of users.  Ideas for meeting information or collection needs with a technological tool will be more widely accepted—and therefore more successful among staff—if those ideas originate in the departments that will use those tools. It's a wiser use of staffing dollars to allow technology staff to focus on programming, hardware, web design and systems administration expertise instead of figuring out how to day-to-day uses of Database X or Software Program Y.  Of course, it's important for library staff and administrators to realize that technology staff time is finite; that systems and services that requiring technology staff time add up fast; and that thoughtful and strategic technology planning is more important than ever.