Tech Trends: Where Academics and Publics Converge

By Kate Sheehan |

I’m pleased to report that I’ve found an easy way to beat jet lag – stay on the opposite coast for thirty-six hours only and try not to sleep too much. If my PLA experience is any indication, it works pretty well, so long as you don’t mind being completely exhausted – I didn’t even change the time on my watch.

mmmm.... donutsI wish I could offer a full report on PLA, but my experience was something of a whirlwind, punctuated by Voodoo donuts, a lovely Oregon pinot noir, and coffee. Lots and lots of coffee. I made it to the Top Tech Trends (TTT) panel, (good thing, since I was on the panel) which was PLA’s first Top Tech Trends presentation.

Recently, the conversation generated by TTT has touched on the differences between academic and public libraries. There are a number of factors at play. For starters, conventional wisdom is that academic librarians generally serve a more technologically inclined population and universities may have more sophisticated infrastructure than an average public library. Additionally, trends are about forecasting and public librarians are often focused on putting out fires and keeping our doors open. But technology is where all libraries can and should converge.

Any academic vs. public sniping or competitiveness is a waste of time. We’re all in this together and while our jobs may be different (I always do a double take when my academic friends talk about summer projects), we can learn from each other and grow our libraries together. Different types of libraries will respond differently to changes in technology, but the same can be said of individual libraries. 

All of the trends mentioned at PLA touched on a common theme: content. Libraries, regardless of type, have traditionally pointed to and provided content but not created it. Although it didn’t explicitly come up at TTT, contextualizing content is also increasingly important.            

Generally, I think academic librarians have more positive experience with helping patrons create context around their desired content. I’d like to hear about the experiences of TechSource readers, but I keep thinking of a friend who was working at both an academic and a public librarian (and during my brief stint as a part time academic librarian, I found this to be true as well). She said that when students asked her questions, she knew that, generally speaking, it was for a paper. So she could ask more about the paper they were writing, or the class it was for, and she was able to provide information and create some context for it more easily. In the public library, she sometimes found it more difficult to provide as complete an answer because she was sensitive to patron privacy and didn’t always feel she could pry into the whys and wherefores around a question.

Anyone who’s been approached at the reference desk by a patron who tells his or her life story as a lead up to “So, is the new James Patterson available?” knows that we don’t always have to pry to get more information than we need to adequately answer a question. And the patron who approaches three minutes later, looking for a really fast answer to a very complex question reminds us that providing context isn’t always easy.

Librarians are experts at providing both content and context. People come in looking for information, we provide it, explain where it came from and what that means. Increasingly, we’re offering ways for our patrons to create their own content, either through public library places like ImaginOn, academic digital repositories, or Espresso Book Machines. Libraries are adding content about their organizations on foursquare and trying desperately to offer electronic content like ebooks, eaudiobooks, and mp3s. Collectively, we’re moving in the right direction, though panels like TTT exist to get individual librarians thinking about where technology is headed and how it will affect libraries.

Unfortunately, desperate is the key word for many. We’re all hamstrung by our finances and left out of much of the larger conversation about electronic content. Lots of people (from libraries of all kinds, library-related organizations, publishing, and media) are hoping to change that. There’s always pushback at presentations that focus on technology, which is healthy and generally productive. We should all be asking how we can capitalize on trends, where to get the money, how to stretch our budgets, our resources, and ourselves to incorporate new technologies and new modalities of content into our services. Academic and school libraries may see a shift towards electronic textbooks, while publics will look for bestsellers in digital forms, but we’re sharing the path towards electronic content. Libraries may not have the marketplace clout that, say, Apple does. Everyone’s waiting to see how the iPad will change the game, but we shouldn’t waste our time wondering if tech changes and trends really matter.