Tools Are Us

By Kate Sheehan |

 I’ve been posting about a more logical, less emotional approach to working with technology. But Nina McHale’s recent post about leaving libraries has inspired me to come clean. I’m thinking a lot about taking some of the emotion out of our relationship with technology because it’s giving us agita. Like Nina, I’ve been working in and with libraries for around 10 years. And like Nina, I sometimes can’t believe we’re still having the same conversations (and not in an iterative-improvement, baby-steps kind of way).

 Everyone’s relationship with technology is emotional, librarian or no. Our relationships with our tools always are. If you’ve ever used a screwdriver in a tight spot and continually scraped your hand or dropped the screwdriver until you wanted to scream, you know what I mean. Anyone who has bought furniture from IKEA has an involuntary response to those little Allen wrenches. At my house, the electric scissors that make short work of clamshell packages without threatening our digits are a beloved and lauded object (seriously, Black and Decker should be giving us kickbacks). I’ve had lengthy conversations with fellow knitters about needle brands and the supposed speed improvements offered by square needles. I have referred to my small silicone spatulas as “life-changing.”
So, it shouldn’t surprise us when people freak out during a migration or when an upgrade moves their buttons. A new phone is a choice, one that most of us go into knowing there will be a learning curve. An upgrade mandated or performed by IT can make people feel like they’re having temporary incompetence foisted upon them by an unsympathetic coworker. During one migration, a librarian told me that she felt like she no longer knew how to do her job. Her sense of professional competency was so bound to the ILS that changing it undermined her self-worth. That’s huge. Is it any wonder that a persistent worry in the open source world is that we’ll only use the increased power that open source affords to re-create the proprietary ILS that everyone loves to complain about?
 Open source feels like a fix– you can just code your own solutions! But the reality is that it’s a lot more work than that “just” implies (and coding is a lot of work to begin with). Community surrounds open source platforms, and community develops the software. Participation means engaging not only with the software, but with everyone else using it.
Nina asks “If we don't grab the vendors by the lapels and demand that they retool, rebrand, and remake the pieces of our systems to reflect something that even comes close to the ecommerce experience our users expect, what's the point?” In the ebook realm, we’ve been hearing calls for librarians to “demand a seat at the table” for the past several years. I’m not quite sure how we can collectively do either thing, but I appreciate the spirit of the call for libraries to stand up and make demands.
But the emotional experience we should focus on is that of our patrons. Which is not to say that our own feelings about our technology aren’t important. These tools are the fabric of our jobs. But if we start by making our patrons happy, think how it would change our own relationships with our technology.
After I drafted this post, I read Aaron Schmidt’s call in Library Journal to “Focus on People, Not Tools,” which you should read. I had originally concluded talking about technical proficiency and urging fellow librarians to develop a clear sense of what we need and an understanding of what’s technically possible for improving tools. I still think that’s important. But reading Schmidt’s essay, I’m reminded of the tendency to assume that our needs are our patrons’ needs. We might knock ourselves out trying to streamline holds, while our members don’t know what a “hold” is. We have to be mindful of the limitations of our tools, but those limitations cannot be what shapes our libraries.