From Illuminated Manuscripts to Instant Messages:
Seeking Balance in Library Technology
There is an interesting tension playing out in my mind after having attended a professional seminar on Library 2.0 (the Library in the era of virtual communication technology): If we aim to excel as a library, offering our patrons the best services possible for electronic discovery and access to academic resources, does that mean we must keep neck and neck with the rapid advance of new communication technologies in the Internet 2 market to succeed?
Certainly, we must not lose sight of the utility of new technology for libraries, and for scholarship itself. Yet, adding layers of new bells and whistles to the basic bookshelf can sometimes only distract patrons from the real content of ideas, if they come to master “geek-speak” instead of poetry.
Many of the advantages of Internet 2 -- like blogs, wikis, podcasts and virtual worlds – clearly make mass communication more streamlined and efficient, more participatory and asynchronous. The rising generations of thinkers use IM and chat, MySpace and high-tech cell phones as if it were second nature. But is our goal to enable better rapid communication skills, or better thinking skills? We all know the epithet “rushing off to meditation”!
The wisdom of rapid communication for vital scientific experimentation is self-evident. But the wisdom of speed reading Yeats is not. Libraries and patrons need to distinguish the means from the ends. Speedy research methods may free up the patron to handle reading and writing their texts with more devotion. Alternately, a culture of speedy research may inculcate a culture of speedy reflection, of quantity at the expense of quality.
A good point of balance is still to ever focus on the patron. Patrons deserve the simplest, most streamlined, and clear avenue to the resources they need to fulfill their academic goals. These resources include not only books, electronic databases and journals, and digital repositories for other scholarly media. These resources also include the professional guidance and service of librarians, administrators and staff to build, maintain and advance a high-tech infrastructure.
We must keep our essential hardware and security infrastructure up-to-date, as well as the suite of applications offered for discovery and access to our electronic and physical collections. But there is perhaps certain wisdom in remaining conservative with just how quickly libraries invest their resources to keep pace with the market. New virtual communications fads come and go. Reliance upon proprietary vendors risks losing support when products terminate. Hardware investments become obsolete fast.
Since our user community as a whole is versed at varying levels of technical expertise, a balanced approach to high-tech venturing is prudent and fair. We would not want to phase in new technology only familiar to the few, if this detracts from research access for all. There will always be a need for training and ramping up “non-techies” to meet the potentials of high-tech libraries. But just the same, we want our “techies” to understand more traditional ways of accessing library and other information resources.
One thing is clear about the impact the Internet has had on libraries: there is more need for libraries and librarians to take on the role of teacher for our patrons, in order to best help them navigate the complex labyrinth of information sources available today. So perhaps the discussion of resources comes down to a question of priorities: what are our scientific and humanist priorities as we shape the future of our academic libraries? I once had a trigonometry teacher who taught us we should never use calculators if we want to grow to learn to engineer them. Similarly, if we rely on technology to do all our research, we may miss the opportunity to fully shape the way our research shapes ourselves. What do you think? We would like to know.
Digital Media Specialist