Life with Technology

Whether we enjoy it or not, all of us academic librarians work with technology every day — assisting patrons, providing new services, and completing the myriad tech chores that are part of working in libraryland. I’ve starting noticing some technology patterns at my workplace and have summarized them below. Please share other insights and examples.

#1 Technology functions best when it doesn’t feel like a lumbering intermediary between you and a task to be accomplished. Technology is the means of doing something, not the ends. Often when technology really works, it is due to the design. You can have the smartest underlying program in the world and it won’t matter if the user interface is terrible.

Twitter, the Flip camcorder, and google search are examples of technologies that are so intuitively easy to use that you barely feel their presence. For some people it’s a Blackberry, kindle, or ipod. A certain operating system comes to mind when I try and think of examples of technologies that seem to interfere rather than assist, but I won’t name names.

#2 There is a sweet spot of technology-related frustration people will endure before they give up. If a technology seems complicated, if it doesn’t work, fails too often, creates messes etc., people won’t believe in it, and so they won’t buy into it or start depending on it in their everyday lives.

Accessing the library online for course readings can be a real headache, for example, which is why I’m so intent on putting the library in the online classroom more seamlessly, and why I’m taking a class on instructional design right now. As I take this class, I’m noticing that if I can get away with not doing a reading because it involves an aggravating process of tracking down the full text, my impulse is to abandon it rather than raise my blood pressure.

Of course, the amount of frustration a person is willing to endure depends on the individual. There are some people who will stick with a technology just because they’re in love with a gadget or want to look cool. And then there are people who will give up with the slightest provocation, claiming they’re too old, don’t have time, are not good with computers, etc.

The other day I helped a student who was trying to print a document due for a class. It turned out that the network cable was broken on the machine she was using. She did not have a way to save the document. The first floppy disk we tried failed, at which point she stormed out of the library. I tried to catch her when the second floppy worked, but she was gone.

#3 People will persist with a technology even when it’s not working if forced, or if the fact that it’s superior is considered common knowledge. They will also persist if the technology allows them to accomplish the task faster: Speed trumps everything.

I’ve also helped students who have been wrangling with their online course management system for hours. Heck, typing a paper on a computer, printing it, and turning it in is an ordeal for many of the students I see, but they persist because they are required to for their classes.

Another example of this is cell phones: for all their patchy service & fees, nothing beats the convenience of having a phone (and that’s a low-end application of a cell phone) on you at all times.

#4 If you’ve wondered whether there’s a technology out there like the one you’re imagining, there probably is.

If I can think of an application I want, google is often two steps ahead of me. This is both comforting and a little scary. If not google, some smart tech-savvy person generally knows of a solution. At least, I never feel I am alone in my wrangling with technology — Thank goodness for online communities.

This is just a basic round-up of my thinking. Further thoughts are very welcome!

2 thoughts on “Life with Technology

  1. If only Google wrote library automation software. My frustration is that all of our wonderful back-end systems don’t talk to each other. I enter electronic resource cataloging and invoice data into our ILS, administrative subscription data into our ERM, and still maintain a rudimentary Excel file to track renewals. That’s just wrong! It’s time for librarians to get as serious about our back-end systems as we are about the applications we manage for our patrons.

  2. I really agree with you “Technology functions best when it doesn’t feel like a lumbering intermediary between you and a task to be accomplished. “

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