The “Ratcheting Up” of Technology

At your academic library is there a feeling, perhaps an underlying pressure, that new technology should be leveraged to a greater extent than it is. While academic librarianship has a good track record with technology experimentation and integration, it feels like we are entering a new phase in which there is a constant acceleration of demands to do more with technology. Whether its “what’s the next big technology we can adopt” thinking taking hold of the organization, a belief that if your library doesn’t have programmers customizing lots of applications you’ll be at a disadvantage, or just an overwhelming sense that you ought to be doing more with blogs, wikis, tagging, podcasts and other Lib 2.0 type activity, are we driven to offer our user community more technology without really knowing if it would even benefit them?

Some of our posts here have explored new developments and ideas from the world of business and industry as a source of models for how academic libraries might operate. We identified some that offer new possibilities for meeting challenges and others that we would probably wish to avoid. But when it comes to giving the user more technology than they can handle, we may want to take a look at what is happening in the cell phone marketplace. A new technology standard known as 3G (for “third-generation”) is allowing cell service providers to offer phones that can provide an increasing variety of portable entertainment (music, video, real-time television, etc.). The phones are generally acknowledged to be both more costly to own and operate and more difficult to use. One industry analyst said that the major barrier to consumer adoption of 3G is that they “still look at these things as phones.” So while there is more widespread use of phones for text messaging and photography, the adoption of these new technologies is slow.

Perhaps there is an important lesson in there for academic libraries. Even though we may feel the need to offer our users an upward spiral of new, cool technologies might it be possible that the end-users’ hesitancy to adopt them is because they still look at us as libraries. What the users may want is just what we’ve always delivered – the books, journals, research help, user education, interlibrary loan, and other traditional services that for them define the academic library. Perhap rather than seeking out new technology bells and whistles what we really need to do is figure out how to apply technology to make existing services better. Interlibrary loan might be a good example. It’s not flashy, but new software allows us to take advantage of existing network technology to simplify the process of making requests and reduce turnaround times for delivery. The tension between identifying/trying/adopting new technologies and building better design into our existing services and resources is sure to increase as the lure of “shiny new toysratchets up.

7 thoughts on “The “Ratcheting Up” of Technology”

  1. I agree that libraries need not struggle to provide new technologies in some kind of effort to keep up with the digi-Joneses. However, if we find that our users have adopted a relatively new technology, why not explore whether we can use it to provide already-existing service? For an increasingly common example, how about answering reference questions via IM? For undergrads who might be reluctant to approach a human being at a reference desk, IM is a welcoming and heavily-used technology.

  2. I think this is one of those times when we over estimate the effect of change in the short run and underestimate it in the long term. I think we need to be constantly looking new uses of technology, such as IM, but the really important changes are longer term.

    I am convinced that the fundamental role that libraries play will change over the next several decades. As the Web gets richer in high quality content and as better finding tools are developed to use it — and make no mistake this will happen — libraries traditional role as purchaseers, organizers, and supporters of local collections will be in many cases be userpted. Read Jerry Campbell’s recent Educause Review article if you are in doubt about this (

    We need to think seriously about what happens when our role as the primary source of trusted information is diminished.

    The real issue is not are we going to have to use technology more extensively and better. Of course we will, and so will everyone else in every business everywhere. The more important question is what role will libraries play when there are rich digital libraries of all sorts on all subjects on the web and when open access succeeds in changing the model for scholarly communication. What will we do then? This is the important question.

  3. I think it is not good to just develop or implement various flashy technologies within libraries because of the plain availablity of the technology. No, the main issue is to keep up with technological developments, closely watch your users and their ways of using technology (like the cellular phones) and adjust your services in such a manner that you can offer these services to the users in a new way. The tiem is long gone that you expect everybody to come and get your products IN the library. Do not expect the young students to come to your perfectly organized library website, portal or repository. And the students of today are the researchers of tomorrow. No, deliver you services into the user environment, like on mobile phones, pda’s, but most important web-based, moduled, flexible and adjustable. Organize your databases, use the proper standards, in such a way that you can integrate them in any possible way into for instance community software, e-learning surrounding, MSN, Office-applications and all the stuff researchers, clinicians and students are using now. I am convinced the libraries will benifit from this in such a way that the expensive resources will be more efficiently used, the knowledge about them will grow. Client-based software will be replaced more and more with web-based which allows great new services that would never have been possible if we would stick to “old” technologies.

  4. I agree with most of the responses already up here. We needn’t (and shouldn’t) be implementing tech for tech’s sake. Otherwise our libraries and website will become unorganized cacophanies of digital noise that are impossible for anyone to navigate–librarians included. While libraries as book warehouses will probably decline (though there will always be some volumes in the library, i suspect), we will continue our role as information finders in an information commons as long as we can prove to our stakeholders that we serve a useful purpose in the communities we serve.

  5. While “tech for tech’s sake” is obviously not the way to approach things, I would hate to see us fall into the more comfortable posture of simply waiting and watching how our users are or are not embracing various technologies. We need to be more willing to take risks and try things out that may stretch our personal technology skill sets, and perhaps our comfort levels by rolling things out that we feel may not be “perfect” quite yet. Hopefully this will lead to better synergistic opportunities to develop ideas for enhancing current services and coming up with new ones.

  6. Dave – I absolutely agree with that position. As individuals in the library setting we should tinkering with new technologies and seeking new skill sets (something I’ve been promoting through Blended Librarianship). Occasionally we should take a risk and put something out there for our user community to try. My point was that we shouldn’t do so unless we have a comfort level with it, and to not feel pressured to do so because of concerns about feeling left behind – as well as not launching big technology initiatives that could consume valuable time that might be better spent integrating the library in the campus community in more fundamental ways.

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