Top Technology Trends from Sarah Houghton-Jan, ALA 2008

I had a lovely time presenting virtually, despite the sound issues on all ends. It still was a rather successful demonstration of virtual participation, and I think that was wonderful. Big thanks to Maurice York for organizing this for myself and Karen.

I have 5 Trends I’d like to throw out there. I was able to cover three of them (#s 1-3) in the live presentation, but apparently the echo in the room made parts of what I said difficult to hear. So, here’s what I said verbatim, near as I can remember (plus the bonuses of #s 4 and 5). Let’s hit it.

#1: Bandwidth
Every library complains about bandwidth. Many people have faster access at home than at the library, which is a reversal of what we used to see when people came into the library to use our connections. The problem is multimedia, which is wonderful, but it is huge. And when you put 40 people downloading audio and video files, playing live online games with people in Singapore, and streaming radio stations , you get bandwidth clogged-up-ed-ness. And if you’re not set up so your staff network is separated from your public network (which you should be), your staff find that their work is slowed down to a snail’s pace too. There are a number of solutions out there like paying to up your subscription with your ISP to the next level or switching from copper to fiber. But this faces all organizations, not just libraries, so until a global solution is found, I think that we will see more of libraries’ IT budgets going to bandwidth every year…which means other projects may be put off.

#2: Sustainability
We talk a lot about the new and the beautiful. But answer me this: how many abandoned and dead library blogs are on the web? How many no-longer-updated library MySpace profiles are there? Few libraries thought about how much it would take to sustain these presences. Taking a holistic view of how much staff time it takes to maintain the library’s existing web presence, and allowing for additional time for new projects, is something that all libraries should begin. The smart ones do it now, but as our web presence grows and takes up more of our overall resources, we need to pay the same kind of attention to staffing it as we do for a physical library.

#3: Looking away from the bright shiny things and at ourselves instead
Tell me which of the following sounds familiar to you:

  • “We wanted to do it, but our administration didn’t see the value in the technology and didn’t want to devote staff time or funds to it.” -OR-
  • “We had to go through 6 committees and rewrite 4 library policies to get approval to start a blog, so it took a year to get it going.” -OR-
  • “Our web and IT staff have a project back-log of more than a year so any new ideas have to wait.”

Libraries, as organizations, are not nimble. We desperately need to look at how we make decision and how we encourage innovation in our libraries. Nearly all of the libraries I have visited or worked in do not encourage innovation.

In fact, innovation is discouraged through the structure and practices of our organizations. A huge barrier is the generations-old librarian “fear of failure” that is so great that no one is allowed to try anything unless is has been planned to death and has already been implemented in 80% or more of other libraries. Staff are also hesitant to innovate because of the multi-level bureaucracy that libraries seem to love. These bureaucracies are seemingly insurmountable to us regular ol’ staff because of three things:

  1. the natural frustration we all have with complex bureaucracies that make us want to cry
  2. the reality that “the little guy,” which many of our new librarian staff are, probably isn’t on the committee that makes the big decisions
  3. and third, people don’t have the extra time in their workdays for the hours required to organize a project to make its way through the bureaucracy. The staff are already over-burdened by their other duties and few people want to work an extra 5 hours every week just so they can be the ones trying new things in their workplaces.

We create walls between us and innovation and then put down on paper that we want to innovate, that we have a strategic plan to move us forward. “Huzzah!” we say to ourselves. And yet, our plan falls woefully short of what we really need to get us to where our customers expect us to be.

Here’s what I want to see for a library technology plan—
DOs: Go try new things. The more things the better. The more things that we hear about failing, the better, because that means you’re trying lots of new things. Pilot new things if possible. We’ll fund you when we can, but if we can’t please try getting sponsorships. And, finally, let us know how it goes.
DON’Ts: Don’t dislocate your shoulder playing wii bowling at a gaming night. Please.

Until we break down the walls that stand between libraries and innovation, all this talk of shiny new things doesn’t mean a thing. The libraries that have broken down those walls, or at least found secret passageways through them here and there, are the ones who we see innovating, the ones we see featured in Library Journal or Computers in Libraries. It ain’t the ones with a committee structure that looks more complicated than my family tree. The advent of the rush of new technologies in libraries is almost forcing the issue, making us reconsider how we make decisions and manage projects. I think this is a wonderful thing, and am watching what libraries do as they move through this change.

#4: Catalogs
I want to build on something that Eric Lease Morgan wrote in his Trends on the LITA Blog. He was writing about the next-gen library catalog and emphasized the importance of helping customers to use the content they find in the catalog by tagging, reviewing, sharing, syndicating, etc. I wish to second that sentiment with one addition. These activities need to be global. They should not be limited to the content created by your library’s users or users of other library catalogs from the same vendor, as is the case with some of today’s products. In other words, tags and reviews should be shared across libraries, platforms, and across all boundaries. Syndication and sharing should work with common and popular existing websites and services like Yelp, Facebook, and Amazon. We are no longer individual community libraries folks…at least not online. We’re all one, and acting like it will help us stay relevant in our users’ online experiences.

#5: Open Access Content
Libraries are going to soon start getting off of our pricey pedestals and only featuring digital content that we pay for. Yes, we all pay thousands of dollars for some excellent downloadable audio books, encyclopedias, journals, and a lot more. But all of that lovely open access (read: free) digital content that exists out there through sites like the Directory of Open Access Journals, Project Gutenberg, and more are credible and respected, and we owe it to our users to let them know about this content.

Questions from the Audience
InfoCommons – what’s the right set-up, hardware, software?
In addition, there was a question from someone in the audience, directed to me, about what software and hardware would make a good InfoCommons. I’m still confused about why that was addressed to me, but that’s OK. I will admit that this is not an area of expertise for me. My library is currently in the very early stages of beginning planning for an InfoCommons in our main location and perhaps at a few key branches. My best recommendation would be to ask the users. See what they tell you they want. So, instead of answers, I’ll leave you with questions. Do they need video editing software? Furniture that can move? Laptops they can check out instead of standing desktop computers? Do they want audio mixing software? Which types of device ports? Do they want specific animation software? Do they need to be able to download stuff (if your library currently doesn’t allow that)? Do they want special printers? Talk about that. See what they tell you. Research what other libraries have done, and use that as a possible starting point. Much has been written on the subject by people a lot more involved in this area than I am. Trust them, not me ;)

5 thoughts on “Top Technology Trends from Sarah Houghton-Jan, ALA 2008”

  1. I think the question about InfoCommons should have gone to Meredith Farkas not you – either the moderator or the questioner misdirected it probably. At least, this was exactly what Meredith covered as one of her trends, so she would have been the best person to respond.

    Anyway, you said “In fact, innovation is discouraged through the structure and practices of our organizations.” I’m looking at my staff structure right now, and want to create a structure and environment that actively encourages organisation – any tips?

  2. Owen,

    I’ll jump in and say that stratification seems to prevent innovation. Partially because people are made to feel their ideas aren’t important or that their job isn’t to innovate or create new ideas. Even though I’m a department head, I try to treat my staff like we are all part of one big team and that I just happen to be the teams rep to library admin. I also try to create opportunities for my staff to lead projects and discussions.

    Also access to technology is always and issue. If people can’t get new tech to test and try, this will hamper innovation. How you balance this with security issues isn’t something that has been answered to my satisfaction yet.

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