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Interview with Ken Varnum, Editor of “New Top Technologies Every Librarian Needs to Know”

Ken Varnum as Editor book covers

For over the past two decades Ken Varnum has become a leading expert in library technology, focusing his research on discovery systems and library analytics.  He has lent this expertise once again as editor to two recently released titles from ALA publishers, the new LITA Guide New Top Technologies Every Librarian Needs to Know and Beyond Reality: Augmented, Virtual, and Mixed Reality in the Library. He is the Senior Program Manager at the University of Michigan and the editor of Information Technology and Libraries (ITAL). In our interview he provides his insights on the landscape of library technology, future challenges, and what he hopes his reader’s take away from his books. 

What technology/technologies will have the largest impact on libraries in the upcoming decade?

I think there are several intersecting trends that will continue to have an impact in the coming decade. The first is consolidation of metadata into increasingly comprehensive and overlapping indexes. As libraries continue to invest in digitization and creation of important content, providing not just access but findability beyond those items’ native container becomes more challenging and more important. For decades already, it hasn’t been sufficient for libraries to make their special (or even commonplace) collections available to in-person visitors to their physical locations.

As technology ever more strongly enables users anywhere, at any time, to consume information, libraries will continue their independent efforts to make their materials available. “Making available” means, more than ever, becoming not just content access points, but content providers to other third-party systems. Libraries are all, in a sense, publishers.

A second trend is linked data and openness. Being “open” is nothing new to libraries. We pride ourselves on making the most information possible to the broadest definition of our audiences. Extending “open” into linked open data in order to enable sharing, discoverability, and creation of new forms of information.

What are future challenges you see libraries facing regarding the integration and use of technology?

Again, I think there are several things at play at a high level. As library vendors increasingly provide the tools and interfaces for discovery, libraries need to ensure that their data is available to others. Openness in access (to the extent allowed by commercial interests of content providers) is essential to avoid a situation in which library-generated resources end up being locked behind a proprietary set of APIs. Collaborative efforts such as NISO’s Open Discovery Initiative, in which I’ve been a participant for the last five years, can help establish standards and best practices for openness and transparency, but it is up to libraries in particular to insist they are followed.

The other main challenge is availability of people and money to make things happens. This is nothing new to libraries; as typically under-resourced institutions, we have been able to accomplish wonderful things. We need to keep finding that initiative and scrappiness to continue pushing the boundaries of what it means to be successful in an interconnected digital age.

How can this LITA guide help inform/direct the strategic initiatives of libraries in the future?

The New Top Technologies Every Librarian Needs to Know is a set of case studies about technologies that are now on the cutting edge but, in my view, are likely to gain common usage within the coming five or so years. I asked chapter contributors not only to describe the technology and how they implemented it, but to think about the near-term future and project changes to library services, staffing, or capabilities were the technology to be widely adopted.

The book is not meant to be a blueprint for a library to follow. It’s more like a set of possible solutions to a range of needs. It shows what some libraries have tried and succeeded in accomplishing, and provides some practical experience as a guide for others who wish to follow in that path.

What inspired you to edit this book?

I have always loved speculative fiction as my “escape literature,” and I think that fascination with “what if” has led me to consider not just what’s new in technology, but why it matters and how it could change the way libraries operate. That interest in laying out possible future paths led me to edit Top Technologies Every Librarian Needs to Know, a similar LITA Guide that was published in 2014. This earlier guide had a similar theme: technologies that were on the rise in the first part of this decade, with a look toward a future library world where that particular technology was commonly adopted.

Now that we are in 2019, at roughly the time for which the earlier book’s authors made their predictions, it seemed a good time to look forward again.

What were the writing and publishing processes? Were there any specific challenges?

Editing a book like New Top Technologies Every Librarian Needs to Know has both creative and project management challenges. When I put out the call for chapter proposals, I was not sure what I would receive. I had some ideas about technologies I wanted to include, and invited people I knew were working in those spaces to propose a chapter, but what really impressed me was the wide range of ideas that came in from across public, special, and academic libraries. I was not have been surprised, because I know how much innovation takes places in libraries, but I was pleased to see the excitement.

One thing that caught me off guard was the amount of interest and experimentation in augmented and mixed reality. There was so much about those topics, in fact, that ALA Editions allowed me to put together an independent book on that topic, published at about the same time: Beyond Reality: Augmented, Virtual, and Mixed Reality in the Library.

What would you like readers to take away from your books?

I think the biggest lesson is that innovative adoption of a technology does not have to be a huge project. There are relatively low-cost ways — whether you’re counting in dollars, staff time, or a combination — to explore technologies, participate in larger efforts, or test the waters to see if a particular technology or tool is right for your library or its patrons.

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