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The Digital Divide Inside the Library

Submitted by Kate Sheehan on August 13, 2009 - 9:17am

Technology and reference are intertwining strands of public service. The task of keeping up with Librarians (and their jobs) is getting techier. As our systems get more sophisticated and our desire to overhaul and remake those systems gets more intense, libraries need librarians who are tech savvy and back office staff who are pure tech. It's not uncommon to hear librarians declare that "Technology is Reference", but is that a one-way street? There's no doubt that reference librarians need a strong technology skill set, but do our techies need to have public service experience or skills?

I often tell people that I have a Sesame Street job. That is, "librarian" is a job that just about everyone has heard of and everyone has some idea of how it works. Of course, as we all know, most people believe that we read books all day and are incredulous that graduate school is required for wielding a date stamp (I once told a doctor that we had a "whole semester on using that stamp"). But I suspect that doctors, police officers, firefighters, teachers and everyone else with a Sesame Street job has the same problem with outsiders' perceptions of their work. I can't tell you how disappointed I was when I learned that astronomers had to be really, really good at math.

As with any job that we've watched a muppet perform, it can be surprising to folks outside of libraryland that getting a first library job is often a challenge. Like many professions, we subject ourselves and our pools of applicants to a newbie paradox: you need experience to get a job, but how do you get a experience without a job?

"Experience" in this case, usually means something fairly specific: public service. Like many other librarians, I leveraged retail experience in an interview for my first job at a reference desk. Librarians are frequently mid-life career changers, so we are often open to letting people learn on the job when it comes to many aspects of library work. Despite that, we never want to gamble when it comes to face-time with our patrons.

In large part, this is due to the unteachable aspects of working with people. It's much easier to teach someone to use an ILS than it is to teach a new hire to be personable. Technology can be learned in a way that service skills can't. Sort of.

Technology and reference are intertwining strands of public service. The task of keeping up with Librarians (and their jobs) is getting techier. As our systems get more sophisticated and our desire to overhaul and remake those systems gets more intense, libraries need librarians who are tech savvy and back office staff who are pure tech. It's not uncommon to hear librarians declare that "Technology is Reference", but is that a one-way street? There's no doubt that reference librarians need a strong technology skill set, but do our techies need to have public service experience or skills?

The answer may just be a personal one. I have been a back-office techie and found that I was somewhat unmoored by the experience. I felt that I was a walking bundle of solutions looking for problems. But I did have time to explore technology I wasn't as familiar with and I learned a lot. Keeping up with technology isn't something easily done from a public service desk.

The highs and lows are different, too. Every technology worker knows the doldrums of a seemingly unfixable problem and the ecstatic thrill of technojoy when a solution is finally found. Working with the public can provide similar ups and downs, but it more frequently offers a fuzzy middle. It's easy to see librarians as overly cautious, but that caution is often the result of the endless shades of gray that public service offers. Even the smallest decisions invite feedback, both good and bad. Librarians are secretly brilliant actors, maintaining a poker face and neutral body language no matter what the question or comment.

That seemingly effortless neutrality does have a price, though. Human nature makes it easier for front line staff to remember (and try to avoid) complaints. Public service also puts staff in constant contact with the library's least tech-savvy patrons. Dedicated librarians see themselves as advocates for their patrons, which, when combined with sufficient time on a public desk can result in a more tempered enthusiasm. There's a reason our tech folk often start sentences with "wouldn't it be cool if..." while librarians are seen as pushing back with "how is that going to work?" It's not that public service makes us negative, just that it inspires a let's-think-about-this-a-minute outlook that can come as a cold splash of water.

Each area of librarianship offers a valuable perspective, but I see a lot of snark online that's veering towards a dismissive attitude toward public service librarians who seem hesitant about techie insights and ideas. Like any good bipartisan, I think it's important to remember that we're all driven by the same goals--we want to provide the very best to our patrons. Often, that librarian with the "negative" perspective is thinking of patron complaints she has handled in the past. Chances are, those angry patrons have been mollified and assuaged by the very person who seems to be raining on everyone's parade. That's not always the case, of course, but if we think it's important to listen to our crankiest of patrons, shouldn't we also pay attention to our coworkers who help them?

I've been advocating for kindness as a guiding principle for working with patrons, but it's an equally important value for working with each other. We can celebrate each other's "wouldn't it be cool" moments and projects with fervor and still appreciate the learned caution of the public service staff. Rather than rolling our eyes about unions or veteran librarians who haven't mastered the new CMS, kindness encourages us to ask those front liners about their concerns and get to the root of their caution. Online, librarians are focused on pushing forward those who are resistant to change. We vent on twitter and blogs about the luddite librarians who don't understand why they can't change the text in an image on their library's website or who panic at the prospect of migrating to an open source ILS.

Libraries need change and we need to get better and quicker at adapting--there isn't room for actual luddites in the library. But when it comes to working with our colleagues, I think we're headed toward a double standard. We need our front line staff to understand tech, to be sure, and even in the short time that I've been a librarian, I've seen huge leaps forward in that area. Tech savvy is increasingly like public service experience--it's something organizations are unwilling to take a chance on. We expect librarians to keep up with tech and be willing to learn more about it, but we're less skilled at differentiating between problematic resistance to change and thoughtfulness.

In any organization, the IT staff has a lot of power. They know things the rest of us don't. Passwords, how to get the printer to work, why the screen on that public machine is upside down...but I think we're doing them a disservice if we don't give them access to our end-users. Our patrons are at the heart of our libraries and time spent with them shapes and informs staff perspectives. It's easy to huff at experienced librarians who seem slow to learn new technologies and dismiss their concerns, but it's also lazy and immature. We owe it to our users and our colleagues to take the time to look for insight from all corners of our organization.

Comments (12)

Wow, thanks for the comments,

Wow, thanks for the comments, everyone.

Larissa: That's a very good point- both "sides" are right and wrong. It sounds like you were caught in a complicated bind between library, school, tech and public service with everyone wanting to help. That's the exact sort of situation I'm talking about - in your story, you weren't trying to be anti-tech or a naysayer, just realistic based on your interactions with your users, no?

Anon: You're right, the real digital divide is a bigger issue. I wouldn't even pretend to address that here. I'm originally from a small town with a very small, hard-working library with very little tech of any kind. I am in constant awe of people like Jessamyn West who reach out to and support those libraries.

Olivia: I wonder about that too! Sometimes, when I'm searching or troubleshooting something more complicated than usual, I find it a little difficult to remember to verbalize what I'm doing for my patron. The dynamic is sort of the same whether I'm doing research for a patron or fixing a tech problem. I get focused on what I'm doing and have to remember to be a person.

Jeff I.: I agree, but I think that's where a lot of our emphasis has been, especially in online libraryland. My question is, should we also be asking our techies to be more cognizant of the concerns of public service people? In other words, why can't we all be well-rounded and appreciate each other's strengths? (cue the hand-holding and Kumbaya chorus)

Gretchen: Of course! I tend to (like our patrons) call everyone who works in a library a librarian. I wasn't clear enough in my post. I'm mostly drawing a distinction between front-lines public-facing folks and tech staff who may not interact with the public as much. I'm not trying to be all-inclusive (that's a much longer essay!)

Frank, your library sounds like a great place to work! I should have been clearer - I didn't mean to lump all back-office folks into the same group.

I should also say that I am not the first person to write about these issues. As Mick points out, Meredith Farkas has written about this topic and she links to other posts, including Mick's. I'm sure there are many more out there - send 'em along!

Perhaps it’s me, but I don’t

Perhaps it’s me, but I don’t see such a clear-cut pattern at our library. We have some public service people who are uncomfortable with technological change. We also have some back-room staff members who show the same reticence. Mostly we have people who are in between--they readily embrace technology when they see its practical application and usefulness.

I have training responsibilities at our library. The bulk of our staff members--both public service and back-room staff--WANT to learn technology skills. In particular, our public service staff members have welcomed their new-found abilities that provide them confidence in dealing with technology needs raised by our customers. And several of our public service people serve on our technology committee and they constantly provide forward-thinking suggestions for technology initiatives.

Very nice post. One point

Very nice post. One point though, not every "librarian" works in public service either. Plenty of professionals are "back office staff" too!

Great post on a topic that's

Great post on a topic that's getting ever more relevant.
I'd like to add that we also need to figure out how to bring the "tech-reticent" staff on board this train. The question encompasses everything from cell phone use in the library to knowing how to retrieve files from a USB flash drive. It's getting ever more complex and we need to keep current to stay relevant to patrons' needs.

Very nice post! I've been

Very nice post!

I've been noticing an unfortunate tendency of my own lately: it seems that the more immersed I become in technology, the less patience I have for face-to-face interactions. It's similar with co-workers -- Some of the less technically-savvy are fantastic public services folks, where some of the more technically-inclined are a little grouchy when it comes to serving patrons in person.

Maybe it's difficult to be helpful both through the computer and in person? One of those left brain/right brain divides?

As someone working in a rural

As someone working in a rural community, I also see a digital divide between libraries that can afford to employ staff that are "back office pure tech" and the rest of us that are limping along to try to adopt new technologies that we don't have the expertise to implement nor the staff to maintain. That is a very real digital divide that ALA does not address. We are not all in large urban systems. As a matter of fact, there are more small libraries than there are large.

I found this article

I found this article extremely insightful, and kudos for finally saying it. Speaking as a librarian who was (at one and the same time) both the "library techie" (non-cataloging) and the head of public services, I am very familiar with being both sides of the conversation at the same time. And, honestly, both sides are right and wrong...
Example: I worked in a community college library - the school insisted on moving as many classes as possible completely online (intent on removing videocassette/dvd support for distance learning), including massive support via streaming video. In those instances, I knew as a public service person that most of our users had no access to high-speed internet connections (local access was as slow in some places as 9.8 kbps - yes, that's slower than a modem anymore, but that's the phone lines in rural areas...), but the school's "public service" people (not the library's- which was me) refused to listen. So, they've lost students over a period of time when they were attempting to increase enrollment as much as possible. It was a case where the techies said "we can do it, and it's really cool and cutting edge, so we need to do it," and wouldn't listen to any discussion to the contrary. Unfortunately it meant that my voice became marginalized when I brought up properly viable technology for the library, I was now arguing for technological "upgrades" (mostly in the form of social networking presence for the library) that the school techies did not trust for security reasons.
Needless to say, it absolutely works both ways, and there are precious few who have the open perspective to look at both sides, so, again, thank you!

Thanks, Jeff! The hard part

Thanks, Jeff! The hard part about finding the middle ground is that we have to keep finding it every time with every grouping of people. It's in there somewhere, though.

Nathan, you're right about patience (which I see as a part of being kind a lot of the time). And sometimes, the best thing to do is to get someone else. Everyone hits their patience wall at some point and has to call in the cavalry. No shame in retreat - if it's done well, it's better than getting cranky.

Hi Mick! I think we're on the same page! When we talk about books, we always say "right book at the right time" and it's the same with tech, especially social networking.

Those Dell logos drive me nuts, Aaron! I haven't seen the monitors you mention, but I have seen the giant circle on the front of the CPU. The one that looks exactly like a button and just makes everyone feel inept. It's branding over utility, I think.

A side point: never

A side point: never underestimate the value of a non-technical perspective about a technological issue.

One of the very talented librarians I work with is not exactly a blazing tech maven (and he is the first to admit this -- he's not opposed to technology, but he will readily admit that it isn't his strongest skill). And yet I've learned a lot about our library's technical systems by watching him interact with them.

For example, he called me into our library instruction room to help out with a computer issue one day. The instructor's computer in that room is made by Dell, and both the CPU and monitor have round Dell insignias. After tapping around on the keyboard and checking the wires, I determined the computer was off, and thus hit the on button on the CPU. He said (in paraphrase) "Oh that's where the on button is. I was trying to turn it on here," at which point he indicated the Dell insignia on the monitor.

Being a techie myself and knowing where to look for on buttons, this is a design flaw I would have never thought of myself, but my colleague is absolutely right -- the round insignias on these monitors do indeed look like on buttons. In other words he found a notable flaw in Dell's hardware design that most techies would (and do) overlook.

Very nice post. It is very

Very nice post. It is very important to listen, understand, and respect your less tech. savvy staff. Interestingly enough they are often correct and the flashy super-cool innovation is nearly useless a la Meredith Farkas and her wiki

In addition to kindness,

In addition to kindness, patience is necessary for the tech-saavy who are working with those unfamiliar with computers. I've seen a number of front line staff who retreat to an office to avoid the frustrations they faced with patrons who lacked computer knowledge (or who were downright Luddites!)

Like mathematicians who are horrible at teaching math, sometimes those immersed in the world of computers are the worst at relating that information to others. The frustration level just gets too high. A healthy dose of patience may help ease that frustration.

Great post! It's something

Great post! It's something that I have been frustrated about for years. There seems to be no middle ground here where both can understand and co-exist.

Thank you for bringing attention to this issue.