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Have Tech, Will Walk into Walls

Submitted by Kate Sheehan on December 21, 2009 - 3:51pm

Technology makes us stupider. No, wait, that’s not right, is it? Technology lets us use our time, energy, and skills in new ways, which are inevitably called “modernity”...and modernity is inevitably chastised for being stupider then The Good Old Days. Cell phones have allowed us to stop memorizing phone numbers (they have also forced filmmakers and novelists to create a whole new genre of suspense clichés: the “my battery is dead and soon I will be too!” scene) and spell check allows us to find out the correct spelling of a word after typing it, rather than before.

But there’s always a kernel of fear when we feel a skill slipping away; a small, panicky voice that says we’re losing something essential. Anecdotally, it’s easy to back that feeling up – who hasn’t lost something to a data mishap that they would have had stored in another format in the past? Personally, I recently lost my entire phone book to a badly-timed sync. I still have the phone numbers of childhood playmates committed to memory, but all I could do to recreate my contact list was beg for texts on Twitter and Facebook.

Librarians are, naturally, more focused on teaching people how to acquire new skills that they need to navigate modernity. Showing someone how to apply for a job, file their taxes, get government information or socialize online are all daily public service tasks. Many libraries maintain two (or more) tiers of services, one for technologically inclined patrons and one for people without email.

As service-oriented organizations, libraries generally do their best to meet people where they are, technologically speaking. Perhaps because of this willingness to accommodate, libraries are often where people branch out in their technological lives. Signing up to get courtesy and overdue notices by email is a lot less scary then online banking. It’s less intimidating to get Facebook lessons from a friendly librarian than a cranky and busy relative.

The flip side of the patron who comes in looking for help using technology is the patron (or colleague) who complains that we’re enabling the dumbing down of society. Even those of us who are not annoyed by technology on principle resist conveniences we find inconvenient. Most people I know have a short list of tasks they prefer to do the “old fashioned way.” Poll your circle of friends, and you’ll doubtless find letter-writers, phone-number memorizers and people who posess other increasingly rare talents.

A recent trip got me thinking about the intersection of technological improvements and technology-initiated loss. As per usual, technology does enable us to see exactly how technology is changing our minds. GPS could potentially shrink the hippocampus, but it is darn useful.

A bit of background: I’m a relatively new iPhone owner and there are times when I feel that I’ve joined a bit of a cult. Armed with suggestions and tips from other iPhone acolytes like Kathryn Greenhill and fellow TechSource blogger Jason Griffey, I merrily set out on my first post-initiation vacation.

One of the most helpful features of the iPhone is the integration of maps with most everything else. I was able to find hole-in-the wall restaurants I never would have found out about otherwise on Yelp and transition easily to Google maps to generate directions from wherever I was standing. Scarfing down some delicious elote, I thought “holy cats, this is the future!” I didn’t crack open a single paper map on my trip, but I don’t think my experience was any less for it.

Taking a personal inventory, I realized that I use a variety of techniques to balance my use of technology with my old-school skills. In many ways, I use on-screen maps just like I would a paper map, but without the difficult folding (and I regularly use the compass on my iPhone). I use Google maps to assess different routes and have tried new ways to get from point A to point B thanks to GPS. Almost everyone I know who has tried GPS is quite familiar with the “recalculating…” screen that pops up when the driver knows a better way.

But what about those people turning on to railroad tracks because they’re blindly following their GPS? Or the decreased quality of our cognitive maps? They could be the next group for libraries to help. We’ve got the practice helping people learn to use technology down. We’re getting there on keeping up with the most tech-savvy types. But most people are somewhere in between. People with varying levels of technological skill who maybe don’t need a class on using Google Maps, but would like to integrate Google maps with their own map-reading skills and leverage GPS technology to improve their own wayfinding.

As tech tools seep into more corners of our lives, growing new skill sets while maintaining desired analog skills will require more effort. Librarians are pretty good at this balancing act to begin with. Do you have a favorite hybrid skill set? Do you share it with your patrons? With other librarians? Let us know in the comments below!