Friday, September 08, 2006

Fix-it Fridays: All dressed up and nowhere to go or stuck in the middle with you

Today’s Fix-it Friday will focus on technology and finding a balance between an agency that bridges the technology gap and one that creates barriers. (note this posted late, sorry)

Our library is at a turning point. We have provided sufficient technology to meet the needs of our users. Space issues are planned to be resolved by bonding for facilities, followed by more staff. We are currently considering more technology to help save staff time and more convenience to patrons until this happens. In all services, the library must meet the lowest common denominator for service. It cannot push too much technology on the public; otherwise it creates the same digital divide it has sworn to bridge. We keep looking at making the next step in technology to provide content online. However, with much of the population still unable to afford a computer and Internet access, E-books, downloadable music, and even electronic databases are a problem. In the past, if we did not have enough modern computers, how can we take away a paper product and replace it with something that requires a computer. If we could not provide access to these electronic resources ourselves, how can we expect our patrons to.

In a previous Successful Saturday I documented how we solved the problem of new and updated computers and adding additional computers. We recently received another grant for more computers which will give us one computer for every 1000 people in our legal service area. That is higher than average and great progress. We have solved the problem of basic needs technology-wise and patrons do not often have to compete for computer time. Our next dilemma, where do we go from here? We can provide more and more databases for the public so that they can meet all their information needs from the library's website, at home or at the library. That is the first step.

Databases are great, they save the library money, they provide the same information one can find in a book, but multiple people can the same information at the same time. Sounds great right! You still have the problem of the lowest common denominator. Who is going to use this product on average and will they have the technical ability to use it. A case in point, we went to a product called referenceusa and stopped ordering phone books out of state and stopped purchasing some business directories which ended up saving the library $4,000. You would think it was a win-win, saved money and provided greater access, but not completely. When the library participated in its Master Plan, one of the focus groups came up with the problem that the library was pushing too much technology too fast. We got rid of reference materials that were being viewed everyday by patrons thinking they would easily migrate to a digital format. However, instead of just going to the book and getting their information, they had to learn how to use a computer. This is the problem with today’s transformation of library services, we are creating a barrier of learning how to use a device to access the same basic services patrons are used to.

For databases, sometimes libraries have no choice. We must go digital because that is the only way the information is being distributed. Government information, directories, and reference books in general are being placed in databases online. We created computer classes, but many people will simply refuse to use the computer. So, we ended up getting dinged by a number of patrons because we caused more problems than we solved. We did end up getting them to use the databases and referenceusa is one of our highest used databases now. It took a long time to get there though for our core users.

Databases have become standard fare now, we still need to be careful in purchasing the expensive databases to replace the expensive reference books. The problem is providing services in the area of e-books, audiobooks, music, and movies online. The funny thing is that I keep hearing about Digital Rights Management and the problem with purchasing these items online and stripping that out of them. Now the library is going to purchase some for their patrons with even more of the same stuff? Not sure if that will work long-term. The worst problem is the e-book.

There is no set standard for e-books, no format to be downloaded that everyone agrees to. You can go to project Project Gutenberg or other online sites and download free e-books, but not in the same format to read it in microsoft reader or adobe acrobat. You would have to download the text file and read the raw text, or put it in a freeware software program to allow it to be read by either the reader or adobe. That's not even the problem.

The whole concept of the book is that it never required any type of technology to use it. You just needed to learn how to read. Now with music, audiobooks, and movies it is generally accepted that you need to have some tech savvy to get these items to run, but never with books. Are we really expecting patrons to use a laptop or PDA to read these books. What do we tell the patron when all of our books are e-book, sorry you will have to buy a $500 computer to read that instead of the $20 you are accustomed to? That definitely seems like creating a technology divide to our patrons instead of bridging it. It is something to keep in mind as we progress online and provide services to our patrons from the web 24 hours a day, we still need to serve the patrons that walk through our doors and use our “traditional” services like reading books or storytime. We can move to a format and sacrifice our core users for the technology end. We need to bridge the divide, not create one. And if we are providing virtual reference that patrons find difficult to use, or if we provide books that patrons need to purchase a computer to read, or put music, audiobooks, and movies online with so much digital rights management that patrons cannot watch them, then we have failed in taking the right steps forward in technology. It goes back to the rules of library science, save the time of the user, much of this technology does not save anyone anytime. We have to find a way to provide these services that patrons are getting from other places and expecting it from us, but still be the same library that patrons are using.

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