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Top Technology Trends: Drivers Wanted

As I did last year, in preparation for 20 minutes on a panel at ALA where I make a fool of myself, I’m again soliciting your input for the top technology trends influencing all things Library. Also like last year, I’m tentatively throwing out a few of my own, with the caveat that after nearly four years managing a digital library, I’m a little out of step with what’s happening in the physical, brick-based libraries these days. (I’d like to say I’m a lot out of touch, but I know better.)

Thomas Dowling has already posted his own trends on the LITA blog, where mine will go once I’ve firmed up my trends (after all, no one wants trends with sagging, bumpy flesh). I’m hoping the Trendsters can engage in some dialog; one of my observations about the TTT format is how it is a series of talking heads at a table, which is rather retro. (I’ve been told That’s Not The Way It Always Was, but I didn’t attend the TTTs of yesteryear–TTT is held at a time that pretty much guarantees anyone in ALA governance can’t attend, something that might give you pause.)

In no particular order, here is my first take on the Trends:

Soft Privacy

Kids these days! They blog, they IM, they share information on Friendster, Flickr, and MySpace. Increasingly the personal has become public. Many of us traditional librarians have a very firm idea of patron privacy that may seem quaint to the young ones. But two key components of “soft privacy” are awareness and control. Young people don’t want the gummint spying on them or telling them when they have to share information; they want to do it when it’s convenient for them. We can leverage this into our strategies for protecting privacy in this century.

Library 2/L2/etc.

I think of all the writing about Library 2.0 as the “get a grip movement.” It doesn’t matter if LS hard to define–it should be hard to define, actually, given the flux we’re in–and it’s laudable that it repeats and reformulates and consolidates classic ideas of library service. There’s a logical inheritance between “Books are for use” and the call to make library services more interactive.

Anyone vaguely tech-oriented who has worked in libraries in the last decade–particularly public libraries–is all too aware that most libraries need a swift shove forward. As I learned in my first decade of library work–particularly during the Internet filtering wars of the 1990s–librarians tend to be format-bound, and breaking them out of the mold to understand that this new service, yes, is related to what they do and is equally important to other services they provide, requires endless retranslation and exhortation.

Many libraries still operate as if they were monopoly operations. I have walked into wonderful libraries, yes, that enticed and amazed and satisfied, but I have also walked into too many libraries where the mise en scene had all the charm of a prison waiting room (complete with scowling attendants and long lines of people waiting to be allowed egress), where the regulations governing usage were more complicated than the legal action in Bleak House and where plenty of signs and pamplets informed the library with an unpleasant “eat your vegetables” undercurrent.

Libraries have powerful competition from other directions, from Amazon to Google Book Search. Whether libraries provide an important service is irrelevant if they provide it in a manner that drives their users away, particularly the users who vote.

Recently a public library director told me that he “hates” emailed courtesy notices because “they set up customers’ expectations that the Library will help manage their accounts. ” Yes, sir, indeed they do, just as we expect our banks, stores, universities, HMOs, and other organizations to provide us information that makes navigating our complex worlds that much easier. Treat me well–21st-century style–and I am far more inclined to vote for the library bond act rather than commit the same money to buying used books on the Web for less than it costs to drive cross-town to your cathedral of information. L2, among other points it makes, tells librarians to hurry up please, it’s time: grasp the importance of embracing comfort and life-management services, or be prepared for extinction.

It’s not just public libraries. I look at a service like Open Worldcat, which I find so very helpful, and I see so much potential for interactivity, but then its user-review feature doesn’t to include Amazon-like capabilities to to see what you’ve reviewed, find other reviewers, etc. It’s ironic that the Big O can put on absolutely amazing symposiums where phrases such as “Long Tail” are tossed around with alacrity and offer such deep thinking on blogs from Lorcan Dempsey and the technology quintuplets, but it cannot seem to eat its own cooking.

On the other hand, from out of nowhere comes a call to arms for a toe-to-scalp overhaul of the library catalog from what is quite possibly the most hidebound institution in California–no, not the Legislature, the University of California library system. A year or so ago I spent many hours doing research in the stacks of UC Berkeley, going through decades of library newsletters. Every once in a while, I saw, UC gets a healthy disruption to business as usual, typically from a small sleeper cell of brave and persistent souls. Four and five decades ago, free-thinkers such as Anne Lipow pushed UC in new directions. These days, the shove within comes from an unnamed (though easily findable) team of librarians who are impatient with the staff-centric, Pleistocene bibliographic practices of yesteryear and critical of the longstanding practice of the library revolving around the capabilities and comfort zones of librarians. Waiter, I’ll have what they’re having. Formez vos bataillons! (I have a longer post on UC’s report pending at ALA TechSource.)

All that said, L2 and its related theories need more implementation plans. I hope a trend we see in 2006 is to take the good ideas of L2 and turn them into action.

The Increasing Diversity of Voices

The Biblioblogosphere is healthy, happy, and wise. In 2005, several new association blogs emerged, with LITA’s blog going so far as to break the traditional copyright mold and place its content under a Creative Commons license; many longstanding voices continued to contribute; new voices arose; some libraries began offering blogs. I like that the loose federation of library bloggers hasn’t turned into a giant-weenie contest; there’s a lot of sharing and cross-chatter, emulating what’s going on in the world at large.

Additionally, blogging in some quarters is going “pro.” ALA Techsource launched a professional blog this fall–full disclosure: in theory I write for TechSource, though in practice, due to my MFA workload, my contributions are few and far between. I began 2005 by attending a conference about blogging and mainstream media, in the middle of the year attended a conference about blogging and women, and wrapped up the year by attending a cozy conference about academic blogging where I got to sit within spittin’ distance of Juan Cole. I appreciate that these conferences actively sought the “library” spin on blogging and hope that’s the trend we can follow in the future: to be truly free range librarians, not necessarily tied to facilities, but to theory and practices and philosophies. That is the nature of a true profession.

Google Reigns Supreme

It is worth noting, again, how Google has almost no competition and is essentially the VHS of search engine formats. Furthermore, every six months that many more humans are introduced to Google and to the magic of full-text searching. This only continues to widen the usability gap between how our library applications work (from MPOW to your typical library catalog) and the conceptual models our users bring to our tools. Don’t look at me and tell me how you can use library catalogs just fine; tell me how you’re going to change your tools to meet the users where they are.

Some random thoughts and questions

RFID in a holding pattern? (Or, in other words, are some libraries waiting for next-gen RFID?)

Downloadable audiobooks: how’s that coming along? Are we seeing strong usage patterns?

Has Sony completely lost touch with reality, or do you all see something in its “new” ebook reader I’ve overlooked? Hey, I did Rocketbooks in the ’90s, and I can tell you all about expensive book readers with proprietary book formats. FRL doesn’t usually do investment advice, but I caution you on this one. But never mind about me! What do you think?

As a PUBLIB thread suggests, is the print reference collection continuing its slide toward demise? One post suggested that the financial trade-off per search might not be worth it for some materials, but I wonder if the ROI comes in other ways–liberated shelf-space, self-serve access, etc.

What’s the 411 with virtual reference? If you market it, do they come, and what does that mean for analog reference? Can you do VR with low-cost instant messaging and adroit marketing, or do you really need the full-metal-jacket, co-browsin’ Java-jumpin’ user-crashin’ breathtakingly costly software to do VR, not that I’ve got an opinion or anything?

Am I overly hopeful, or do fewer library websites suck as badly as was true a year or so ago? (Is there such a think as a Library Website of the Year award, and who would it go to?)

Andrew Pace rocked the catalog; will he be alone, or will you follow?

So, how’s OpenURL doing these days?

Do I sense fewer and fewer libraries are using library staff as traffic cops and are using PC management software?

Why can’t I pay fines online at any library I have a card for (and that’s five so far)?

Seems to me libraries are embracing wifi for users, which is great if belated. We could have done this in 1999 (and some did). Are we consistently five to seven years behind in introducing technology to users?

What big ol’ things am I missing?

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