Herein are some of the things I’ve been thinking about lately in regards to libraries and computers and digital literacy. Some of this series will probably be “late pass” territory, but I’m trying to sort out what’s on my mind, and what I’ve been reading and experiencing.
This is part two of three. You should read part one first. You know, if you want to.
I read this opinion piece about The Philly Free Library not serving 21st century patrons. The author has a lot of complaints which contain a kernel of truth, and a lot of misunderstanding. For example:
In 2012, citizens want answers to their basic technology questions, not to be walked over to a book shelf to thumb through a 400-page book that is not even relevant because it was published in 2002; meanwhile, the patron’s 40 minutes of computer time ticks away at the library computer terminal.
A 400 page manual from 2002, no. But a lot of people looking to improve their basic computer skills are more comfortable learning things via print, after all this is what they have done for the majority of their lives. This quote also illustrates an essential disconnect between providing reference (in which librarians are told to focus on instruction) and patron questions (in which a patron just wants an answer already). The author also says:
Instead of the library system hauling the majority of its materials across town from one branch to another, as is currently done (with gas at $4 per gallon), digitizing the library collection is eco-friendly, the wave of the future.
There are at least two problems with this, the first of course being a complete misunderstanding of the library’s ability to digitize it’s collection (in case you don’t know – 1. it would be illegal, due to that pesky little thing called copyright, to scan and make freely available most of a library’s collection. Particularly a public library’s collection, which would not have a lot of older works that have passed into public domain. If you’re interested, look up the Google Book Search lawsuit to see what a morass this kind of thing is. And – 2. It takes a lot of time, money, fancy equipment, and staff time. A LOT. Really, really, a lot. Many libraries, being government funded, are running way under-staffed. And of course have very tight budgets. Even if we could legally do it, we couldn’t do it practically).
The second problem is these citizens who have the “basic technology questions” referred to in the first quote. If a person doesn’t have the skills to use a mouse, how will they be able to use this digital collection? Reducing access to a library’s physical books removes another basic life activity from people on the other side of the divide.
I think this article, with all it’s misunderstandings, does bring up some good points that many libraries struggle with:
- Outdated collections not only give patrons bad information, they really make libraries look like backwards institutions
- Libraries could do more to serve digital “haves,” they’d love access to a wider variety of software programs, better user interfaces (including mobile apps, etc.), and more digital content.
- Patrons really don’t understand what reference is. We need to be better about providing service that satisfies both the patron’s question and the library’s mission to promote literacy skills.
- Patrons don’t understand what libraries and librarians do in general. (At my last job, at a very special library, an employee from another department asked me “So what do you guys do here in the library? Just kind of tidy up?”)
- Patrons view many of the restrictions placed on us (e.g. copyright, or limitations on ebooks) as our fault. These are seen as LIBRARY FAIL.
But the biggest misunderstanding in this article is misunderstanding what it means to be on the other side of the digital divide. It’s not just “oh these people need someone to tell them once how to attach something to an email,” it’s that these people need comprehensive, intensive, and extensive HELP. Maybe more than a library’s current staffing, materials, and infrastructure can provide.