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The Myopia of Techy Librarians February 18, 2010

Posted by pupfiction in Uncategorized.
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Today I (virtually) attended the second Handheld Librarian Conference. I had the opportunity of watching three sessions:

1. “This is Now: The Mobile Library” by Joe Murphy from New Haven, CT.

2. “Developing Library Websites Optimized for Mobile Devices” by Brendan Ryan of Providence College.

3. “Mobile Trends and Social Reference” by Alison Miller a Doctorate student of Professional Studies in Information Management at Syracuse University, School of Information Studies.

Overall, the conference did exactly as advertised–the sessions explained the current trends in mobile technologies and how to apply them to library services. The second session, “Developing Library Websites Optimized for Mobile Devices”, was the most straightforward, giving detailed instructions on how to build a mobile web site, including lists of resources and web sites, barriers, challenges, lessons learned, examples, etc. The other two were highly informative as well but I have a problem with this subject matter that I think needs to be discussed in greater detail.

From Toban Black's Flickr stream

My first problem with libraries embracing social media is Twitter. I love Twitter; I use it for this blog and also have my own personal account. But report after report says that young people don’t use Twitter. As an academic librarian, Twitter is not going to do much for my patrons. Is it going to do anything for my fellow librarians? Joe Murphy suggested we use it to facilitate committee chatter. I heartily agree with Joe that, harnessed correctly, Twitter can boost professional development and sharing. But the learning curve is extreme, especially for those not born into the digital revolution. I can’t blame Joe for his enthusiasm over augmented reality, QR codes, and location-based gaming because I think they’re great as well, but I do blame him for falling into the trap of “techy librarian myopia.”

Those who are addicted to technology and use it throughout the day, every day, often forget that most of the world does not use technology in the same way. One of the statistics Alison shared was that 63.1% of mobile users sent a text as of December 2009. She, and many others, acted as if this number was astoundingly high. I though it was low. If only 63.1% of mobile users in America have texted, how many have Tweeted? How many have gone on Facebook? How many are going to text a reference question? It’s easy to forget that we, especially as librarians, are not the general public and don’t use technology the same way they do. We are constantly in danger of being too cutting edge. I think this conference teetered on the edge of that precipice. I remember when I first discovered Mashable and threw around Peter Cashmore’s name like he was my BFF. Turns out 95% of my friends still have no idea who he is. Just because we have become a profession of netizens and social media junkies, doesn’t mean our clientele has the same needs as us.

The second problem I had is what the presenters referred (fleetingly) to as the “mobile divide.” For years we have been hearing about the digital divide, and trying to decrease it. That is the library’s job–providing equal access to information and media for everyone in a community. One of the commenters in the chat room mentioned that the mobile divide will be smaller than the digital divide because cell phones are cheaper than computers. This is greatly simplifying a multifaceted problem. Cell phones may be cheaper but smartphones are not that much cheaper than netbooks. And both “divides” are about so much more than owning technology. They are about being raised in a culture that embraces technology, research, and learning. Two people may both have iPhones, but depending on their socioeconomic background, education, and the way they were raised, they may use the iPhones in completely different ways. The challenge for us as librarians is the same–teach people how to find reliable and current information. Mobile technologies do not bridge the divide. Using Twitter, Facebook, various augmented reality apps, Foursquare, QR codes, etc. require learning and support.

My final issue, and one the conference understandably ignored, is cost. The point of the conference was to explore and share technologies, not to discuss whether they were feasible. While Twitter, Foursquare, Facebook, and many programs that turn sites into mobile sites are free, the time dedicated to embracing such technologies is not. And time is one of our greatest resources.

I think that it is important that we discuss these trends and I think the presenters did a great job of doing just that. It is my hope that participants will closely examine their user population before jumping into any kind of relationship with these trends. If there is someone techy on staff who can set up a Facebook page in ten minutes and show colleagues how to use it in a 20 minute powerpoint presentation, then go ahead–nothing is lost. But if you have to spend hours upon hours creating a mobile site when half of your patrons don’t even know what an “app” is, then focus on something else, like building your collection. It is and has always been the librarians’ job to meet the needs of their user population.

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