Magazine article Computers in Libraries

The Multi-Touch Tipping Point for Reading Online: The Tipping Point of Reading from Screens Is Right Here, Right Now, and If You Haven't Felt It Yet, You're about To

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

The Multi-Touch Tipping Point for Reading Online: The Tipping Point of Reading from Screens Is Right Here, Right Now, and If You Haven't Felt It Yet, You're about To

Article excerpt

I started a new job in 2001 and was surprised to hear from public service librarians at the institution I'd gone to work for that they thought live, in-person reference services were soon to be a thing of the past. So much so that they were already winding down desk hours for professionals and ramping up online hours. They'd seen their in-person numbers go down steadily, and once the online reference options improved enough, plenty of students showed they were still eager for support from a reference librarian, but only if they could get it online. This didn't seem right to me at the time--I'd come from working in a medical school where in-person reference still mattered quite a lot. And that medical school library was down the street from an enormous humanities library where I couldn't imagine a majority of reference staff interactions would ever be online instead of in person.

Times have changed, and what I thought was a unique situation at a technical school with an unusually tech-savvy community seems to have shifted quite far outward. Recently, friends in public services at that humanities library told me that they've been seeing the exact same trends for quite a while, and that their service patterns have already shifted toward online and other modes of communication (scheduled meetings and the like) and away from the bulk of their work being in-person transactions with people in the library at a reference desk. That's not to say that nobody ever goes to the library anymore. But we all know that some people never go to the library anymore, and though that doesn't mean they don't use the library anymore, we've had to change to adapt to user needs and preferences.

Ugh ... How many times have you heard that phrase before: "change to adapt to user needs and preferences"? It's as if there's somebody out there who doesn't quite understand that what libraries and librarians do is to shape information services to fit user needs and preferences, period, whether those needs and preferences are changing or staying the same. Every type of service, every means to deliver a service or a resource, the shapes of resources themselves--these things are always in a state of flux and sometimes are more stable than others.

When we're lucky, we can see a change coming from far enough away to adapt to it swiftly and usefully. The subtle art of knowing what to give up in exchange for doing something new is a difficult balance, and the answers aren't always clear. But looking back, it's pretty easy to see that with email and Web adoption rates being what they were, most people were going to want to interact with information and information service providers over email and the Web.

So far I'm not telling you anything you don't know. And in recent months I've written a lot about trends we all have a good handle on already, like the dual nature of social networks (you reaching out to others and others reaching in to you) and the coming mass duplication of mass information (like WorldCat in your pocket). Something I haven't written about much is the shift in reading patterns from print to online. We all know it's happening, but just like I doubted when I first heard about virtual reference taking over for in-person reference, many of us might not be willing to accept yet that most people will soon read most things online.

It doesn't even seem feasible to me, either, in a lot of ways. At my house, we still subscribe to two daily papers and we have shelves and shelves of paper books we churn through regularly. Yes, the luminosity of the printed page still can't be beat; yes, the latest crop of ebook readers still isn't quite there yet, and their proprietary interfaces and file formats still don't make sense. Yes, people still print stuff out like crazy in reference rooms with public access machines. But the tipping point of reading from screens is right here, right now, and if you haven't felt it yet, you're about to. …

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