Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Tales of Technology Innovation Gone Wrong: No Matter What Kind of Library You Work in These Days, You Live and Breathe Technology Solutions for Information Discovery and Retrieval

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Tales of Technology Innovation Gone Wrong: No Matter What Kind of Library You Work in These Days, You Live and Breathe Technology Solutions for Information Discovery and Retrieval

Article excerpt

People don't want to talk about failure, and technological innovations that don't work out are especially difficult for librarians to discuss. With innovation, you are trying something new--you are boldly going where no man has gone before, and the road may be a bumpy one. Sometimes we find out too late that we are on the wrong road altogether, and on the information highway the failures can be spectacular. Also, technological failures are expensive in terms of money and time lost, and they are often minimized by library directors in their annual reports in favor of reporting more positive outcomes.

In the home state of Thomas Edison, one of the greatest inventors and innovators, the New Jersey Library Association gives a Technology Innovation Award annually, and we are proud of the forward thinking of our librarians. But we don't talk about the technology bloopers, even though these are often the projects that start us questioning and redesigning and coming up with the technologies that eventually succeed. In fact, we would not have many of the basic technologies that we use every day, such as laptops, cell phones, or even the internet itself, if there hadn't been precursor projects. We learn from our mistakes.

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Today's million-dollar question about technological innovation in libraries is whether the new Library 2.0 technologies are winners or bloopers. Are the so-called "social technologies" of wikis, blogs, Facebook, YouTube, and virtual worlds such as Second Life right for libraries? Libraries are social organizations, after all, and "libraries build communities," as the ALA slogan goes, so wouldn't these be the perfect tools for our patrons?

Facebook, for example, is a technology built for individuals to share their faves and raves. Is this medium suitable for the academic reference librarian, who often is a faculty member, represents the educational institution, and refers students to quality information resources? Many university students say that they think it's "creepy" when they are approached online by a librarian asking to be their "friend," and many will tell you that a link to a quick OPAC search is not the personal statement that anyone would shout about in their profile. Professional, not personal, relationships are what academic librarians seek, so Facebook might not be the best place for a reference interview, but we have a good number of librarians trying to innovate with this new technology to adapt it to library uses.

Many librarians also question the steep learning curve and large amounts of immersive training time that a virtual world environment, such as Second Life, presents for their staff. Academic librarians who seek to provide information literacy and remote reference services are trying to use this new gaming interface technology--which sometimes reduces the content to what pundits refer to as "edutainment."

Recently, I spoke to Carolyn Wood, the adult services and technology librarian at the West Deptford Free Public Library and a 2007 ALA Emerging Leaders Program member, who had these cogent questions about Second Life (SL) use for public libraries: "Is there a real need for individual public libraries in SL? Public libraries need to assess scalability and sustainability of virtual world R&D. In my opinion the platform may be better suited to exploring alternate means of service delivery. Do SL inhabitants place value on traditional library services? I would like to see virtual reference alternatives explored in nontraditional ways. [QandANJ.org] virtual reference support in SL may be viable. I do caution that technology is merely a tool--even in a virtual world."

The question to ask of Library 2.0 is this: Do I have the right tool for the job? Form and function are very important when evaluating any tool for use, even for a new, as-yet-unimagined use. (I'm sure Jet Li could think of a martial arts use for a mouse in one of his movies, but I wouldn't call that technological innovation. …

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