Toward the New Millennium: The Human Side of Library Automation (Revisited)

By Smith, Kitty | Information Technology and Libraries, June 1993 | Go to article overview

Toward the New Millennium: The Human Side of Library Automation (Revisited)


Smith, Kitty, Information Technology and Libraries


The purpose of this paper is to reexamine some of the human factors of human-machine system from an individual and organizational behavior stand point, particularly as they relate to the automation of libraries. Rather than emphasizing the findings of ergonomics' "human factors" research, the text focuses on how important to the success of human-machine system are individual, social, and organizational responses to automation. It is hoped that what is presented here will serve as food for thought to library managers and others who bear the responsibility for automated products, systems, and services, and to the professional reader seeking further understanding of the role and impact of automation on a traditional human and frequently bureaucratic) institution, the library.

THE HUMAN CONDITION--WHO IS SLAVE AND WHO IS MASTER?

The fact is that Civilization requires slaves.... Human slavery is wrong, insecure and demoralizing. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends.--Oscar Wilde[1]

Are we really the masters of our machines, or have we made ourselves slaves of computers? Or do we perhaps need a new paradigm. that of interdependency, to describe our current relationship with our automated technologies? Today, the computer's presence is so pervasive that we barely notice it. People drive cars, find information, transact business, buy and sell, bank money, check books out of the library, pay bills, phone home, get instruction, work, and play with the help of computers. It is a rare day when human beings, their lives, and their occupations are not affected by applications of computer technology. Libraries are no exception. Only ten years ago, the term "library automation" was chiefly identified with large libraries using large systems for handling large accounting or inventory-like tasks, such as circulation and acquisitions. These systems ran on large computers and were accessed via large (but "dumb") terminals. Now, as the result of astonishing advances and the availability of microprocessor, CD-ROM, and other miniaturized technologies, plus interactive data communications capabilities, the world is literally at our fingertips. Library automation is accomplished on a desktop (or laptop) workstation or, through simple phone connections, through a local, nationwide, or worldwide network.

With the approach of a new century, it is natural to pause and reflect on progress achieved in the way we five and work. Contemplating the current electronic age, one might even be moved to offer thanks for the benefits the computer has brought to our lives and workplaces. For many libraries and librarians, the computer has found its niche so swiftly and quietly that we may often take it for granted. Indeed, it may be difficult to remember the days when we occupied precious time with a multitude of servile, routine, labor-intensive tasks, now performed by our computers, which take care of the menial work, freeing us for more creative, "big-picture" responsibilities.

Or so we had hoped.

When the system is down, is slow, contains wrong information, or is not flexible enough to handle the inevitable exceptions, individuals become acutely aware of its limitations. In many instances, it is we who must accommodate ourselves to the demands of the computer, providing answers to its questions, rather than the other way around. For example, for some tasks, the computer requires us to change even the way we think. That is, different conceptual skills are needed when we move from manual systems to automated ones. Kriz and Queijo have described this change as a cognitive shift from physical cues to an abstract, "virtual information space."[2] They compare the process to that of describing to a stranger the route to a destination we ourselves could reach without conscious thought. The task requires an abstraction, the construction of a "mental map." This is the very same process employed when one uses keyboard commands to bring bibliographic information up on a screen instead of handling objects such as catalog cards or paper indexes. …

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