The Technology Storm

By Michael Casey & Michael Stephens

We’re a far cry from the days when technology was solely the domain of the IT folks at the library. Now, much of what we do is linked to using, planning for, implementing, and evaluating all manner of technologies-from web site design/redesign and the rapidly growing trend of using social tools in the library all the way to finding out what hardware works best for the library and how to implement radio frequency identification (RFID).

While teams and committees ponder decisions about how a technology will fit in, the big picture decisions also require a transparent approach to politics. This may be easily overlooked, but it is painful if forgotten.

Political openness

Remember what makes the transparent library work. The new web is open, so be willing to share. Do you allow anyone on staff to contribute a post to a blog? Are the blog writers and readers willing to hear criticism without playing the blame game? The answer should be yes.

Larger, more involved projects can stir the political and organizational culture even more. Consider recent RFID implementations at many libraries. There have been well-publicized conflicts at the San Francisco Public Library and nearby Berkeley Public Library, but other facilities struggle under the radar to gain buy-in and smooth transitions.

What worked so very well in a demo may not translate to immediate success in your building. Polarized staff and users may feel frustration as tagging projects slow and the technology is pushed to the limit. Unfortunately, with expensive projects administrators often need to demonstrate immediate returns.

The web site challenge

Consider the library’s web site. Too many organizations refuse to put up anything new until it has been examined and focus-grouped to death. The transparent library announces to everyone that improvements are being made and pushes out the new product as soon as it can. An informed public is (usually) an understanding public; users should prefer a work-in-progress over an old, customer-unfriendly web site.

Modern web sites are driven with content management systems, both the software type and the human type. Teams should get together and share information, looking at system needs. They must organize the content with an eye toward end user needs, not internal department power grabs. Various departments must share the responsibility of creating and maintaining fresh web site content; the web site manager then becomes more of a project manager than an original content creator.

OCLC’s 2005 report “Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources” told us a dirty little secret: only one percent of information seekers start with the library web site, preferring easier-to-use web sites, even if the latter don’t lead to information of comparable quality.

Library web site managers often must contend with many different and entrenched interests-materials selectors who want to market their books, outreach staff who want notices for upcoming events, children’s section staff who want a visually appealing kid’s page, and administrators who simply want a popular, error-free site. It can’t be the job of one person.

Unlocking the organization

In this new world, these models no longer fly:

• Locked-down library web sites held captive by overzealous IT departments or marketing/PR offices.
• Technology purchases driven by accounting departments instead of front-line staff and savvy professionals.
• Technology decisions and plans without staff buy-in.
• IT projects driven by artificial time lines instead of customer service needs.
• A siege mentality because of concerns about security, privacy, and safety of data.

The models might be better replaced by the traits of the Transparent Library:

• Make decisions in public. Hold meetings and invite staff and public comment for all major projects.
• Create multiple avenues of communication and encourage vertical communication among all levels of staff.
• Share plans and steps for projects and listen to feedback.

As you create and adapt library services, also consider technology usage statistics. Analysis of computer use, web site traffic, and the return on investment for all technology projects is essential.

This should also be part of the library’s story you tell to boards, governing bodies, and, of course, our users. Mindful, genuine, inclusive planning is the best way to navigate the technology storm.

Link List

“Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources”

Michael Casey is Information Technology Division Director, Gwinnett County Public Library, Lawrenceville, CA, and co-author of Library 2.0.

November 15, 2007 Library Journal