Digital Divide on the Inside

October 26, 2009

Technology and reference are intertwining strands of public service. As our systems get more sophisticated, and as our desire to overhaul and remake those systems gets more intense, libraries need librarians who are tech-savvy and back-office staff who are pure tech. But is the drive toward more technologyoriented public service a one-way street? Or is it equally important for techies to have public service experience and skills, too? During my time as a back-office techie, I found myself somewhat unmoored by the experience. I was a walking bundle of solutions looking for problems. But the job did enable me to explore technology with which I wasn't as familiar.

Among the lessons I learned is that it's easy for back-office techies to see public service librarians as overly cautious with regard to technology, but that caution is often the result of public service staff's constant contact with the library's least tech-savvy patrons. Dedicated librarians see themselves as advocates for their patrons, which, when combined with sufficient time on a public desk, can result in a more tempered enthusiasm. Public service doesn't make us negative; it just inspires a let's-think-about-this-aminute outlook.

Each area of librarianship offers a valuable perspective, but I see a lot of snark online that's veering toward a dismissive attitude toward public service librarians who seem hesitant about techie insights and ideas. I think it's important to remember that we're all driven by the same goals-we want to provide the very best to our patrons. Often, that librarian with the "negative" perspective is thinking of patron complaints she has handled in the past.

Working together

I've been advocating for kindness as a guiding principle for working with patrons, but it's equally important for working with each other. We should celebrate each other's technological fervor and still appreciate the learned caution of the public service staff.

Rather than rolling our eyes about veteran librarians who haven't mastered a new CMS, kindness encourages us to ask the front-liners about their concerns and get to the root of their caution. Online, librarians are focused on pushing forward those who are resistant to change. We vent on Twitter and blogs about the Luddite librarians who don't understand why they can't change the text in an image on their library's website or who panic at the prospect of migrating to an open source ILS.

Libraries need change and we need to get better and quicker at adapting. But when it comes to working with our colleagues, I think we're headed toward a double standard. We need our front-line staff to understand tech, to be sure, and even in the relatively short time that I've been a librarian, I've seen huge leaps forward in that area. Tech savvy is becoming just as important as public service experience. We expect librarians to keep up with tech and be willing to learn more about it, but we also need to get better at differentiating between problematic resistance to change and tempered enthusiasm.

In any organization, the IT staff has a lot of power. They know things the rest of us don't: passwords, how to get the printer to work, why the screen on that public machine is upside down.

But we're doing library techies a disservice if we don't give them access to our end users. Time spent with patrons shapes and informs staff perspectives. It's easy to huff at experienced librarians who seem slow to learn new technologies and dismiss their concerns, but it's also lazy and immature to do so. We owe it to our users and our colleagues to take the time to look for insight from all corners of our organization.



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