Gadgets and Gizmos

Personal electronics in the library

April 15, 2010

If we think back, we can imagine a time before the book and, once books became inexpensive and widespread, how revolutionary and democratizing the book was as a tool for sharing information. It must have been incredible to think that you could have so much text in such a compact form, and so many of them!

The technological revolution that we are going through now will make that look like a blip in history.

The last 10 years have seen more information created, shared, and collected than in the rest of human history combined. The digital revolution has been the enabler, beginning with the personal computer and continuing through to the creation of the internet and now the rise of the mobile device. We've seen a huge shift in the last 20 years, as microchips get smaller and smaller, and cheaper and cheaper, to the point where even the least expensive digital toy you can buy has more computing power than the machines that were used to crack the German Enigma codes during World War II.

Personal electronics, or gadgets, are something that our patrons are using; but more important, they are a part of the future of information retrieval and sharing. They are becoming an increasingly important and even critical component of the way that information is generated and disseminated, and it's important that librarians be aware of what gadgets are available, what they can do, what they cost, and how practical they are in different settings.

There are several general categories of gadget, including electronic book readers (e-book readers) like the Amazon Kindle and the Barnes and Noble Nook. We'll also dive into personal multimedia players, media capture devices like the Flip video camera and the Zoom H2 audio recorder, as well as scanners and note-taking helpers. If you can consume or produce it, there is likely an electronic device that lets you do so more easily and cheaply than you thought possible.

Why gadgets?

Moore's Law is still driving the price down and the complexity of computing devices up to such an extent that we are now seeing portable devices that truly would have been unimaginable not that long ago. For instance, for $150 you can buy a portable video camera that can capture higher quality video than an entire television studio could just two decades ago. These devices are the miracles of the modern technological age, and they are enabling the creation and consumption of content in truly remarkable ways.

These silicon wonders are significant to librarians for three key reasons. First of all, our patrons are using them more and more. In the same way that we began to build library websites as more patrons took to the web, we need to be fluent in the language of gadgets as they become more common among patrons.

Second, these devices can make us more effective and efficient at our jobs. They can give libraries new venues for the distribution of content. They can make complex tasks simpler, help librarians share information with one another more rapidly and efficiently, and help us provide better, more advanced service.

Finally, these devices often change the nature of information interactions. They provide interesting opportunities for the delivery of content, something libraries should always be interested in. You have a much richer, multimodal experience with a number of these gadgets than you do with the traditional print world. When it's possible for you to read text, click a link to a video, and then leave a comment correcting something about the original text, your relationship with the consumption of media has changed. Libraries and librarians need to understand this changing landscape, and the windows through which we interact with this new world of information are gadgets.

Jason Griffey is the head of Library Information Technology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. This article was excerpted from the April 2010 issue of Library Technology Reports.