Oh how we fret about tech

Three articles related to libraries, technology and e-books caught my eye this week. Taken together, they paint a picture of how much the library and book world collectively fret about whether we’re offering enough technology services to the public.

First there is the Nielsen report about teens’ preference for print versus e-books. I’m not sure how surprising this is, but I know it’s something many librarians and booksellers worry about — will anyone be reading print in the future? I check books out to teens all the time at my library and I am the parents of a teen who has never read an e-book for pleasure and regularly shops for regular books, so my view of this might be skewed by daily experience, but I was happy to read a report that backs up my optimism about print. If young people are not developing an affinity for e-books growing up, it seems unlikely that will be their preference as adults. I was also heartened to read that a solid number — about 45% — of teens are influenced by social media in making reading choicesm which is good news for libraries like mine trying to ramp up our social media presence. I’m hopeful that as The Teen Zone, Concord Public Library’s teen tumblr, and its sibling the CPL Reading-Rumblr, gain more followers, we’ll be helping people find good reads.

Next came a report from Britain on the state of public libraries. I was appalled to read a) only 35% of people in England use the library regularly (the closest stat I could find for the US is 54% who went to a library sometime in the previous 12 months, from a 2013 Pew report), b) one of the major recommendations, according to the Independent‘s story, is to offer Wi-Fi and “a comfortable, retail-standard environment, with the usual amenities of coffee, sofas and toilets,” and c) “The Government should secure changes in European and UK copyright law to enable library users to borrow e-books remotely in the next legislative term, the report recommended.” Whoa. I had no idea that only about a third of British citizens use libraries, that 1/3 of British libraries lack Wi-Fi, nor that in the UK readers can’t check out e-books outside of libraries. Two things really disturbed me:  the suggestion regarding making libraries more like cafes, and this bit about recruiting and training staff: “21st century librarian(s) will need… digital and commercial expertise.” Sounds like the British government believes that if they turn libraries into Starbucks and librarians into cafe managers they’ll have solved their problems! Wi-Fi is important, but focusing on hot drinks rather than recognizing — and educating the public –that librarians’ information skills trump random internet searching seems incredibly short-sighted and, frankly, daft! If the British government doesn’t appreciate librarians’ primary role in supporting the development of a literate and well-read citizenry, I don’t see how any of the other recommendations will do much good.

And about that digital expertise — I hosted the NH State Library’s Technology Resources Librarian Bobbi Slossar recently to talk to our staff about “customer service in the digital age.” I’d heard her speak at the NHLA Reference and Adult Services fall conference, and what really resonated with me about her approach is this point: Bobbi noted that libraries have always had car repair manuals but no one ever expected librarians to go out and do an oil change for a patron, so why should we approach tech. customer service any differently? Her solution is that staff need to focus on being librarians — teaching people how to find the information they need to solve their own tech problems — rather than trying to be help desk staff. And she notes that to teach others, we have to be comfortable with and knowledgeable about tech but even more importantly, we have to use our reference interview skills to get to the heart of what a patron needs. I couldn’t agree more (maybe British librarians should fly Bobbi over to address Parliament?), so I appreciated “The Art of Sweet Talking Or How to Talk Tech to Patrons.” Jason Pinshower, like Bobbi, notes that how we talk to patrons is just as important as what we say. His advice? “Our patrons need to be able to confide in us and feel comfortable being embarrassed about their technology need. Nobody enjoys asking for help.”  I love that. I tell patrons all the time that I personally find printers really frustrating, and it truly does make someone feel better if you admit you struggle with technology.

Thanks for reading Nocturnal Librarian and best wishes for a happy and healthful holiday season. See you in 2015!



Stillness Capital of Imaginations

I love Ben Ratliff’s paean to old-school stacks browsing at the Butler Library at Columbia University in today’s New York Times “Still Life” column: “the Butler stacks, the stillness capital of my imagination.”  Wow.

Stillness. The antidote to the busyness of websites, social media, viral videos, and other enemies of quiet reflection. Ratliff says, “I think by writing, and I write on a computer; the computer also contains the Internet, which manufactures express-service context as well as overstatement, sociopathy and lameness.” Amen, brother.

He goes on to praise physical stack browsing: “Doing it the inefficient way, you use the senses. You look at a row of spines, imprinted with butch, ultra-legible white or black type; your eye takes in more at any time than can be contained on a computer screen. You hold the books in your hand and feel the weight and size; the typography and the paper talk to you about time.”  I say again, amen.

And then this: “You can also create luck in any given spot: You turn your head to the opposing row of books. A different subject area can arise, perhaps only partly to do with your areas of interest. This is non-link-based browsing. You can discover, instead of being endlessly sought.” Alleluia!

Sing it, brother Ratliff. This is the soul of library browsing. Libraries are caught up right now in being technologically savvy. We are working hard to use QR codes, Google indoor mapping, mobile catalogs, blogs, Tumblr feeds, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and whatever else might attract “digital natives.”  We lend e-books and even e-readers. We teach database navigation.

I understand libraries have to serve all our patrons and that there are benefits to efficient online searching. But what if our core mission is to be the stillness capital of imaginations? We must continue to be that, no matter what other services we provide.