Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The dark side of Library 2.0, part 2: new bridges… new divides?

First, thanks for all the great insights and responses on the first part of my series! This has been one of my most popular articles to date, and it definitely seems to be echoing a common sentiment. Since we all seem to agree that user needs should be paramount in selecting technologies…I’d like to pose this follow-up question: Is that new toy you want to install on the server going to be a bridge to information to your users…or a hurdle? I warn you, I had a lot more to say on this issue than I expected, so this is a bit long…

The dark side of Library 2.0, part 2: New bridges…New divides?

The Typical College student: “non-traditional” to the core!

While I am very proud of the institution I work for, and think that we produce bachelor-degreed students who can perform at an equal level to either of the “prestigious” state universities…we ain’t Harvard. That’s actually one of the things I love about this school. What we are is a high-quality, low-cost bridge to the middle class for 1st generation college students, adult learners, and an increasing number of students for who English is not their first language. The “non-traditional” university student is now the norm, at least in my corner of academia—and probably in yours too. These are people who are well-acquainted with the concept of working their tails off to achieve their goals. Some of them may have never laid eyes on USB drives or a full-text database before they came to campus, but I’d still take most of them as students over plenty of “gifted students” I’ve known.

What's my point with this nonsequitur into regional college demographics? Just a reminder that not all college students are millenials, and not all millenials are tech-savvy geeks. The technologies that may seem as familiar and intuitive to us as the TV remote are often completely alien to many “non-traditional” college students, who already have a lot of unfamiliar burdens being placed on them. Many of the students I help have never created a chart in excel and need a tutorial to copy and paste a persistent URL from EBSCO. I am not saying these things to demean. Most students have had other priorities in their lives than keeping up with the latest in high tech. I have to remember, and in all honesty occasionally forget, that I have a vastly different relationship to technology than does a typical "non-traditional" college student.

Barriers masquerading as bridges, or “For the want of a VPN login…”

There are days on the reference desk when I sometimes wonder if a poorly implemented bit of technology is worse than no technology as all. Our former route to login to the university’s VPN (we have 3 campuses, and approximately 40% of our courses are offered online) required a download, a 10-step install process, and ONLY WORKED WITH WINDOWS 2000 or XP! Own a Mac? Still putting along on a Windows 98 machine because you can't afford a new system? No Remote Access for you!

Fortunately, we finally got that resolved at the start of this semester to a web-based login when the IT department upgraded the VPN software. The old system wasn't there for so long because we were a backwards library who didn't advocate for our patrons, or because our IT department is an evil nerd cult who sacrifices puppies in the server room! We couldn't afford the technology, and we can barely afford people to run it. I doubt I'm bursting any bubbles here, but the digital divide doesn't just affect the folks on the other side of the staff area door. The net result is that perfectly intelligent, hard-working students transfer to schools with better technology--or worse, think that not being able to decipher our arcane systems means they can't hack it in college.

Poor user education

I’m sure none of us nextgen, 2.0 types have ever seen a less technologically fluent coworker wince or look concerned when we excitedly unveiled the newest cool widget we wanted to add to the website. But if on some off chance you have…can you imagine the look on one of these “nontraditional” students’ faces when they login to the website to see they have to learn all over again how to get to a $#%! journal article? At least you’ve provided advance warning about the redesign or new service... and a faq or instructions…in plain english...and that isn’t only in some ram-hogging video or flash format that will crash those Windows 98 machines…right?

I have no objections to those whiz-bang interactive tutorials that are all the rage—in fact I’d love to get IT to let me put some on our website! That said, at least provide an alternative link to plain HTML! I don't care what high-flying technobabble is on your business card—if you work in a library, you’re an educator. As I said in part one, our job is to connect our patrons to information in the most efficient manner possible, and to make our offerings as attractive as we can to potential new patrons. And there are many times when too much technology, or technology poorly implemented, can get in the way of that goal.

So, what do you do if you are stuck with the flaky web server, or a 3-page login process that appears to have been poorly translated from Urdu? How do you deal with the nursing students cropping up with questions about writing excel formulas like clockwork in the 10th week of every semester? You do your job. You educate. You educate again. You educate once more. Even when you think you will go mad if you have to say "click control-C to copy…" one more time, you take a deep breath and do it. Rewrite that login process. Take someone from IT to lunch so they think of you as someone other than "that whining tech librarian". Educate your patrons, your coworkers, your superiors, your board, your donors, your tax base…educate them all until they understand the value of library technology, understand how to use it, and/or understand that you will not shut up until you get the resources you need to fulfill your mission.

Guess what—we’re all in the “privileged classes”…

When I was laid off from my high-flying management trainee gig at the local over-hyped, soon-to-be-doomed telecom company in 2002, I went to work for the welfare office, because it offered a safe, steady (if small) paycheck and no office politics. Unexpectedly, I learned more of importance in my first 6 months there than I had in my three years in telecom, and that experience serves me at least as well as any alleged business savvy I picked up in the corporate world.

I didn't grow up rich by any stretch of the imagination, but I was in a solid middle class family in a solid middle class suburb in 1980s America, surrounded by people who encouraged education and were living testaments to the prosperity it could offer the hard worker. It took a caseload of 200 families of urban and rural poor for me to understand how darned lucky I'd been to have decent schools, and parents with the time and education and knowledge to teach me how to make it in the real world. What I had taken for granted was the very thing that gave me the knowledge and ability to succeed. All these divides I've talked about today really boil down to one divide—class. A rant about the socio-economic state of affairs in the US is beside the point, and outside the scope of this blog. But let me leave this post with one thought. One of my grandmothers was the daughter of a sharecropper in Georgia. My grandfather was born a half-Cherokee hillbilly in North Carolina. My father is a software developer. My mom is a project manager. My brother is an engineer. I'm a Librarian. And my family's history over the past three generations looks like plenty of others reading this, I suspect. How did my family get from the Waltons to the Joneses in half a century?

EDUCATION. Education fostered, in no small part, by librarians. I'm not saying that we all have to run off to take jobs in Appalachia. However, I am saying that my time serving the underserved showed me that the class divide is still alive and well in America, and it is the divide from which the others spring. We are charged to fight ignorance, because it's within ignorance that paranoia and censorship and prejudice can and do take root. So, back to the point I had before this rant, does that spiffy new youtube video help your library fight against ignorance? If it entices kids to come into the library who otherwise wouldn't have thought of it as "their kind of place", then it most certainly does. But make sure those pretty new widgets you're slapping up on the website are bridges—not barriers.

Next week, Part 3: Old solutions to New challenges, or "When I was your age, I lugged card catalog drawers 5 miles to my desk, uphill, both ways, in the snow, and I was grateful for the job!"