I was fortunate to participate in PLA’s very first Top Tech Trends panel last week. I had a marvelous time and enjoyed the heck out of my fellow panelists. Tradition dictates that I post my trend here, so here it is:
Generally speaking, when we’re talking about trends, we’re not talking about the digital divide. We’re talking about bleeding-edge type technologies, which are traditionally on the pricey side. Inevitably, this ruffles some public library feathers, since we spend so much time bridging the gap between the haves and the have-nots. But we have to pay attention to trends, because the haves (generally speaking) drive technology.
First, though, I would encourage everyone to go and listen to Jessamyn West and Jenny Engstrom talk about the digital divide at SXSW (slides and links here. audio here). It’s a great talk that highlights the realities of life on the other side of the divide in both rural and urban settings. More importantly, they were talking to techies and software developers, and web gurus about libraries and the important work that librarians do to give everyone access to the internet.
So, I started thinking about the digital divide and how it’s changing after ALA Midwinter. There was a lot of public librarian digital divide hue and cry after a panelist said there isn’t a compelling reason for libraries to loan out ebook devices. Public libraries, of course, can loan out all manner of gadgets, games, and musical instruments, which may not be as productive for academic libraries. However, I don’t think every technology-related service counts as purely digital divide. When libraries started loaning out Kindles, the general tenor of the programs were a “try before you buy” service, where the Kindles went out with limited content for three or five days at a time. It’s a fantastic service to offer, but it’s never struck me as being about provided needed technology to have nots, more as reducing the risk of buying an expensive gadget sight unseen for the haves. There’s a big difference between offering time on a computer and offering a “borrow a Kindle” service.
Right now, we’re providing two very disparate sorts of services – there’s the free internet and classes on things like email for the havenots, whether they’re the have nots who need access (free internet) or knowledge (learning to use email). Then we’re bringing other people along with “here’s how to use LinkedIn” type classes. Every library I’ve worked in has struggled with this. Offer a class on “basic Internet” and you get people who can’t use the mouse in the same class as people who want to know how to google better. So, we keep refining what we teach, how we teach it, and who we’re teaching it to.
The gulf between haves and have nots gets wider every year, as devices multiply and get more sophisticated. It’s easy to get sucked into the kinds of distinctions coming out of places like sxsw – are we offering a service or an experience, are we authentic, etc – and public librarians tend to rebel against that because they’re spending a lot of time helping people who need help, not people looking for an bibliographic experience. However, the proliferation of devices means the barrier to entry in terms of ease of use is getting lower and lower.
At the top tech trends panel, I referenced my parents twice. I use them as my mental model for people in between the extremes we usually think about when we talk about the digital divide. They live in a kind of rural area, where broadband was slow in coming, but they’ve had it for a few years now. They like Apple products because they’re easy and pretty. I’ve watched them reach their own personal tech tipping points several times now. They change jobs and have to learn new tech skills. They learned to use Facebook when enough of their friends started using it. There are lots and lots of people who aren’t traditional have nots, and when they reach their tech tipping point, they often come to the library for help. We have social capital that draws people in. Libraries are “good” in many people’s minds. We’re vaguely authoritative, we’re not profit-driven, and we’re high-minded civic institutions.
I had a patron once who was actually pretty tech savvy, but didn’t self-identify as such. She had been laid off from her job and was looking to freelance. If memory serves, she was a graphic designer who needed to learn to use LinkedIn. She could use Photoshop and Quark, but when I said “now, people will be able to find you using Google,” she responded “oooh, that’s bad!” We worked through why showing up on Google is good for a freelancer and what she could do to control what shows up about her. I’m guessing most other librarians have had similar experiences with patrons between the divide.
My parents also came up when we were talking about where the money is going to come from for all of these trends. Both of my parents are social workers and I see a lot of parallels between social services and librarianship. Especially when we’re talking about the digital divide. Helping the people in the middle, the people who maybe just got their first smartphone (because it just got cheap and easy enough for them to make the leap) and who brought it to the library for guidance, is akin to the “worried well,” the people who want some support, but aren’t in dire need of mental health services. Here’s what social workers know that librarians have to figure out: in order to keep the doors open helping the deeply needy, you have to also figure out ways to help the worried well. Social services get cut just like libraries, so marketing ourselves as the last best defense against the digital divide doesn’t help us with the money problem.
Many of us followed our hearts into libraries because we want to help people. Bridging the digital divide feels (and is) noble and good. Helping people learn to use their iphones doesn’t tug at our heartstrings in the same way, but more and more people are falling into that gap between the have nots and the wired, savvy haves. They’re worth helping and hopefully they’ll help us build more bridges across the divide.