by Nancy Venable
Those in the information professions are at the forefront of changes in technology and information access. They easily see the impact of the changes on society and work to continue serving patron needs regardless of format. There are, however, conflicting opinions as to whether there has been an explosion in information technology advances or whether there have been slow and steady technology advances that are only now impacting society. To decide which is correct, the librarian as information professional must be aware of the technology progression and how they must work to meet patron needs in a changing technological society.
Understanding the history and attitudes involved leads to a greater perception of the arguments. Whether arguing for or against rapid information technology, their advances and resulting impact on society are backed by the histories of libraries and librarians. The records also detail the attitudes of librarians on a variety of changes, present and future, to library technology.
Grossman chronicled the history of several librarians and changes to libraries from 1895-1940. To those who experienced it, the Progressive Era, 1895-1920, was a time of rapid changes through movable type and future scientific and moral progress (Grossman, 2011, p. 108). One Italian librarian, Guido Biogi, saw the future post-1904 as a place of worldwide interlibrary loans sharing information with even the poorest country and making books available to all through sound recording (Grossman, 2011, p. 107). His global interlibrary loan plans were well received; however, the technology of books as sound recordings was viewed as a threat to print material and a “radical speculation” (Grossman, 2011, p. 107).
The Depression Era libraries looked forward to further changes in technology (Grossman, 2011, p. 109). These still early days of electronic technology were on the edge of a great unknown, a world increasingly open to information sharing and storage. Ranganathan, author of the five laws of library science, believed in 1931 that libraries would change in ways he could not even conceive, where “a day may come when the dissemination of knowledge [will be] by means other than the printed book” (Kwanya, Stilwell, & Underwood, 2010, p. 2). Avery Craven, in 1932, saw libraries of the future economizing, planning nationally, and regularly using technology through microfilm for document preservation and television for interlibrary loans (Grossman, 2011, p. 112). R.H. Carruthers, 1937, Sidney B. Mitchell, 1938, and Robert Bingham Downs, 1948, all saw microfilm as crucial to the future as libraries shared collections and stored information (Grossman, 2011, pp. 115, 120-121). Ethel M. Fair, 1936, predicted technology would help librarians better serve individuals and society, rapidly turning over the collection, (Grossman, 2011, p. 120) while her contemporary, Robert C. Binkley saw microfilm as a way to “lead the whole population toward participation in a new cultural design” (Grossman, 2011, p. 121). Overwhelmingly, these librarians advocated the sharing and preservation of information through current and future technologies.
The gradual move from accepting microfilm and sound recordings to using computer technology in libraries was definitely shaky. The 1943 chairman of IBM, Thomas Watson, said, “I think there is a world market for maybe 5 computers” (Schwirlich, 2010, p. 22). Library advocate Jesse Shera met with similar computer biases from librarians in 1956 and 1964. Shera was promoting the computer as a way for libraries to deal with an increasing amount of information but was frustrated by librarian “fear of and resistance to the new machines” (Grossman, 2011, p. 124). Ken Olson, founder of Digital Equipment Company (DEC) said in 1977, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home” (Schwirlich, 2010, p. 22). This mixed reaction to the future use of computers was a roller coaster ride for libraries until the 1990s and the advent of the World Wide Web. The subsequent “rapid adoption of the Internet throughout society” (Grossman, 2011, p. 124) and the need for libraries to work with the advances in information technology could no longer be denied. Regardless of pessimists such as Bob Metcalfe, who said in 1995, “I predict the internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse” (Schwirlich, 2010, p. 22), the Internet remains in existence with applications expanding throughout the world’s societies.
Kwanya, Stilwell, and Underwood argue that, while libraries have always been in a state of change, “…current societal change is so fast that traditional library change management mechanisms cannot cope effectively with it” (2010, p. 2). The rapid change view is supported by UK studies of Internet use: in 1998, nine percent of UK households had home Internet access; in 2003, it was forty-nine percent; and by the end of 2006, it was sixty-seven percent (Morris, 2007, para. 4). This is a remarkable increase of technology use throughout a majority of society. Those without Internet are largely those cultures affected by age (over 65 years old), low income, and lower level of education (Morris, para. 7-8). In Victoria, Australia, with under 55% at adequate adult literacy, household Internet connections went from 32% in 1998 to 78% in 2008 (Schwirtlich, 2010, p. 23). Certainly this is an indicator of a rapid acceptance and use of information technology.
Technological changes have quickly affected the way members of society communicate. The widely adopted ability to communicate electronically with technology has moved countless years of face-to-face interaction and many thousands of years of written correspondence into a back seat. They have been replaced with the online interactions of social networking, Internet communications, and networked information and knowledge (Miller & Wallis, 2011, p. 122). Online communication using the Internet is different than traditional methods. According to Edwards and D’Arcy, online interaction necessitates “the ability to seek out and use others as resources for action and equally to be able to respond to the need for support from others” (Miller & Wallis, 2011, p. 123) on a technological level. This is also expressed as “knowing how to know whom” (Miller & Wallis, 2011, p. 123), working and communicating collaboratively through the Internet regardless of borders. This comes as no surprise to traditional college-age students, 18 to 24 years old. These digital natives have grown up without knowing a time different from our technological information age. To them, the use of online sites and Web 2.0 applications for education, social contacts, and working with the library is second-nature (Cassidy et al., 2011, p. 381). A study done by Cassidy, Britsch, Griffin, Manolovitz, Shen, & Turney did find digital natives using social applications for peer interactions more often than traditional methods. Education and learning applications were used only as needed for a class or when students found them convenient for multi-tasking, such as PodCasts, e-books/readers (2011, p. 382), and reference chat (2011, p. 389). The changes in communication created by technology have been fully embraced by society with users eager for the next application development.
Librarians have differing opinions on the rate of technological changes and its influence on society. Such dissimilar attitudes may have actually affected the librarians’ perception of whether information technology advanced and impacted society rapidly or not. Those who have been open to changes have seen a pattern in the progression of technological advances. Steady developments in information technology have a rapid impact when more people are affected. On the other hand, they may see the information technology changes without looking at and understanding the impact that has been made on society; these people will believe that the changes have been slow, steady, of little import, and will refuse to apply them in their own information areas. This writer finds little support for the arguments of the latter group. The changes from clay tablets to typewriters spanned many thousands of years; the changes from fountain pens to i-Pads, from using pencil and paper to creating correspondence through a computer application, has happened in less than a generation. While computers and information technology took some years to be adopted by general society, they were rapidly accepted and fully embraced when academic, household, and especially social applications were available.
No one can truly predict the future of information technology and libraries. What librarians can do is understand society and societal influences, be aware of advances and declines in information and technology, and be open to support the patrons (Schwirtlich, 2010, p. 22) when they adopt a new technology.
The implications of technology’s impact on society relate directly to librarianship. The advice of Jesse Shera in 1933 still applies, “the all-important fact to be remembered is that the library is distinctly a social phenomenon and as such is susceptible to all the influences that react upon our social structure” (Grossman, 2011, p. 125). In a time of fast results through technology, society is increasingly used to getting what they want, when they want it. They expect no less from the library and its staff. As a result, and regardless of cost, libraries are expected to make their resources quickly accessible online, across many platforms, interactive, and easily located and researched (Schwirtlich, 2010, p. 23). To meet all of these expectations, librarians must be creative and dedicated to the end service product of fulfilling patron needs.
In Victoria, Australia, libraries are working with the government to improve network access and benefit the community as the library becomes ‘borderless’. It will exist on the Internet with librarian information brokers and on location as a place for community innovation and information sharing (Schwirtlich, 2010, p. 24-25). These libraries are working within Ranganathan’s five laws: 1. Books are for use; 2. Every book its reader; 3. Every reader his book; 4. Save the time of the reader; 5. A library is a growing organism (Kwanya, Stilwell, & Underwood, 2010, p. 4). While the term ‘books’ has become exclusionary in an age of technology, libraries are able continue Ranganathan’s laws by interpreting for changes in technology and working to continue the library’s growth in all areas.
Librarians must meet patrons’ skill needs by developing programs that help patrons become more comfortable, effective, and successful through technology literacy. Bridging the digital divide, or the Internet and electronic technology information gap, is increasingly necessary for the vast population’s success. In current society, “information and knowledge is power” (Morris, 2007, para. 11) and those without Internet access and skills are becoming the “information poor” (Morris, 2007, para. 11). Since the library and its access to information exists everywhere, without physical barriers, it is also the library’s responsibility to create disintermediation, patron empowerment to serve themselves (Kwanya, Stilwell, & Underwood, 2010, p. 12) through training and technology access regardless of the patron’s setting. In a time when technology links the globe’s information and knowledge in the blink of an eye, the information poor must be active and able information technology participants to also be societal participants. As has long been a library mission, programs must be created to improve patron information access, regardless of format and regardless of the speed of technological changes.
To better develop and maintain the programs, librarians must regularly attend training, whether it is on how to teach patrons, how to use technological applications to develop resources, or how to be an content advisor (Pegrum & Kiel, 2011, pp. 583-584). They must also be interested in emergent technology including those developments that may or may not become popular with society. An awareness of what is being developed, how it would apply to information, reading, and research, and a basic knowledge of what it entails in cost and training is part of being a professional librarian. This involves Kirkpatrick and Kirkpatrick’s categories of learning – knowledge, skill, and attitudes (Pegrum & Kiel, 2011, p. 587). The librarian’s attitude must understand and be empathetic to the challenges faced by patrons working with technology (Miller & Wallis, 2011, p. 124) if both parties are to advance. Libraries, librarianship, depth of knowledge, and diversity of skills continue to change; librarian attitudes toward technology must change, also, or libraries and society will suffer.
It has been argued that all things change, nothing is static; this is definitely evident in the rapid changes that have occurred, and are still occurring, in librarianship and information technology. Recent and rapid changes in information technology have also had far reaching impacts on society. Literally, in the time of this writer’s grandparents, letters from relatives were carried by stage coach over two months to their destination, then more rapidly by train, to a few days by airplane, and now by e-mail in less than a second. Sharing knowledge with such speed and without the limits imposed by geography has a great impact on libraries and society as whole. Librarians must be at the forefront of information technology changes and how it will apply to their work with patrons and the greater society. “Although change is inevitable, it is largely unpredictable. It advocates flexibility in responding to change” (Kwanya, Stilwell,
& Underwood, 2010, p. 13). By recognizing that the future will bring changes that impact all areas of the library and society, librarians as information professionals will be in place to be successful.
Nancy Venable has worked in Montana school libraries for over 12 years. She has an MA from the University of Montana and an MLIS from the University of North Texas. This summer she began a new career as the county library director with the Big Horn County Library System located in Basin, Wyoming. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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