A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

I’ve Fallen and I Can’t Catch Up

by Marcia Warner on April 26, 2013

It may be because I just spent half of my vacation in bed with a cold, but writing to you today about e-books is about the last thing I feel competent to do. Instead, I am going to take advantage of my current elected position and its bully pulpit to rant about being middle-aged and the expectations society has put on my ability to adapt to changes in technology. You can stop reading now if you are under twenty-five and already heard this from your mother.

I would never consider myself a Luddite. I own an Android phone and have upgraded it annually ahead of the completion of my contract since it was a bag phone the size of a toaster in my car. I was on Facebook just a couple of months after it went from university-only to its current free-for-all status (no pun intended). I have Skyped since it was measured in the hundreds of thousand of users, not millions. I have an e-book reader and an MP3 player and I even check in on Foursquare. None of these things are intuitive to me and although the apps may be free, the time they consume never is. So what is it that has my panties in a bunch, you ask? Technology moves so fast; it feels impossible to keep up. I know the bounty of surrounding myself with brilliant young people. Although they say they don’t mind helping me, I know they don’t want to sit around and hold my hand while I figure out the next new thing. Now they just spend their time getting me out of the messes I have created while not asking them to teach or guide me through.

So in practically the same breath that I used to do all this complaining, I need to tell you about my lunch hour. I went out today and had the best interaction at a new card shop in downtown Grand Rapids. I took my purchases to a tiny little counter; the hip, young twentysomething ran my card through a postage-stamp-sized device on the top of her iPad; had me sign on the tablet with my fingertip; and sent the receipt to my email. I giggled all the way back to the office.

Just as some sharks have to keep swimming forward or they will drown, librarians and libraries need to do the same. The e-book devices and technology that consume our time today will be antiquated a year from now. In five years, who knows what the future will hold? I do know that we as library professionals need to be aware of and embrace the next new thing; otherwise we will be left behind. The advent of the [insert your biblio-technology disaster here––Netflix, the Internet, VHS tapes, microfiche, the printing press, bound books] spells doom for libraries. E-books are only the latest biblio-disaster. Yet smart libraries and smart librarians are doing what it takes and swimming forward. They’re shaping a perceived disaster into a biblio-triumph.

Smart libraries and smart librarians are joining the conversation. They’re working with publishers and vendors and legislators to encourage policy and business models that factor in the needs of real people. They’re filling training and technology gaps in their communities. They’re adapting and evolving to make sure they can continue offering real and valuable services to those real people and connecting to communities in ways never tried before. I am tempted to start listing the forward-thinking librarians and library directors who are embracing the ambiguity around them and taking technology in hand to create new services, new applications, and thinking in new ways about how we “do” libraries. But just as soon as I do, I will not know something or someone big, leave out something huge, and in the time it takes to get this article to print, half of them will be obsolete. Beyond e-books and the I’ve Fallen and technology flavor of the day, I believe that civic engagement and the library’s responsibility for public discourse, deliberative democracy, and cultural connection may be the next new responsibility that heaves us past the electronic this and Wi-Fi that.

Paula Ellis, vice president of strategic initiatives of the Knight Foundation, told a gathering of library and civic leaders in early November that a recent Gallup/Knight Foundation study reveals “libraries have a fundamental role in how attached people are to where they live.” She stated, “That’s particularly important because how residents feel about their community may lead to greater economic vitality.” The study identified three factors that drive why people are emotionally attached to their neighborhoods and cities. They include: (1) openness, or how welcoming a place is; (2) its social offerings; and (3) aesthetics. Ellis continued, “Openness is at the top of the list of what drives people to love where they live. What is more welcoming than a library? Being welcoming is what gets people in the door and then people can form this emotional attachment to the library as a true community center and place for personal transformation.”1

Perhaps that is something with which we should be spending some time––rather than how publishers aren’t playing nice.

Back to my rant . . .

No one told me that the most interesting thing in my purse to my grandkids would be the golf game that came on my phone. So what is a fifty-something woman with left brain leanings and an INFP Meyers Briggs personality type supposed to do? I feel like the old woman in the commercial that cries out, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” I have to learn the next few thing. If I don’t get up and try, if I don’t learn the next new thing, if I don’t do all of this on the time that is supposed to be mine, I know I might as well check out of my career right now.

I wish Erma Bombeck were around today to have written this column. Oh, go look her up.


  1. Elizabeth R. Miller, “Ellis: Libraries Are Respected Brands that Can Help Create Strong, Resilient Communities,” Knight Foundation, Nov. 8, 2011, accessed Jan. 3, 2012.