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The Wired Library – Tech Trends and Tension

by on October 7, 2015

The Wired Library – Tech Trends and Tension
by R. Toby Greenwalt, Director of Digital Technology Integration, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

The pendulum, it swings. Eight years ago, my charge as a technology librarian was to herd the cats — to introduce new technology and ways of serving the digital patron to an organization that was largely skeptical of change. Cut to now, and I’m … still herding cats. Only, this time, it’s the folks at all levels of the organization who want to incorporate tech into every service they can think of. Sunrise, sunset.

Does that mean we’ve had a complete polar shift in the way technology operates in libraries? Yes, but also no. Maybe we’ll even throw a “maybe” in there for good measure. The pendulum will keep swinging, meaning we’ve got to be ready for shifts in either direction. Sound confusing? Of course it is. There’s a tremendous tension between the wish to provide stability and the urge to forge new ground. In our quest to provide quality service and access to all, it’s no wonder we feel pulled in all directions at once.

So here’s the thing: it’s our users who are jumping from one side of the spectrum to the other. And they often make that leap without even realizing it. A recent study of retail shopping trends by marketing firm Deloitte Digital [1] shows a dramatic fluidity between the way customers interact with a store’s virtual and physical spaces. Without any clear distinction between online and offline shopers, stores must focus on creating customer experiences that can successfully cross over. If we apply this to libraries, its’ a question of making our place-based services as welcoming as possible, while extending the ongoing conversation to the corners of the virtual realm we deem appropriate.

Designing experiences that navigate this tension (while acknowledging that it’s constantly shifting!) will be key for libraries as they engage with emerging trends in technology and service. Below are two situations where this tension is in full effect.

The Personal and the Protected
I’ve been following the work of the Library Freedom Project  with a great deal of interest. Project leader Alison Macrina received a Knight Foundation News Challenge grant earlier this year to spark a conversation on digital privacy in libraries. By installing anonymous browsing tools on public PCs and creating training resources for library staff and patrons alike, the Library Freedom Project seeks to raise awareness about online surveillance, and to help libraries preserve individual anonymity as they provide essential access to the Internet.

At the same time, there’s a strong urging to use digital tools to enhance the connection between libraries and patrons, offering personalized services founded on the retention of patron data.

Is it possible for these two approaches to coexist? Is it fair for libraries to say “we’re protecting your privacy” while simulatneously collecting significant amounts of information in order to provide better experiences? What happens when we bring third parties into this mix? If we are to find a balance in this discussion, it’s by providing transparency and context. People have a lot of trust in libraries, and that creates an opportunity to build a deeply personalized relationship with our users. By exposing the mechanics of personal data tracking, we might be able to provide the context for why this stuff matters. And if we can give our users control over their own data (by offering encrypted spaces where they can track — and selectively delete — their own library activity), we could get more people asking why they don’t have the same level of control when they visit other websites. Doing so offers our users a valuable object lesson in the value exchange that comes with any type of data collection, and gives them the tools to make informed decisions for dealing with other, potentially more invasivie entities.

Solidifying the Ephemeral
I’ve been hosting an event every few months at my library called Show Your Work, where I invite community members to make pitches for their creative, technological, or entrepreneurial works-in-progress. They take questions from the audience, and receive advice from a panel of local experts.

I’m always impressed with the variety of submissions we get. We’ve had people with established businesses, such as a company manufacturing guitars with interchangeable faceplates. Others are taking a more philanthropic bent, creating a mobile app to help restaurants and grocery stores wishing to donate to local food banks find people to make deliveries. What surpised me most where the projects that garnered the most enthusiastic responses: each one a proposal for a digital archive collecting ephemera from very specific local micro-communities.

In the wake of so many creative projects, why did these archives (one for artists, one for the city’s punk music scene) strike such a chord with our audience? Amid the robots and other cutting-edge creations being pitched, these collections seemed incongruous — even more so for us, as an institution looking to make its mark as a place known for the creation of new things. Show Your Work was designed to carve out space for the library as a place for makers, coders, and entrepreneurs. How is it that these digital pop-up libraires are resonating so well?

The fact that these archives stood out on two separate occasions seems to indicate that these niche-interest, extremely personal, born-digital colelctions are a space worth exploring. This pent-up demand may represent an underlying desire for someone to exist as chronicler of a city’s living history. The only things that have changed are the artifacts. This becomes all the more important as time catches up with our existing archives, and more of the material worth documenting only exists in a digital form. Without a traditional space for collecting these “ephemeral” digital creations, members of the community are rising up to meet the need.

As libraries seek to fill in the blank on the “books + ____” equation, this act of documentation can serve as a virtuous cycle, providing a near-instant cycle of community knowledge creation and preservation. As the rush to create, design, and iterate heats up, building collections in the moment can help add that element of reflection to the whole process.

Walking the Line
Finding the nuance in these polarized sitations can be incredibly difficult. As you seek out the right path for your organization, it’s important to remember that these aren’t dichotomies. Both sidees of the equation will always exist. There will be a place for libraries on each end of the debate. (After all, isn’t representing the many sides of an argument a core part of what we do?) These inconsistencies are what make the digital realm increasingly human. Carving a path through this analog divide is how we can make better places to live.

This is Where I Leave You
This is my last column for Public Libraries. I’ve been truly fortunate to have been given this platform to explore some of these foundational issues surrounding library technology. I’m grateful to each of you for reading, and I hope you’ll continue to share your stories of how your are adapting your libaries for the perpetually connected world. I wish you nothing more than the best of luck

1. Kasey Lobaugh and Jeff Simpson, “Deloitte Digital Study: Digitally-Influenced Sales in Retail Brick-and-Mortar Stores to Reach $2.2 Trillion by Year-End,” Deloitte Digital press release, May 13, 2015, accessed August 4, 2015.

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