the future of libraries in the digital age
posted by Jeanne Munn Bracken
Dear library user,
Your local librarians are delighted to welcome you to the library. We are happy to help you find whatever you need (except for you porn surfers--you know who you are). There are, alas, some limitations to what we can do for you. Most of those limitations involve computers. As for the rest, well, we're talking humans here...
First, I have to point out that those of us in middle age were trained in the Dark Ages when computers were the size of dump trucks and Bill Gates was in preschool. When I went to library school, there was one computer course, on programming in Basic, and I didn't take it. Considering that, my fellow over-50 librarians and I are doing pretty well coping with technology that didn't exist 30 years ago and changes daily.
We can figure out where Pacific Palisades, California, is located by using Google maps. We can locate a copy of a small press book available for loan from a library network 1000 miles away through World Cat. In a matter of seconds we can unearth dozens of Van Gogh "Sunflowers", using Google image. Using library subscriptions to online databases, we can find you the full text of an article from some arcane periodical and we can point the way to today's local newspaper's image edition, exactly as it appears in print form, but without the recycling hassle. We can demonstrate downloading unabridged audiobooks to your tiny MP3 player so you can listen to three books on your around-the-world flights and still have room in your carryon for a sandwich, some fruit, granola bars and (depending on those ever-shifting regulations) even some bottled water.
But we librarians, alas, only appear to be miracle workers. We can't get you all the materials you need to write your senior thesis by tomorrow if you don't get to the library until 5 minutes before closing. We don't have time to pull 14 books for you and leave them at the desk so you can grab them between work and a theater date. (We might still do it sometimes, but admittedly we grumble.) We can't baby sit your kids after school while you are at work. We don't have a public address system to page your missing teenager who swore s/he was going to the library to study. We can't proofread your English homework. We can help you find online stock trading sites, but we can't suggest hot picks for your portfolio. We can help you find the forms but we can't do your taxes for you--and believe me, you don't want us to. No matter what your teacher or professor said, everything is not available on the internet.
But alas, we cannot fix the internet. If your e-mail account is "not available because the server is busy" and suggests you try later, we can't make it un-busy for you. The messages you receive about going into and out of secure sites are not an indication that the FBI, the CIA, the KGB, or the IRS is keeping an eye on you. Some online photographs and images have printing blocked, and we can't override that. If the form you are trying to fill out online is confusing or has conflicting instructions, we can't figure them out any better than you can. If the power goes off briefly and you lose the e-mail you had been writing for half an hour (don’t you hate that?), we can’t get it back. We can't make all the ads go away, although we might be able to eliminate the annoying ones that pop up and obscure your screen. If the CD or "floppy" disc you used to save your resume won't load on our computers, we're sorry--we really are!--but perhaps we don't have the software you used at home, or the CD had coffee spilled on it, or we just plain can't make it work. We can't teach you to e-mail or surf the Internet if you have never used a keyboard.
Most of all, we can't "fix" Microsoft, Apple, Dell, Gateway, Google, Internet Explorer or any of the other computer giants that control what happens on computers and the internet.
I know what URL stands for, and html, but I don't text message, RSS, or most of the other up-and-coming gizmos. Maybe soon. Probably about the time they become obsolete.
For now, if it's on the Internet, I can probably find it--fast. Which is apparently surprising for some of our patrons. A few years ago, a forty-something fellow watched me work my internet magic and pull up information he needed.
"Wow!" the guy said, looking at my graying hair. "Where did you learn to do that at your age?"