20 reasons why learning about emerging technologies is part of every librarians job

This post, originally published in July 2007, is regularly set as required reading for the first week of library Learning 2.0 programs around the world, 20 reasons why learning about emerging technologies is part of every librarians job.


In my last post, Why should I learn about that when I’m busy with other stuff?, I concluded that if library staff are going to trade a couple of hours a week to learn about emerging technologies that they can’t even use yet in their jobs, then there better be some compelling reasons for it.

With items to catalogue, instructional material to write, users to help, budgets to balance, outreach to plan and systems to troubleshoot, why is it good management for staff to be released from these tasks to spend some time learning about emerging technologies?

Here’s my list. I’d love to know what’s on yours.

1. Core business. Our core business is linking information and people. There are new and better ways to do this and we need to know how.

2. Productvity. All of the tasks listed above can be made easier using emerging technologies, but you need to know how to use them.

3. Understanding all formats. Users will ask us about these information sources. Are we serving them well if we say “sorry I only know about information in some formats?”

4. Trend watching. Tools are constantly evolving and changing. What starts as a seemingly pointless diversion can become a potent information source when it reaches critical mass or people discover a new use for it. (eg. twitter). We need to be there watching this and understanding it

5. Our skills are useful. Tagging, metadata, data-mining, indexing – new technologies need our skills.

6. Experimenting gains skills. It’s like Solitaire when Windows first came out. People needed to learn how to use the mouse interface – and this was the fastest, most efficient way to educate the workforce. Some seemingly pointless sites (yes, I’m looking at you boomshine, and you, Second Life) teach us new interfaces.

7. Dealing with vendors. If we don’t know what can be done, for free, using new tools, then library software vendors can continue to sell us “solutions” that are inflexible and costly.

8. Being prepared. What a few early adopters are using now, others will use in 18 months.

9. Core concerns being redefined. The definitions of some core concerns of librarianship are being re-negotiated – copyright, plagiarism, scholarship, authority, privacy and recreation. We need to be in among the conversations on sites where this is happening.

10. Manage our workforce. We need young, tech-savvy, passionate, clever library staff to deal with the changes, and we need to know enough to manage these people and get the best out of their new skills.

11. Fun. If staff are given permission to have fun and be creative as they learn in a supportive environment, it can lift workplace morale.

12. Better service. If we know how, we can offer better service to our users, where they are and using their preferred tools. (eg. SMS output of item location records to their mobile device via wireless)

13. So we can tell the IT dept what we want. If we feel overwhelmed by web-based technologies that are now only available in beta, imagine how it feels if your job has been to set up software, protect a network and standardise operating environments. If we have a centralisedl IT department, then we may have to know more about the tools we want to use (eg. software we’d like for an internal blog).

14. Our users are required to keep up. In academic and special libraries, our users are required by our organization to keep up to date with technology in their fields. To support them, we need to know what that is.

15. International perspective. Your network of professional contacts does not have to be restricted to your own country. New tools make “communities of interest” easier to form. (Thanks to Darren Draper for the last two).

16. Finding out what other libraries are doing. Printed journals and conferences are no longer the best way to find out about the successes and failures in other libraries. With blogs, wikis, podcasts – all harnessed into your aggregator via a subject search, you can keep up and have an avenue to discuss these things with professional colleagues.

17. Standards are different. The tools we will use from now on aren’t standards like AACR2 and LCSH. The best tool for the job shifts and changes daily with our users’ needs. We need to learn general flexibility and skills to adapt to this. Skills like how to register at a social software site, how comments culture works on blogs, how to assess Open Source software, how to tweak templates and products to fit our library.

18. Can’t predict the future, so need to experiment. Without crystal balls, we don’t know for sure what will be widely used. We need to try and assess many services to find what works for our users.

19. Crowds are fickle. Good quality tools with easy user interfaces may not be favoured over early established tools with a critical mass of users…and the crowd may switch. This happened when a mass of people migrated from bloglines to Google reader as their preferred aggregator. Today’s unused startup may be the Next Big Thing.

20. Better collaboration Libraries have a culture of sharing resources and ideas with each other. Emerging technologies enhance this . For example, I threw out a post to twitter: “ Trying to articulate why library staff shld learn about emerging technologies that have not immediate application to thr jobs. Suggestions? Within minutes, I received replies from Vicki , Sarah , David , Joshua , Gary, Jenifer, cindi , Michelle and Sue. Some of these ideas have been used in this post.

I’m finishing this post with a ranty little manifesto:

  • Do we have to know every new application that is released? No
  • Do we need to make our resources available and communicate with our users via every new tool? No
  • Should we forget about the 80% of users who are not yet using most emerging technologies? No
  • Should we plan our future services presuming people will not start using emerging technologies? No
  • Should we be surprised when it is overwhelming, confusing, enjoyable and sometimes seems irrelevent? No
  • Will we continue to be funded and still have jobs if we don’t adapt? No