Library Technology 2010

I recently attended Library Technology 2010. The title is pretty obvious, right? Libraries, technology, libraries + technology… This is the third year for this conference and I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to attend all three. This year I’m feeling motivated enough to talk about it.

Let’s start with the good stuff. Well, okay, SharePoint was probably only exciting to me. But see, I’m supposed to be our library’s SharePoint site administrator and none of us could figure out what SharePoint was supposed to be good for. Our IT department was willing to help, but they didn’t really know what a library needed, so we were stuck. So finding out there was a panel called “SharePoint for Libraries” was thrilling as all get-out and now I’ve finally got us something up and running. I’ve got structure; now to get content.

Relax: not all my enthusiasms were that esoteric/inexplicable. At the panel on emerging technologies, the presenters pointed us toward a video of a mixed-reality book. Wave the right preprinted symbol card in front of a web camera and a 3D image appears floating over the page. So what if this particular book is in Thai – I want to play with it anyway! These same panelists were brave enough to say in public that they expected the desktop computer to be in its final years, that everyone will be using mobile technology. I’m torn (assuming they’re right). Mobile is great; don’t get me wrong. But do I want to spend hours at a time on something as unergonomically correct as my laptop and netbook are? (I think it’s safe to assume that I won’t be writing papers on my iPod Touch anytime soon, so I’m not counting it). Except, of course, it’s not whether I’m comfortable going completely mobile—what will the rest of the world be doing? What will patrons need from libraries when they’re potentially carrying entire libraries around in their hands?

And then there was the stuff that might not have been exciting, but sure was interesting. In 2008 and 2009, Web 2.0 and its library analog Library 2.0 were the talk of this conference. What was Web 2.0, how could librarians meet the needs of patrons who were expecting access to the Web 2.0 tools they used in the rest of their lives, how could librarians with limited resources work with Library 2.0, and so on. This year, they were scarcely mentioned. And I might not have even noticed except that I overheard someone telling his friend, “Have you noticed how nobody’s talking about Web 2.0 this year?” Maybe that means we’ve made it to Web 2.0. It would’ve been nice if there had been an official announcement or something.

Twitter really took off this year. Attendees were encouraged (and sometimes asked) to bring laptops to the conference and many people just tweeted throughout the event (#libtech2010). I confess to not contributing any tweets, but every now and then I’d start reading along and it was like being in several panels at the same time. You could tell when an important point had been made because you’d get three tweets on it at once. There was also a panel on Google Wave. Now GW is by no means ready for prime time, but there was a public wave set up for this panel and we were able to play on it while they were discussing Wave. For once, GW was well-behaved and didn’t crash during the panel. No one was willing to declare that it was going to be the new hot thing anytime soon, though. Think about it. Google Wave has been around since September, and half a year later, I’m complimenting it for not crashing during a single panel. By contrast, Google Buzz popped into existence only in February 2010, and it’s made a niche for itself already, with most of the complaints centering on privacy issues, not functionality.

Now all of this was fun and wonderful and exciting and all that, but I came out of the whole conference worried about the futures of both the library and the printed book. The first keynote speaker made some cogent points. Private companies are performing functions that libraries should be doing (for example, why aren’t we borrowing our DVDs from our libraries instead of Netflix?). Well, those companies have some major advantages. They usually have just a few goals (Netflix mainly concerns itself with DVD rental) and they have the financial resources to pursue them. Libraries, on the other hand, have many goals and few resources. The infrastructure that libraries need to be major players just isn’t there. In fact, libraries have a conflict in meeting this challenge. As small individual organizations, libraries connect better with their communities. If they unite, pooling their resources (and how they would do this is unclear), they might be able to make a presence for themselves in between the social networking sites, the online stores, etc., but the United Library might seem as faceless as these corporations. The speaker ended by saying something would save libraries, but he wouldn’t or couldn’t say what that would be, which was a) hardly reassuring, and b) not a great way to end a speech.

As for the printed book, well, is it going the way of the CD? You can still buy CDs, but really, don’t they feel like yesterday’s format? I haven’t brought myself to download a whole album yet, but that’s kind of the point: people are buying individual songs now. I’ve done it myself. Admittedly, books don’t subdivide as easily as CDs unless you’re talking about an essay collection or an anthology of short stories. But sprinkled in between the valid objections that reading a screen just isn’t as comfortable as reading print on paper, a lot of the arguments for the printed book sound more sentimental than practical. Will the love of the smell of paper or the feel of a book in your hand be enough to keep the print book market going ten years from now? Are you being more environmentally correct by buying an ebook reader rather than a book printed on paper made from trees that had to be cut down? And maybe yes, you’ll keep your books for years, but what about newspapers and magazines?

Tons of questions, much speculation, few answers. I hope I can make it to next year’s conference.

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