Long-range Technology Plan 2008-2011

Note: I wrote this introduction for the Madison-Jefferson County Public Library’s state-mandated 2008-2011 Technology Plan. It’s interesting to revisit what I wrote a decade ago and see what has and has not come to fruition.

Our Compass to the Future

With technology changing at a rapid pace, it is difficult to predict specific products and services that will be available through 2011. As such, we are focusing on cultural, technological, library and information science trends in planning for the next few years.

Influence of the Internet and cell technologies: Cell phones are commonplace and more than two-thirds of our library website users now have broadband. Similarly, via these technologies, people are becoming more social and connected. Many people expect instant connection with friends and information.

As such, libraries need to be able to provide efficient services and interact with patrons in cyberspace as well as in person and by phone. We also need to be ready to deliver content and assistance via high speed and to small devices alike.

The same technology will make it much easier for the library to provide services outside the library building. For instance, we could loan books on animals at the 4-H fair, checking out the books via cellular Internet.

Now everyone creates content: Micro-media creation is on the rise. With cheap and accessible technology, people are posting content from words and photos to sound and video in massive quantities. For example, more than 60 percent of American households now own digital cameras. As technology improves content creation will absolutely explode. The library’s public access computers and technology should transparently enable patron content creation.

Second, library technology needs to anticipate this new collection development need. Collecting locally written books, music and video is a matter of shelf space, but how do you collect locally created digital content? We should be a connection point for community content, but this problem becomes accentuated when current content become historical content. Libraries must be ready to preserve this digital content. Keeping up with this new generation of content will be a particular challenge.

Collaboration: Content creation is also becoming highly collaborative. Bloggers write, read and comment on other’s writing. They create community blogs and wikis on every subject from politics to Harry Potter. Libraries should collaborate with patrons to create content and even let our patrons help organize our collections. We could benefit from patron created subject tags, books reviews and book lists. Similarly, the staff should collaborate to spread the wealth of individual knowledge through tools such as wikis.

Beta expectations: Libraries are being torn between traditional expectations of perfection and the new expectation of seeing the latest and greatest experiments. On one hand, Google is continually supplying us with experiments from their labs. Everything beyond their homepage is labeled “beta.” Google’s users expect to be part of the experiment and expect their feedback to influence future development. On the flip side, libraries will continue to get emails complaining about bad grammar on our websites. Libraries cannot allow the fear of mistakes to keep them from walking the bleeding edge.

Content expectations: With web-based services ranging from YouTube to iTunes, patrons will come to expect their libraries to deliver multimedia via broadband Internet. Patrons are also expecting everything to be searchable, thus library-created content such as genealogy indexes need to be made available and searchable via the Internet.

Compatibility and accessibility: File format and operating system battles have flared repeatedly often leaving content unreadable just a few years in the future. For patrons with special needs, technology is a double-edged sword. For instance, screen readers make the Internet accessible to those without sight, but many Internet technologies can render the content invisible to screen readers. Libraries need to find methods of providing information access to all patrons, regardless of special needs, file format or Internet connection speed (or lack thereof).

Open source software: Open source has reached critical mass to allow inexpensive and reliable computing for every aspect of the library from Linux servers and OpenOffice to the impressive ILS capabilities of Koha and Evergreen. Libraries could take license fee savings to leverage further development of the library’s favorite software. With open source all improvements benefit all users of the software. However, even with the “free” price tag, libraries still need to research products before leaping.

Stability of service: Through all of this, the library needs to provide constant and secure technology services. Half the answer is staff training and enthusiasm. Staff needs to understand new technologies to help collaborate and instruct on the new technologies. The other half of the answer is network and workstation security. We cannot afford to let ourselves be taken down by hackers. Patrons who cannot access their email are walk away angry. Similarly, it is harder than ever to maintain any sense of privacy in this new world. We need to be able to protect and educate our users about online activities as much as possible.

In summary: There will not be a lack of technologies that could help libraries provide efficient, informative and enjoyable services to our patrons over the next years. From radio frequency identification to touch screen technologies, tools will become available to meet challenges of efficiently supplying services. However, as noted, the technologies are simply tools. It will take training, skill and imagination to provide vital services to our community.