I have been fortunate to have opportunities to work with almost all aspects of technology used by libraries. One of my main areas of interest is helping libraries identify and implement the technologies that are most able to help them succeed in their strategic missions and to perform their daily work more effectively. In that context, I have come to see technologies as falling into a spectrum of innovation, ranging from those with a cutting-edge flavor to those that are well-established with proven capabilities. Although I have always enjoyed learning about and working with new tech gadgets and services, my work with libraries has been mostly about the largerscale strategic systems that are mostly at the other end of the spectrum.
Of course, it is important to look for the glimmers of innovation that can breathe new life into these workhorse systems, but overall, they succeed or not based on their operational effectiveness. But library technology isn't just about big systems. There is plenty of room to take advantage of newer technologies to further the work of libraries in the delivery of programs and services to ever more tech-savvy communities.
Strategic Platforms: Emphasis on Efficiency Over Innovation
When thinking about innovative technology in libraries, the ILS or resource discovery environment does not necessarily stand out. The environments that support the core services of the library must excel at efficiency and reliability; these kinds of systems are not exactly fertile ground for innovation and experimentation. Resource management systems (such as ILSs or library services platforms) support library personnel with their complex work of acquiring, describing, and enabling access or fulfillment of collection materials. These products need to have sophisticated functionality-designed with a keen understanding of each task performed-in order to provide interfaces with the most streamlined and efficient operation. They must include fine-grained functionality to facilitate higher productivity. As such, these systems do not often enter into the realm of innovation or creativity- nor should they. As technology platforms that automate routine library activities, efficiency and practical functionality prevail over innovation.
That is not to say that the basic design concepts upon which these systems are built may be the key opportunity for intellectual consideration. The scope and overall design of these resource management systems must be continually revisited in order to stay in step with the evolving role of libraries. The vision of a more comprehensive and flexible framework-based on current technology architectures embodied by the recent genre of library services platforms-can be seen as an important advancement beyond the static model of automation underlying the long-standing slate of ILSs.
In a similar vein, I see RFID as a standard business technology to help libraries more efficiently manage their physical collection materials. RFID-based technologies, in some scenarios, can result in cost-savings and help libraries manage their physical collections. They have become broadly adopted in public libraries with high volumes of circulation. For some libraries, the capabilities of RFID relate to the speed and ease of scanning and fit well with their operational needs. Patron self-service, sorting, and inventory control are examples of tasks that can be more easily carried out with RFID technologies than with bar codes. This justifies the higher expense of the tags and equipment. While there have been some scenarios in which RFID technologies led to creative applications in libraries, most implementations automate routine processes. This isn't to say that these products don't embody advanced and sophisticated capabilities. For libraries that rely mostly on selfservice equipment, it is essential that RFID kiosks offer a rich set of services at the highest level of usability since they represent the public face of the library.
Opportunities to Tap Into Tech Trends
In addition to providing access to information resources, most libraries provide other services to benefit their communities. As libraries strive to offer meaningful services and to increase the levels of engagement with their current and potential users, new technology innovations can play a lead role. While the large-scale strategic platforms that automate core library functions may be in use for multiple decades, they often require very long procurement phases and eventually result in onerous migration processes. Many other services are based on technologies that are much more flexible. There are some areas that lend themselves more to the transient nature of emerging technologies and in which some degree of risk can be tolerated.
Many libraries have established programs that provide space, equipment, and expertise for patrons to engage in creative activities. They go beyond providing access to information, facilitating the work of their users through technology resources. Centers such as learning commons and makerspaces present an opportunity for libraries to explore and deploy newer and more innovative technologies.
In academic settings, the concept of a learning commons has become popular in the last decade. The library provides computers, scanners, printers, productivity software, and even digital editing suites, advanced modeling, analytical software, and other technology tools to enable patrons to access information and to incorporate or transform it into their own academic works or creative projects.
Makerspaces, which have become popular in recent years, embrace similar concepts in facilitating creativity-but often with a stronger emphasis on the physical dimension. On the higher-tech side, makerspaces may provide digital modeling software paired with 3D printers to let community members design and create artistic or practical objects. Other offerings might include computer components, such as Raspberry Pi, for experimentation and prototype design, modular electronic components to teach circuit design, or computers with integrated development environments for learning programming. On the less technical side, makerspaces can have materials for sculpture, woodworking, painting, or origami.
Libraries can also provide technology resources for use outside their facilities. It is common for them to lend computing devices, especially laptops and tablets, to use within the premises and often beyond it. These lending programs have proven to be very popular in academic libraries for students who may not own their own devices or find it convenient to occasionally borrow equipment from the library. I understand that laptop lending programs continue to see high use even on campuses where most students have their own computers.
Many public libraries, concerned with narrowing the digital divide, have recently started lending mobile Wi-Fi hotspots. Access to computer equipment without connectivity has limited practical value when almost all technologies of interest are delivered via the web. These programs involve a financial investment, not only for the mobile Wi-Fi devices, but for the cellular data service plans required to enable internet connectivity. Providing at least temporary connectivity to those who are otherwise not able to access the web can be a valuable library service.
On-Premises Tech Marketing
There has also been interest in libraries adopting technologies, such as the Apple iBeacon, to optimize their services within their buildings. iBeacon enables an organization to detect smartphones carried by visitors in order to track foot traffic patterns. It also allows a library to send messages about items or services available when a visitor approaches a specific location. Some libraries may be able to use this technology as a powerful tool for promoting services; others may consider it to be intrusive.
New Technology Fades Quickly
As libraries adopt innovative technologies, they must also be cognizant of hype versus practical and relevant use cases. QR codes, for example, became a hot topic for libraries for a brief period. Linking a 2D bar code, which is easily read by a mobile phone, to a resource may have some interesting use cases in libraries, but it cannot necessarily be considered an especially novel technology today. Providing Wi-Fi-accessible printers was an innovative service for libraries a decade ago, but it is now a routine component of public computing infrastructure. 3D printing will see a similar trajectory. Many libraries have deployed these devices in the spirit of adopting new and innovative technology; a later phase will be characterized more by the onerous upkeep of these devices, with increasingly tenuous links to strategic library services. Today, supporting the general public's needs for printing cannot be justified as a key role of the library. The time will come when producing or replicating 3D objects will graduate out of the sphere of early adoption into the commonplace realm. Some libraries, such as those supporting communities oriented to engineering or manufacturing, are more likely to offer 3D printing as an ongoing service.
Assess Values Behind Technology
While technologies developed for the commercial sphere have the potential to power interesting library services, they also warrant careful consideration for privacy and security issues. Much of the technology created for the retail and consumer market aggressively collects and exploits data that describe an individual's physical location, browsing and buying patterns, demographics, and other personal descriptors. These data drive highly personalized services, which may be appreciated by consumers, but they are designed to benefit commercial providers.
Libraries may naturally want to take advantage of some of the technologies deployed by retail establishments to gain insights into patron interests and behaviors and to promote library services and materials. But concerns for protecting the privacy of patrons can be in direct tension with the promiscuous collection, distribution, and use of personal data baked into these devices and associated advertising-oriented networks. Libraries need to thoroughly understand the details of how these commercial ecosystems treat personal data and work through any privacy controls that may be available to let them work in ways consistent with library values versus those of the commercial sphere.
Libraries can benefit from all kinds of technologies. While we tend to gravitate toward the tried-and-true, newer and innovative technologies offer great potential. It is important to stay wellinformed on the new trends not only in library technologies, but also in the business and consumer arenas. Not all new technologies may prove to be suitable for libraries to adopt in the short term to the extent they become widely adopted by our patrons, but they will ultimately have an impact on the ways that libraries deliver their services.