It is no secret that libraries have embraced technology over the past few decades. We moved our card catalogs online in the eighties, began offering public access to Internet-connected computers in the nineties, and continue to bring users into the library by harnessing new and varied technologies. Yet libraries are still running as fast as they can to keep up with five years ago. Why is that?

When it comes to collections, we aren’t curators as much as custodians. The job of a curator is to separate the wheat from the chaff, and that runs counter to the librarian’s call1. But the problem is that users have specific needs, and the job of sorting through the ever-growing pile of resources is handed over to the user. This behavior finds its way into our technology adoption, as well. We want to offer every new technological marvel, somehow, to our users. There has to be value somewhere, right? We try things out, and when the next new thing comes along, we toss our formerly-beloved gadgets into the closet.

Five years later, we read an article about how some library managed to stop the merry-go-round long enough to successfully integrate some older piece of technology to actually improve user experience. We have a committee meeting, and someone remembers that we bought a dozen of these whiz-bangs five years ago, and we dust them off and follow the lead of another library. But then we climb back on the technology train, having learned nothing from the experience, content to let others handle our curatorial responsibility of asking if the technology meets our users needs. This is what keeps us five years behind.

When we inundate ourselves with the latest gadgetry without performing some essential curatorial functions, we lose focus on what’s important, which is helping our users. We adopt technology for technology’s sake, and have no time to learn and really integrate new technology because we’re always moving on to the next big thing. We sense that there is something that can be improved about the way we provide service, and we’re sure that this next gizmo or that whiz-bang will fix the problem. But it won’t, because the problem isn’t that we’re missing the right piece of technology. The problem is more fundamental.

Users have work to do at academic libraries, and that work does not require technology2. We should adopt technology because it makes our users’ work easier. When you think of the best technology you’ve ever used, wasn’t it great because the gadget got out of the way and made your work easier? Ignoring the reasons why we use technology in the first place will only pile up technological barriers between our users and what they are trying to do.

We need to become technical curators. We need to understand what are users really are doing or want to do (and not what we think they are doing or want to do). Using that information, we should evaluate every piece of technology that is proposed. How will this help users do their work? Will this make their work easier, without burdening them? Will this have longevity? Do users even want what this provides? (I’m looking at you, QR codes.)

As Merlin Mann says, if you want to make lists, don’t buy a new notebook. Just make lists! If we want to provide better service for our patrons, no technology is going to do that for us. If we want to provide great service, we need to start by providing great service. Technology should only build on that foundation, not try to mask fundamental problems.

  1. Librarians pride themselves in offering up access to as many resources as we can. Collection development librarians perform some high-level curation to ensure that the resources match the collecting goals of the library. But this isn’t strict curation. 
  2. Yes, I realize that if something is online, technically you need a computer to read it. Unless, of course, the text is printed out for you. But here the technology involved, an Internet-capable computer with a Web browser, actually makes searching for articles much easier than sifting through paper stacks. Research can and still is done without any online component, and this is primarily what users are doing in academic libraries: research.