Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Future IT Librarians

I believe I have mentioned before that technological advances have in fact created the need for librarians specially trained in using the technology effectively find pertinent information from the seemingly insurmountable amount of information and data present in modern society. I still believe this is true for today even as some believe that technology has negated the need for librarians. However, those pessimists might not be quite as wrong as I had previously thought. While technology has created a need for specially trained librarians in contemporary society, it seems possible that the current trends in technological advances points us in the direction of a situation or society that in fact does not need librarians in the sense that we think of today. Even if one argues that librarians will still exist, it seems that the characteristics of the job will have changed so much that a new job title would be warranted.
The current and historical trend in technology, including computer technologies, is to simplify the tasks and even the lives of humans and the current task of many librarians has developed into something similar, albeit more focused. Modern librarians generally make it their job to provide aid to patrons in their search for information, or in other words they strive to simplify the patrons’ searches for information. In most cases librarians are able to accomplish this by utilizing new and powerful computer technologies and databases. Librarians are in a constant search to find technologies that improve both the access to information and the efficiency of searching through that information. As it stands now, the technology is useful but generally still needs to be used by or have input from trained information specialists such as librarians, but this may not always be the case. Projecting these trends into the future highlights the potential dramatic changes that could develop out of those trends. If computer technologies continue to develop so there are very simple to use and simplify human tasks and lives and if librarians continue to seek out and use these increasingly less complicated but more powerful technologies, the need for specially trained librarians and information specialists could eventually dwindle to nothing. As future generations of databases and search tools become more powerful and effective and at the same time less complicated to use, the need for librarians as we understand them today will decrease. Projecting further into the future, as these technologies implement the use of artificial intelligence to aid in information searches, librarians will need to help those patients less and less.
However, as everyone is probably well aware, technology does not completely replace humans, especially when it comes to the maintenance of that technology. Technologies, including computer technologies, are not perfect and eventually break down in some way, which generates the need for specially trained humans to troubleshoot and fix them. In the case of computer technologies, specially trained IT professionals maintain the computer systems under their watch. This is in fact the direction the librarian profession seems to be on. As computer technologies increasingly enable patrons to search for information themselves, librarians increasingly are focused on maintaining and troubleshooting that technology. As they work more and more with the technologies in libraries and less with the patrons, they become something akin to IT professionals trained to maintain the sophisticated information search tools that may exist in future libraries.
Gulp. Looking ahead, I’d better take more Technology courses in LIS school.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The PRS-700 is here!

So who is the newest publisher on the block? Care to guess? Well, guess what…. It’s Sony! That’s right, Sony, the electronics giant. Alright, they are not technically a publisher but more like a digital book maker. Last week they announced the release of their new Reader Digital Book, the PRS-700 (sounds exciting, doesn’t it?), which will be available sometime in November. According to an article in the October 8, 2008 USA Today Section B by Marc Saltzman, this third-generation digital reader “is a svelte, 10-ounce e-book reader with a 6-inch gray-scale screen” that offers readers the ability to flip through pages by “swiping a finger horizontally across” a touch-screen. Apparently it is also equipped with an “impressive ‘e-ink’ technology” that “resembles real ink on paper.” This means that Sony has produced a digital book that closely resembles the older technology or traditional book, which is an interesting move that combines state of the art technology with centuries old technology. This combining of technologies can serve as a new model for libraries, which many people believe are becoming antiquated as a result of technological advances.
Sony’s new Reader Digital Book can offer libraries with a new avenue to reaching new patrons that may not have looked towards libraries for their digital book needs. In addition to traditional library holdings, libraries could purchase access to selections of digital books and then offer their patrons an alternative and cheaper access to this form of digital media. The library could have a relatively small number of these digital book units on hand to check out, and after deciding which e-book they would like to borrow or rent, they would take the unit to one of the special digital book kiosks in the library and download the digital book. They could then take the unit home and read the book in the exact same manner that they would have if they had checked out a traditional book. This would also work if certain patrons had their own PRS-700 units; these patrons either could visit the library and use the kiosk or could download a book from the library’s website. The library’s units could also be readily protected with software that limits the unit’s use with any system outside of the library’s. The issue of due dates could also easily be dealt with by programming the digital books to “expire” after a certain amount of time. These units paint a new picture of what future libraries might look like. So let’s buy them… how much are they?
One’s excitement for these digital books might drop after reading their $399.00 asking price. That rather hefty price-tag quickly makes this an unviable option for many libraries. Perhaps it would be possible to acquire less sophisticated units like the hypothetical PRS-700b version that doesn’t come with as many perks. This version could come without the large built-in memory that can store up to 350 digital books. It could also do without the fancy search buttons that allow you to “find words or phrases” and without the ability to “make notes via fingertips or the bundled stylus pen and soft keyboard.” Whether the library gets these cheaper models or whether they wait for the prices to come down, if the price of this technology were slightly cheaper, the Reader Digital Books could have a tremendous impact on libraries. For one, this digital media and hardware would not take up a lot of space in the library’s facilities. Also, as stated before, this could easily open up new ways for the library to reach out to tech savvy people who may not have otherwise even considered the library for their digital needs, thereby helping to ensure that libraries remain important and exciting institutions well into the future.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Vicious Technology Circle for Libraries

As libraries struggle to retain current and attract new patrons, one of the most effective means available to them is by purchasing and offering the newest technologies. Many libraries invest in these new technologies to keep people coming to their institutions in order to remain viable libraries. However, this strategy seems like it could easily become a vicious cycle that in essence traps libraries into spending large portions of their budgets technology that can quickly become outdated.
In a time when libraries are increasingly competing for attention in a world saturated by a wide variety of media and entertainments, libraries are always searching for ways to attract new and old patrons to their doors. This search often leads libraries to the decision to purchase new and exciting technologies to help generate interest or excitement in local libraries, which in turn helps libraries maintain higher traffic numbers. While this may in fact attract some people to the libraries, it also starts to place the priorities of libraries in different places. By focusing on providing new technologies, these libraries are placing technology over the information libraries can provide people. In a general exaggeration of what is going on, some libraries are beginning to provide access to new technologies rather than providing access to information, which has always been their default mission statement. This is in essence changing the libraries’ mission or raison d’ĂȘtre to one that puts more emphasis on newer technologies than on information and information access. These technologies include new hardware and a wide assortment of software, which includes operating systems, security packages, database systems, and some entertainment applications. While I am not saying providing people with access to newer technologies is wrong, I am somewhat afraid at what the cost of that access is taking away from other aspects of the libraries.
Even though technology is extremely important and helps drive our species forward, it has one large drawback in that it can cost quite a bit of money and then quickly becomes outdated. The pace of technological innovation in our society is simply astounding, and what is seen as new and exciting today very quickly becomes old news and outdated in a relatively short amount of time. One can purchase the most up to date computer with the newest software for a large chunk of change, and within one or two years, that equipment is no longer considered advanced and can even be inadequate in many circumstances. While this is the reality of the technology scene and is something we all accept, it can prove to be problematic for institutions like libraries. Many libraries operate on very limited budgets and as many places deal with dwindling patron visits in these uncertain economic times, those budgets may shrink even more in the near future. In order to attempt to drive up their gate counts, many libraries use their budgets to invest in certain areas that will help drive up their patron traffic, and this often leads libraries to invest in the newest technologies, which can be attractive to the general public. While this may help at first, that technology can quickly become outdated, leaving the libraries in the same position they were in a couple years ago. At this point some are driven to spend more of their budgets to make themselves appealing to the public again (at least for another couple of years). This obviously can become a vicious circle quite quickly and can easily tie up a large percentage of libraries’ operating budgets. This money being repeatedly spent on updating technology to bring in more people takes away money from acquiring more books, information, and access to other form of information, which has always been the main focus of libraries. While it would be wrong to say libraries should refrain from investing in new technologies, it is important that library directors remain aware of the potential pitfalls are and seek to reach a balance between new technology and new information and information access. In this way libraries can remain an important and exciting part of our communities without falling into the trap of continuously paying out money to obtain the newest technologies which can quickly become obsolete.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

RFID Tracking

In most libraries today, books are tracked through the use of individual barcodes on each book that allow the books to be efficiently scanned as on the shelf or checked out. While the use of these barcodes helps the efficiency of librarians, it falls short of effectively tracking the books. As libraries continue to struggle with the problem of what one could call unfound books, whether they are lost or mis-shelved, there needs to be a better way of tracking books within the library system. The use of barcodes is somewhat limited in that a scanner needs to actually see the barcode and therefore is generally only scanned as in house or checked out. A system that could allow automatic scanning at various points would be much more effective towards tracking books through libraries.
There has been a recent advance in technology that is being picked up by the ever powerful retailer Wal-Mart which could be useful to this problem: radio frequency identification (RFID). These small tags contain tiny transponders that use radio frequency to transmit information about what it is attached to, and the information can be passed on to a central database through RFID readers. Replacing the old barcodes with RFID tags would allow libraries to track their books through their systems automatically. By placing RFID readers throughout the library at strategic points, the books could automatically be tracked as it moves through the library. This tracking includes as the books are being moved to a specific floor and even shelving unit within the library on top of whether it is in the library or checked out. This would allow librarians to see whether the books were properly reshelved after they have been returned, and if they have not made it that far, they could narrow down where in the library’s system the book has currently traveled. This would help tremendously in tracking down books in the libraries when they are found to not be on the shelves when they are shown to be in the library.
However, while this technology would help tremendously in tracking books within libraries, this needs to be weighed by any potential drawbacks of this new technology. A potential problem would seem to be the longevity of these RFID tags. Since they are constantly broadcasting radio frequencies to transmit the required information and therefore expending energy, one would want to know how these are drawing energy. Plus it would be very helpful to know how long these tags can live before their energy source runs out. Of course one solution to this problem is to develop a source of energy that is able to renew itself. Since it probably uses miniscule amounts of energy, they would only need to generate a small amount possibly through the motion of the book as it is moved or through the light that shines on it. The other obvious drawback would be the price of this new technology and outfitting every book in the library with these tags along with the multiple RFID readers to make this system work. However, as the price of this technology inevitably decreases it would make this system more viable for the world’s libraries. As long as it does eventually become viable, the use of these RFID tags on the books in libraries would become a useful solution to more effectively tracking books through the library, giving librarians and patrons a better idea of where the requested books can be found.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Can U Help Fnd This 4 Me?

Can U Help Fnd This 4 Me? Do you mean - Can you help find this for me? Ahhh, text messaging. It’s one of the latest great advances in telecommunications, and at the same time it is the probable death sentence for the English language as we know it. These messages are supposed to be an easy way of efficiently communicating with other people. (Why don’t you call them?) Formally known as Short Message Service (SMS), text messaging has become a popular form of communicating via the ubiquitous cell phones.
I guess I should state here that I cannot stand text messaging. This probably has something to do with the fact that I am extremely slow at it, since I can never seem to find the right letter. It would be quicker for me to dial up the person, wait for an answer, say hi, and hang up than to type “Hi.” Also, I find it difficult to send a message where there is no grammar and spelling is very relative. I just can’t bring myself to type something like – “C U 2morrow! lol!” However, it seems to be an unwritten law that you have to text like this.
Actually there is a good reason for the texting “grammar.” All SMS messages have to be under 160 characters and are meant to be quick. This is why people resort to leaving out letters, ignoring proper grammar, and using recognized symbols. However, the more people write and even think in terms of this form of communication, the less they will know how to write with proper English grammar. Perhaps I am just an old fogey at heart, but that bugs me to no end.
Anyway, it seems text messaging is invading the world of libraries. In an effort to better serve the patrons of libraries, librarians are setting up SMS reference service where people can text message a reference librarian a reference question. In the SMS reference service set up at South Eastern Louisiana University, students can text a reference question to a librarian, who generally receives it as an e-mail. The librarian then responds to the student by e-mailing a text message to the student’s phone ( Is a service like this really necessary? This particular school already has reference desks manned by actual people, phone lines, e-mail service, and chat groups where people can seek reference help. In addition, all those types of service still abide by the rules of English grammar, whereas normal grammar is completely ignored in the use of text messaging. While it might seem like I am just whining about something I don’t like, it does seem to me that there is some potential for miscommunication through this form of service. As people start taking out letters and ignoring grammar in order to make their message as short as possible, there is real information being left out. One person might think something is not very important, so they don’t pass it along and waste any precious room in the text message they are sending. This could actually be useful information the librarian might need to effectively answer the question they are seeking to answer. The loose grammar and spelling could also lend itself to misunderstandings between the student and librarian as they both struggle to shorten complex questions and answers down to 160 characters. While it makes perfect sense to become as available as possible to the patrons of the library, does it make sense to and is it even efficient to utilize every single form of communication, including one that could easily distort information? Mull that one over while I go actually call and talk to someone.