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cycle that in essence traps libraries into spending large portions of their budgets technology that can quickly become outdated.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drive our species forward, it has one large drawback in that it can cost quite a bit of money and then quickly becomes outdated.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in our society is simply astounding, and what is seen as new and exciting today very quickly becomes old news and outdated in a relatively short amount of time.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.

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