I suppose all professional organizations have regular large, national or international meetings where members gather to learn about the latest developments. Normally they feature an exhibit hall where various vendors display their wares. In recent decades these exhibits always include plenty of fancy new computer technology.
Libraries have always been on the forefront of information technology. We think of information technology as requiring the use of computers to store and manipulate data about data, or metadata. In fact, a library catalog entry is and has always been metadata, long before computers existed. When experts at the Library of Congress devised a way to have computers print library cards in the 1960s, they invented the first computerized metadata standard.
Since then the disciplines of librarianship and information technology have grown apart. Librarians remain technology leaders, but some new developments make libraries’ work more difficult.
Google, for example, has always been a mixed blessing for libraries. Reference librarians use it all the time, provided that it’s the best resource for the task at hand. A lot of the public, and unfortunately, too many of the people who have the power to decide library budgets, are under the impression that people can find any information they want on Google and therefore don’t need libraries or librarians. As I have written many times before, not all the information that people need is available for free on the Internet.
There is no need to go over that ground again, but two recent developments show a different aspect of the mixed blessing. Google Maps has lately developed the capacity to show floor plans of selected structures, not just the location of the building. If a library (or any other large public building) wants to display its floor plan to Android-based smart phones, it need only invite a team from Google to visit the site to collect and digitize the data.
On the other hand, Google recently acquired an instant-messaging utility called Meebo and decided to discontinue it as a standalone service. Many libraries used Meebo and had to find a replacement in a hurry. The American Library Association had its annual meeting just weeks after that announcement, and of course a couple of exhibitors were there to demonstrate how they could be that replacement.
Many other companies
Here are some other recent technological developments intended to help libraries help their patrons:
- Although Google is the best-known search engine, it does not stand alone. One called Blekko especially seeks partnerships with libraries through providing spam-free search and curated, high-quality content.
- You can count on finding printers in libraries. There’s no need to print everything, or anything, on paper any more. Some new services allow patrons to print not only on paper, but to thumb drives, their phones or other mobile devices, or to cloud storage like Google Drive. Library staff can also use these companies to fulfill document delivery through Interlibrary Loan.
- A number of companies help libraries manage and lend their collections of ebooks. Libraries face at least two major problems that these companies help alleviate. For one, there are lots of different e-readers on the market, and libraries need to be able to lend to all their patrons no matter which platform they use. Second, publishers often set severe licensing restrictions on what libraries are allowed to lend and on what terms.
- Until the library world agrees on a standard for how records from catalogs and other databases should be displayed, these library mainstays will remain difficult to use, and not all the metadata contained in the databases will be accessible. Nevertheless, the various vendors continue to work with libraries to improve search results, calculate relevancy, and add article-level content to the catalogs.
And so even if you don’t notice the technology at your library–or don’t use what you do notice–libraries depend on increasingly sophisticated technology to deliver the services you need.