The Challenge Of Technology

November 20, 2006

Recently, K.G. Schneider asked for people’s technology wish lists – in order to put together a post on ALA’s Techsource blog. People had some great suggestions, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading both the posts and the comments. I thought about the subject quite a bit to try and figure out what my biggest technology challenges are on a day-to-day basis. After a while, I started to think about the ways in which technology presents barriers to our customers (and staff) and makes life more difficult. Sadly, there are far too many ways in which technology interferes in the flow of information. Interestingly, in the midst of my thinking about this, Jason Griffey posted about helping a student – or trying to help a student – print out documents from a jumpdrive in the library. The student couldn’t print out the documents because the jumpdrive required that the student have administrator rights on the computer.

These types of problems are on the rise as operating systems, browsers and software respond the challenges of viruses, phishing attacks and user problems. The trend is to create software that may be easier to use (I think this may not actually be the end result), but that is more difficult to “mess” up. For businesses and institutions, operating systems are being locked down in order to reduce maintenance time and costs. Permissions and access rights come into play – and IT departments naturally want to use these tools to reduce system crashes and software corruption. This adds a great deal of complexity to systems – and frustration for users.

The sad fact is that incidents like Jason Griffey described with the student’s jumpdrive are all too common. It is getting more and more difficult to actually provide services to students on institution-owned computers. We have many software programs that require administrator rights to actually run correctly. At the college where I work, we end up creating local admin accounts on the computers and installing the software on each computer – by hand. Students then have to know that in order to use certain programs, they need to use different accounts (and log into the local machine rather than the domain). This is becoming more and more prevalent. As browsers add functionality to disable web pages running things like ActiveX, to identify phishing attacks and to protect users from unauthorized downloads, they add complexity for things such as downloading and opening PDFs. PDFs are one of the mostly commonly used file types in libraries – and with IE7 (IE is our college’s supported browser) one has to continuously click all over the place to actually download the file. Additionally, students bring CD-Rs, CD-RWs, DVDs, DVD-Rs, DVD-RWs, floppy disks, zip disks, etc. to the library with no idea of which computers have which types of removable drives. Sometimes, students bring in their laptops with their modem cables (and we don’t have any active phone jacks). The stories of technology-related frustrations are seemingly endless – and create the exact atmosphere that we do not want to provide to our customers.

I guess the point to all of this is that what I really want (and what I really think would benefit libraries) is technology that does not erect barriers between our information and our users. Ideally, shouldn’t technology enable the free flow of information? All of this talk about library 2.0 and improvements to library services can only take us so far. It isn’t only our library systems and services that are creating problems, but the direction of technology in general. Things like DRM, software conflicts, incompatible file formats, hardware conflicts, etc. cause huge problems for us in libraries. It isn’t just ILS vendors that we need to be talking to about better systems, but software providers in general (and hardware vendors, too). For patrons to have good experiences in libraries all of our technologies much play well together – library systems, DRM, Windows & Mac operating systems, browsers, removable devices, portable devices, and any other technology-related item that our patrons want to use in the library.

Technology that provides barriers is not user-centric in nature. There has to be a better way to use technology to provide a user-friendly library experience that is inclusive of those with differing levels of technical knowledge, different portable devices, different software requirements, and different information needs. Today, because of barriers, we are often unable to meet the basic needs of our students without serious staff intervention. I want better technology that enables our patrons to be self-sufficient  and frees library staff from having to spend time rebooting computers, reformatting documents for printing and trying to get laptops connected to the network rather than helping patrons find information that they need.