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ONLINE SEARCHER: Information Discovery, Technology, Strategies

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Red Rover, Red Rover
Volume 39, Number 1 - January/February 2015

Do kids still play that old game “Red Rover, Red Rover, let [insert name here] come over”? The other morning I found myself mumbling the ancient chant. The night before I’d had dinner with an old friend, and we had gotten to talking about online shopping and ebooks. She was adamantly opposed to ever buying anything online due to the fact that it would require her to share her credit card number. In a completely unrelated discussion, it turns out that she is equally rigidly opposed to ebook viewing. “I already spend too much of my time staring at a screen each day. When I want to read a book, I want it in print.”

Now, I’m an Amazonaholic of l-l-l-o-o-n-n-g-g standing. I even have a travel mug that arrived with a Christmas note from Jeff Bezos back in the earliest years of Amazon’s existence. Living life without the constant help and support of the ultimate “Anything you want, we got” vendor is beyond my ken. But I myself spent years resisting ebooks until finally Kindle-itis struck, and now reading ebooks competes vigorously with a lifetime habit of television watching. On the other hand, I still view all social networks as email on steroids and firmly resist them.

All this musing got me to wondering what the role of information professionals should be in dealing with the adoption of technologies by clients, in bringing clients over to the technological light. Or should we have a role at all? Information or content handling technologies are designed to meet needs in people’s lives; in some cases, needs people didn’t know they had—or maybe still don’t know. And it’s an end-user world when it comes to the technologies and the content they carry. In the past, the library and the librarian supplied a gateway to the content with online searching, print collections, reference desk service, etc. “Just come on down,” we promised clients, “and whatever you need or want, we’ll supply it.” Well, maybe “promised” is too extreme a word, but at least we’d try our darndest.

Now almost all content comes packaged digitally and prepped for end-user access. But the entry fee for all digital content or digital content handling remains the same—an ability and willingness to accept the technology. From early adopters to last holdouts, the acceptance of a content technology can determine a client’s success in meeting their information needs. We may hope that clients who have problems with certain technologies will just come to us and let us try to bridge the gap, but that won’t always work. In any case, neither we nor our clients are ready to match the full breadth of content that a whole technology can offer.

Information professionals, whether working in the information industry, private consulting, or in traditional libraries, all face the ultimate mission of our profession—get the information to the people who need it, move the content to whomever and wherever it should go. But when clients resist using the technologies carrying the content or supplying the necessary content handling features, the mission may require changing the client more than changing the content. In some cases, this can mean accommodating existing attitudes. Libraries retain an image of pre-Third Millennium information environments with their buildings and bookshelves and print collections. So that friend of mine whose adherence to print started this discussion also spoke of her regular use of a local library. (By the way, she echoed another friend’s odd quirk about using libraries. She worries about touching books that others have used. Germaphobia. Another challenge for librarians? Or another opportunity to extol the virtues of ebooks?) And providing a comfortable environment to give holdouts a sense of security has its merits. However, it also has a lot of negatives. It can hamper the library’s attempt to promote its digital offerings. It can perpetuate the “Marian/Marion the Librarian” image, diminishing the multifaceted potential of hiring an information professional.

Most importantly, it can lead clients into the mistaken notion that confining their content formats to library print holdings will always suffice. It won’t. We all know case after case in which established, even famous information sources have succumbed to digital realities. National newspapers such as the Christian Science Monitor have gone digital, leaving just a vestige of its product in print form. Predictions even pose the same fate within the next few years for The New York Times. And how long since you’ve seen a really thick Yellow Pages?

To keep clients well-informed and well-served in an online world, information professionals should study and monitor technological acceptance in client communities. The studying should be ongoing as the acceptance will most likely be dynamic at both ends of the spectrum—from user experience and client attitudes to the nature and importance of the content affected. Above all, reject prejudices. How often have you heard assumptions, for example, that age alone can determine technological awareness and acceptance? And yet statistics have shown that the 50-plus demographic is the second-largest growth group for buying new information technology. Perhaps that just means the age group has more disposable income, but it at least confirms awareness, if not usage, of new technologies.

From personal experience, I also reject the assumption that one can define a person as an early adopter or holdout. Instead, it depends on the technology and the person’s needs. I am a prime example. Although I bought an iPad the first day the device appeared on the market and avoided the Kindle until I succumbed in a heated rush, I still resist Facebook and Twitter. My next major technological purchase will be a drone, although only as a Christmas gift. So how do you define me technologically?

First and foremost comes awareness. Information professionals have an obligation to keep their clients at least aware of new technologies and how the technologies might serve them. Instruction in using new technologies should be a regular part of library offerings. A person should know that a trip to the reference desk can always help them deal with a puzzling new gadget’s setup. Keeping up with such requests should prove invaluable in educating staff in what has attracted client interest and how clients use new technologies. Analyzing future client needs can help information professionals plan ahead for lifetime service. Track the content that clients use and may not realize is going more and more digital. They need to be alerted. Track the life changes with clients that may make technologies of greater use.

How often does one hear the disclaiming argument, “Well, I’m sure that technology is fine for some people, but I just don’t need it. I’m fine with what I have”? Sometimes you’re only fine because you’ve learned to live on less when living with more would be simple and affordable. So why not? Sometimes you’re fine as long as what you have continues when the content is migrating rapidly. So how long before you’re not fine at all? Sometimes you’re fine today with your current life situation, but there is white water ahead as you change jobs, get married, have a baby, retire, whatever. So do you want a modern, well-equipped river raft or an inner tube? Hmm. Inner tubes. I doubt even junk yards still have any of those.

 - bq

The late Barbara Quint was senior editor of Online Searcher, contributing editor for ITI's NewsBreaks, and a columnist for Information Today.


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