by Jessamyn West
This is my last column for Computers in Libraries. My life’s gotten fun and complex, and it seemed like a good time to pass this opportunity on to someone else. When I first began writing here, I was alternating months with Rachel Singer Gordon. Gordon is the author of a number of great books about librarianship, including one of my favorites, The Accidental Systems Librarian, First Edition. She now works as a writer and blogger, while being a mom to two kids and writing at Mashup Mom. Next, I shared the column with Donna Ekart, who was then a librarian at Kansas State University and is now a married Mainer doing excellent community work. I’ve been writing it solo for about 10 years. During that time, I’ve continued to offer tech support to digitally divided folks and run a large community website. I am currently community manager for the Flickr Foundation. í
|My first column was about open source, written in Open Office. I suggested that people use Audacity and WordPress, which are tools I still use. Of the 19 links in my resources section, 10 of them still resolve 15 years later.
I want to depart from my usual format and look back at some of the things I’ve written about and what trend lines run through technology advice even as the technology landscape changes. When I started writing this column in 2008, Firefox was at version 2.0, and I was only a few years into doing drop-in time. I used to submit this column via an emailed Microsoft Word document. Google Docs was still in beta, but it was my main composition tool for a while. I’m typing this column up as a draft directly into my email client. My current process has been dropping links into my draft email as I put my column together over the month. These link-dump drafts become my scratch pad for the next column.
My first column was about open source, written in Open Office. I suggested that people use Audacity and WordPress, which are tools I still use. Of the 19 links in my resources section, 10 of them still resolve 15 years later. The PowerPoint deck that I linked to, showcasing open source alternatives for librarians, is still online and still useful.
A lot of the technologies that were newer to the field when I started writing—blogging, social media, and content creation (and not just promotion)—are now pretty standard in even smaller libraries. Microsoft Publisher has given way to Canva. That’s probably been a good shift, but an odd one, since making a flier now means having a login. Upholding patron privacy in the modern day means understanding password management, cookies, and various kinds of multifactor authentication. The line between what we used to think of as enterprise software and personal software is blurrier.
Many more applications and technologies require some sort of user authentication in 2023. Determining how to make this sort of thing work for library staffers can be complicated, especially in smaller libraries. Do you have one Apple ID or Google account for the library and then separate identities for individual staffers? Can you redirect the firstname.lastname@example.org emails to someone else when the director is on maternity leave? How does a library handle multifactor authentication? Is there a way for the library to receive text? As an extremely online person who lives in a rural community where my library co-workers are often somewhat digitally divided, watching people puzzle out answers to these questions has always been fascinating to me.
We’ve also seen a major consolidation of technology power. This has happened not just within library catalogs—as Marshall Breeding has been tracking so wonderfully over the years—but also with consumer applications. The major free or low-cost technology companies—Google, Apple, and Microsoft—are decently good at providing free and easy-to-use tools, but many libraries have evolving technology needs. That means they often employ a patchwork of solutions for various technology problems. Each major company has its own cloud products in addition to other companies, such as Dropbox and Amazon, rendering more of our content in disparate locations. The appeal of federated social media, such as Mastodon and Lemmy, has been increasing, but many people and institutions are still using Facebook, Instagram, and, to a lesser degree, X (formerly known as Twitter) and TikTok to interact with patrons and other libraries, which can also split our attentions.
There are more black boxes in our complex systems than there used to be. We’ve been troubleshooting an email issue for months at my library. It has something to do with a weird interplay between our domain registrar, our email provider, and one of our librarians’ solo inboxes. Some sent email just … vanishes. This is maybe because of the recipient’s personal email configuration. It’s very difficult to troubleshoot, and it’s often easier to build a workaround than it is to truly figure out what is happening. More of the work I do occurs in the interplay between systems, rather than within a specific tool or technology.
The patrons I work with in the library, who still would like to understand the why of their technology concerns, have grown more comfortable with mobile devices, and many no longer have computers at all. They’re often more comfortable paying a small amount for apps or storage. I can remember being highly critical of OSs that named the computer My Computer and the documents folder My Documents, but they work for people who might otherwise have trouble understanding the complex metaphor of file systems to begin with. I still probably have one new patron a month who is receiving their first text, sending their first email, or going to their first Zoom meeting. It’s incredibly gratifying work.
I will include one fun link—Look Scanned—because it was waiting for me when I started to write this month. It’s a single-serving website that adds a few filters to a PDF so that it looks as if it were run through a scanner. Even in 2023, I still find that I am doing business with organizations that send me PDFs, which they expect me to sign, scan, and fax back to them. This tool lets me sign using my PDF reader. Then I can fax it using FaxZero or some other computer-based application. No printer necessary.
Finding and sharing technology solutions is work that I would do even if they paid me in sand. I’ve been so fortunate to have had the opportunity to write this column, work with a great team of people, and share what I love for all this time. Thank you, sincerely, for reading.