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Social Darwinism and Libraries

January 31, 2012

Fair warning: what follows contains a lot of vague opinions that I tried to think through as I typed and remain unresolved. Beware of rambling.

We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.

That’s the first item listed on the American Library Association’s Code of Ethics.  Library professionals are devoted to providing services to their patrons, be the general public, taxpayers, homeless, children, elderly, students and faculty members in a specific educational institution, government employees and officials, lawyers, doctors, or members of a specialized profession.  It doesn’t matter who a library is designed to serve – the librarians who work there are obligated to serve those patrons equitably and to the best of their ability.

At the same time, every time I hear a patron say “I’m computer illiterate,” or “I don’t do well with computers,” or “I’m an old person – I learn from books,” it makes me want to scream.  How can anyone allow themselves to be pigeon-holed into such a small portion of modern library collections and resources.  The worst part is that this attitude generally comes with a desire to avoid learning/becoming comfortable with the technology.  I’m all about customer service, and little old ladies are my Kryptonite, but at some point I lose pity for people who refuse to jump on the well-established bandwagon.  Applying for a job online and don’t have an e-mail address, let alone any idea how to fill out the HTML form to get one?  Sorry, but I don’t think you have much of a chance at that position.  Working on homework for your online class, but don’t know how to use Microsoft Word?  Yeah, about that – you’re probably not going to do well.

How can you survive in a world without these skills?  Libraries have taken it upon themselves to lead their patrons into the digital age, staying at least one step ahead by keeping up with emerging technologies and in many cases paving the digital-content road for users.  I’ve talked to patrons who waited until the library had e-books to check out before buying an e-reader, and then called to see which devices were compatible before making a purchase.  After buying it, they immediately came in to get a quick and dirty tutorial on how to get the content off the web and onto their device.  But this is one side of the extreme – this is a digital immigrant who is eager to be on new soil and discover new opportunities to interact with the world at their fingertips.

Can we claim to provide equitable access when a portion of the population lacks the skills?  You can put up a door to a new collection, but some of your users are unable to open the door, what good is it?  You’re effectively telling those people that they aren’t allowed access to the information on the other side, which goes against the ALA’s #1 ethic for library professionals.

Yes, libraries provide computer classes and materials to give the less enthusiastic folks and others like them a hand-up onto the wagon, but in my experience, these patrons would prefer a one-on-one approach – or else for me to sit there with them and fill out the application while they feed me their information.  So while part of me is cynical and wants to teach people to swim by pushing them into the ocean, I’m also upset that I can’t always provide the highest level of customer service when it comes to digital immigrants.

Are they digital immigrants?  They’re so flagrantly opposed to all things digital, I almost want to call them the digitally exiled – not unlike those sentenced under Britain’s Transportation Act.  My parents are digital immigrants.  My grandfather (who is in his nineties) is a digital immigrant.  On the other hand, my grandmother has herself firmly rooted in the Analog Motherland, and she wont’ be joining us here web-side anytime soon.

This, of course, boils down to the social issues behind the digital divide – access and time with technology.  There’s not an easy answer to “fixing” the issue.  When I taught English, I remember having to book extensive time in computer labs for students to work on papers , because I could not make the assumption that they would have access at home/outside of school.  But, of course, there are some kids who are going to go home to video games and their own laptops/technology-bits and learn by doing – fiddling around and getting comfortable with the technology.  Other kids go home to…well, not that.

But with technology becoming so central to our lives, especially for things like banking, employment (applications, schedules, pay-stubs, etc.), and even finding a place to live (rental applications), I’m curious and a little afraid when I think about how long it make take us to reestablish the benchmark.  It’s tied to the price of technology, sure, but it’s also tied to our own social acceptance of it.  Remember the car insurance commercials that emphasis the choice between taking care of claims online and talking with a person?  We’re still very much divided on that point, and it’s not an easy line to draw.

For example, I like paying some bills online, but I have to write a check for my car payment. And honestly?  I like writing a check.  It has a different sense of “I’m an adult” sense of accomplishment for me.  When it comes to reading, I prefer audiobooks because it frees up my hands to do other things.  My husband works with very sophisticated bio-medical engineering equipment and is excited to help advance it even further, but the man has never burned a CD in his life.

There is no easy answer.  I wish I had one, but I don’t.  So, in the meantime, I’ll smile and provide all the help I can, given the other demands on services and my time at the reference desk.  I will revel in the success of our e-Reader clinics and be on hand to sit alongside new Nook, Pandigitial, iPad, Kindle, Kobo, and Sony Reader owners who are eager to learn how to download content from the library.  I will help to supplement regular K-12 and secondary education efforts in regard to technology competency.  I will be as Tenzig Norgay-like as I can for any and all who come to me wanting to climb their mountain in the digital landscape.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Becca permalink
    February 2, 2012 1:00 pm

    I feel your pain! Personally, I think that while librarians can be excellent bridges to the techie “promised land”, we can’t force patrons to set foot on that bridge. They have to be able to find the value in technology for themselves. Anybody who enters a library with a desire to learn can be helped, but I’m not about to force a Kindle down your throat.

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