Home » Outreach & Discovery » Upping Our Game: Taking Libraries to New Heights with Technology

Upping Our Game: Taking Libraries to New Heights with Technology

Computers in Libraries 2017

Conference Report by Mary Wu, Digital Scholarship and Metadata Librarian

The 32nd annual Computers in Libraries, the most comprehensive North American conference and exhibition on all aspects of library and information delivery technology, was held March 28-30 in Arlington, VA.  Approximately 1500 people around the world attended the conference.

The opening keynote was by Gina Millsap, CEO, Topeka & Shawnee County Library in Kansas, who described how her library was chosen by Library Journal as the Library of the Year in 2016.  She said that everyone in the community has a relationship with the library.  They are the readers, and the library is a place where they can live, read, and play.  The library serves about 550,000 people and has only one building — no branches.  The staff members have worked hard to become community leaders.  One of their most impressive programs is the Learn and Play Bus, an early education mobile classroom that enables children ages birth to five to have 60 books in their home libraries and a shared experience of knowing and loving the same stories.  The program plays a very important role in making sure that children are ready for kindergarten because in the Topeka school district alone, fifty five percent of school age children don’t possess the skills necessary to begin school.  They are behind in cognitive and language development, basic skills, and even potty training.  The program has been made possible by working with United Way on fund raising, and the implementation of the Dolly Parton Imagination Library book give-away program.  They have hit their first fund raising goal, and now have enough funding to operate for four years. Their next goal is to raise a million dollars to ensure that the program is sustainable.  She concluded her keynote by acknowledging that “libraries will change if librarians change. It has never been a better time to be a librarian.  A great librarian knows team and project planning, data analysis, how to do research and community analysis, and how to initiate and manage partnerships. The ability to adapt and learn is critical.”

In her keynote talk on the second day of the conference, author and cultural analyst Patricia Martin spoke about “Right place; Right time.”  She believes that it’s the perfect time to be a librarian.  Digitization is changing who we are as librarians, and is affecting the role of libraries in the community.  Her research discovered that our institutions are losing their impact.  Job status, family, location, and organized religion are losing relevance, which puts us into a situation of role ambiguity.  She believes that the new relationship between ambitions and identity has three parts: rope, edgepart, and muster.  Our identity today is more like a rope of many strands than a linear yardstick.  As we change jobs, move around, and try different personas, we are adding strands to our ropes.  Edgepart makes us good at change so we can survive.  Muster encourages us to start small in order to achieve big goals.  She suggested that librarians should concentrate on who we want our patrons to be.  Our job is not about providing information anymore since nobody needs more information.  Instead, our job is about growing and building a community.  She thinks that we should see the user experience as a path to discovery and that the library should be seen as a community.  She said that librarians don’t have a job; they have a platform for change.  People need to be inspired and imaginations raised and expanded through this platform.

Lee Rainie, the Director of Internet, Science, and Technology Research, for the Pew Research Center, presented the final day’s keynote address: “Where technology fits with library patrons’ needs”. She posited that there is a deep decline in trust in many organizations, but that libraries have been immune to this trend.  People like and trust librarians, and think that libraries are important, especially for communities.  They think that libraries are particularly beneficial for those without vast resources.  Libraries have re-branded themselves as technology hubs and are deeply appreciative of these changes.  People still read books and prefer printed books to e-books, by a 3 to 1 margin.  Below is some of Pew’s latest data on libraries from its 2016 study:

  • Over 40% of users used a library or bookmobile in the last 12 months. About 1/3 of them–more women than men and younger people–used the library’s website.
  • Traditional activities like borrowing books or reading dominate library use, but people are also attending classes or other programs (class use was the activity that increased the most from 2015 to 2016).
  • Doing research or checking email are the most frequent uses of library technology resources, but more people are using them to take classes online than last year.

Libraries are curators of quality information and people overwhelmingly report that the library helps them.  Finding trustworthy information is highly important to most library users, followed by learning new things, personal growth, and getting information to help in making decisions.  Fifty-six percent of people polled say it would have a major impact on the community if the library closed.  The data also demonstrated that nobody has had to reinvent themselves more than libraries have in the past few years.  Libraries have assiduously reconfigured and re-purposed themselves to remain relevant.  In the future, libraries should embrace the Internet of Things, become the “first place” to meet, fill in “market holes” or niches in the information marketplace, and become innovation test beds.  They should also strive to position themselves as trusted institutions advocating for free information and open access, work to close digital divides, and continue to act as privacy and algorithm watchdogs.

Each day, followed by the keynote, there were numerous programs to attend in five tracks of different themes.  The two programs highlighted here are particularly relevant to academic libraries:

Deirdre Costello, the Principal UX Researcher at EBSCO, researched user experience (UX) practices to assess how students and faculty interact with library databases to help shape the products they bring to the campus marketplace.  Students feel more trusting, confident, and competent with Google than with faculty.  Google is like “breathing” during the stressful process of starting a new project, looking for relevant information, and providing explanations to students.  Search results are no longer a portal to discover further information, but are a platform themselves for answering questions.  She cautioned that we must be aware that students are using the same type of search techniques that they use on the open web when searching their academic library websites.  As indicated by their emphasis on efficiency, time is an incredibly valuable resource to this audience.  Students are constantly shifting and recalibrating priorities and competing deadlines.  Because the anxiety students start to associate with research in high school is compounded when they get to college, research often ends up losing out in those calculations, and is squeezed into as little time as possible.  College students find their motivation at different times in different ways.  While research can feel like a negative experience, many college students are actually internally motivated to hone those skills as they understand that such skills will hold value for them in the future.  There are colleges and universities using this sense of investment to their advantage to teach research skills.  MIT library staff partner with professors to teach course-specific research skills through activities such as scavenger hunts, and the University of San Francisco is considering major-specific training because faculty know that students’ investment in that subject—in and beyond school—will help them absorb advanced research skills relevant to them.  However, despite understanding the value of research, the library is not the first place college students turn to when struggling with an assignment.  They usually go to their peers and to teachers with whom they have a personal connection.  This is possibly because students don’t often get the chance to develop that same kind of trusting, personal relationship with librarians.  One student had a required one-on-one session with a librarian as part of a freshman year research assignment.  This experience helped her understand that the librarian was there to help her, and she has since met with a subject librarian for every subsequent assignment.  In many ways, the obstacles students face when they conduct research are the same as they’ve always been—trouble with topics and search strategies, fear of being graded down for citation errors, and the belief that the librarian doesn’t want to be bothered.  When students learn that the librarian is there to help them succeed, they become much more likely to think of the library as a go-to research resource.

Analyzing Collections for Decision making was presented by Lutgarda Barnachea, the Assessment Coordinator at the University of Maryland Libraries.  She shared the process used to weed their collection.  The main triggering points for the weeding project were the changing concepts of library as a place as well as overflowing shelves.  The act of entering the library building had become akin to entering a warehouse of books.  This is a result of the fact that the collections were becoming disorganized.  “Lost” materials were not really lost but were likely somewhere on the shelves.  The result was a slowing of foot traffic in the library.  The concept of the library as a space is changing.  In a series of interviews, students listed their needs and wants: quiet reading areas, areas for collaboration, and technology rich areas.  In content analysis, they looked at the big picture using OCLC WorldShare to see the uniqueness of the collection and found that only about 15% of the items held are truly unique to their library.   Studies of publication dates and subjects were also conducted.  Usage statistics were generated using ALEPH (the ILS) report function based on call numbers and shelf list.  Collection development librarians marked items to be removed.  Strategies used were: withdraw duplicate copies, withdraw items based on publication year, and target collections in selected spaces.  The results of this exercise were that a makerspace was created, rooms with laptops were set up, and that now some rooms have furniture that can be rearranged by users.  Lessons learned are: don’t be hindered by limited money, and listen to users’ concerns.  The use of analytics to evaluate the collection’s uniqueness and usage demonstrates practical applications of quantitative data to make informed decisions.  For anyone facing the need to reduce holdings (print or electronic), these shared lessons offers some useful insight.