Libraries, Archives, and Technology

In library school, keeping up with technology is stressed. Yes, the school may not be able to offer every program in existence for students to sample but they can offer some common ones and those that are freely available. One required course was even titles “Introduction to Information Technology.” Yet, how does the skills learned translate to the actual library and archive environment?

"My new iMac" by Kanshir from Flickr Creative Commons.

“My new iMac” by Kanshir from Flickr Creative Commons.

Based on where I’ve worked, attended school, or visited, the actual use of technology varies. Most academic libraries and well-funded archives seem to be technology pioneers. The academic libraries offer multiple computer types and programs; scanners; specialized multimedia labs; and online tools, such as LibGuides, screen capture software, and discovery tools (ex. Summon, EBSCOHost Discovery, etc.). Many also have begun to acquire 3D printers. For example, when I worked as a graduate assistant we were the first library in the state to acquire a KIC Bookeye scanner. This useful device was such a hit with students, after I left there were plans to acquire another. Looking at discovery services, the same library contracted with Summon to offer a discovery service back when it was the only product of its type, thus making it one of the first universities to offer the service. Other digital devices, such as iPads, cameras, video recorders, and more, are also offered for checkout and support is provided for these items.

Looking at archives, the well-funded ones I’ve visited or volunteered at pioneer other technologies. They offered microfilm reader/scanners as soon as the devices debuted. Behind the scenes, pending the amount of funding, they have planetary scanners and/or slide scanners and conservation labs. They also frequently began and led digitization movements to allow greater public access to information. Lesser funded ones usually have these technologies and related plans in mind, but they lack the funding to do anything about it.

Well-funded urban library systems nearby seem to mirror the academic libraries in regards to technology. They embrace the changes and keep up with it. Yes, they may not offer discovery tools, but they offer a plethora of databases. Their computer and online technology is also current. Other offered technologies vary, but I have seen one with the microfilm scanner/readers and a library system on the other side of the state recently made headlines when it purchases an Espresso Book Machine for patron use.

However, let’s look at another angle. Where I work now is a semi-rural public library. They scoff at technology changes. The online catalog was new over fourteen years ago and it’s capabilities are severely limited compared to what I used in college/graduate school and when I subbed long-term in a school library. Only a few databases are offered. The public and circulation computers still run on Windows XP, which will no longer be supported as of April 8. The computers in the offices were only upgraded to Windows 7 within the last couple months. Recently, the server was glitching and we could not access files stored there. I suggested making a move to using the cloud storage was have as part of our Google Apps for Education subscription because it would always be available and more than one person could edit files at once. In short, that did not go over well. Additionally, despite repeated requests, classes on social media use are not offered. In a nearby rural library system I once interviewed at, they had yet to create an online or offline electronic catalog. They plan to debut one later this year. Also, again the computers were old and, on to of that, the high speed internet was really no better than dial up. How does one handle all this? They must be a common problem in public libraries with small budgets and older staff, especially in rural areas. I will point out as a counter point, those where I am currently have embraced the self-checkout machine.

So to my point of this musing. In school, we are taught to be tech savvy. We are told to embrace technology. We are given experience with dozens of programs/technologies and on both PC and Mac computers. However, once in the field, technology’s use varies. I’ve worked places that embrace the new technological tools as they become available and in ones that drag their feet until the last possible moment. If you are a librarian, archivist, or a student planning on that career goal, what have you noticed in regards to technology and its adaptation? For those of you who are just library users, have you noticed this pattern when you utilize your library services? Has anyone noticed a similar trend in other fields?


10 thoughts on “Libraries, Archives, and Technology

  1. When I arrived at Scenic Regional, all our computers were at least 5 years old, we had a battered Windows XP machine that masqueraded as our “server”, and we had only recently debuted Wi-Fi. When I tried to tell the director that we desperately needed new equipment, he looked at me and said, “Is it broken?” I frowned and replied, “Well, no, not technically.” And that was the end of that discussion. His motto was, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and nothing I could say would change his mind.

    In general, the previous generation (at least at my library) was more concerned with pinching pennies and being a book warehouse than providing community tools and staying up-to-date with technology. It was their duty, they thought. That’s what they’d been taught in school. It’s an interesting time right now, with the previous generation on the brink of retirement as the new wave comes in bursting with fresh ideas–ideas we are often denied funding for.

    In my case, what happened was the director retired and we hired a wonderful replacement who somehow, luckily, shared my mindset. He’d attended the same school I did, taken the same classes, had the same teachers. We were very much on the same page. I was green-lighted to apply for grants and completely rehaul our system. We have new Wi-Fi access points, digital microfilm reader-scanners, a *real* server, all new computers, a new ILS, receipt printers, eReaders, a new CD cleaner… you name it, I’ve probably requesting funds for it! I’ve even been looking into affordable options for 3D Printers for our teen programs.

    So in short, I think we all need to hang in there and wait our turns. If the people in your community can’t be swayed to embrace new technology, that’s sad; that’s their loss, and the community’s loss, too. But they’re not going to be around forever, and when they leave, hopefully someone more open-minded will take their place. And then we can *really* start making an impact.

    • Maureen, I’m glad your new director sees the value in keeping up with technology! Sorry you had to deal with the lack of a server for a while-at least we had one, even if it’s older- and that you dealt with older equipment too. Our library still sees pinching pennies and physical books as the priority. New technology is added via grant, such as the self-check machines or the forthcoming new barcode scanners. While they are nice to have, I’d place priority on having the computers upgraded. And I would have done it long before crunch time. Not only are the newer versions on Windows faster and safer, but their versions of Office have more capabilities too. Plus patrons always ask about the newer version when only the older ones can be demonstrated. And we have Wi-Fi, but I don’t know when it debuted and it needs to be faster (perhaps a larger connection speed or more access points?).

      What kills me is that besides the younger generation not getting actual “librarian” jobs is also the fact that we have new and innovative ideas but no way to act on them. Not only do we lack funding, but we also lack influence. I hope someday I have the chance to make the impact you currently are.

  2. Great post Amy! In my experience I will also say that academic libraries are most likely to be up to date with technology while public libraries tend to lag behind (and this is just a generalization as I am sure the opposite exists). Public libraries have limited resources and (this is purely my opinion anyone else is open to correct me) it seems public libraries have older staff that may not be up on the technology us youngins are taught to embrace in library school which tends to be a more recent development. Academic programs teach what the ideal world should look like and what we should expect but it can be surprising to newly minted grads if this education isn’t tempered with anecdotal advice on how libraries may not embrace technology so readily. What is great about our education is most students are poised to be ready when a library or archive needs assistance to update their technology. Amy, your experience, I think, is not at all unusual. Not only are slim resources to blame but who is running the library may also determine if their programs and technology is up to date. I say hang in there and see if there are other ways you can start a discussion or make small changes in the library. Having a discussion is a challenge since – as you experienced – you can be shot down. I say don’t despair – maybe there is someone else that you can talk to that will listen. I think for public libraries that are funded by the town or state there is a lot of red tape stopping funding. As always a public library or archive are more likely to get what they need if the director is a strong advocate and very persuasive. I currently work at an institution where advocacy for the archive is very strong and impressive. Our profession needs the movers and shakers in order to step forward and remain relevant in today’s world.

    • Meghan, thanks for you comments!

      I’m glad to read that you have noticed the same trends. You have a great point about the fact while the modern MLS education prepares tech savvy students, it fails to mention the resistance about technology that is out there. And you are right, it will help when an institution finally sees the need for change.

      Per the mention of read tape, that is true too. In my state as a whole, any taxes increase for any reason leads to a bitter battle. Everyone wants the services, but doesn’t want to pay. Thus, there is a fight-to-the-death in our legislature for the funds–they prioritize the public K-12 schools over all else. I’ve never seen library funding problems in colleges and universities because they administration sees their value. I’m not sure the majority government officials do. Case in point: what happened to the Missouri State Library last year and its trickle down effect (

      Perhaps someday I can either find a place where I can lead change or work somewhere that values “movers and shakers” that want to keep technology updated and relevant while still maintaining the traditional print collection. It sounds like you are lucky to be where you are.

      • Amy, I should also say that even though academic institutions seem better funded – the library and archive still have to make a strong case for funding and battle red tape. What I have heard from others in very well funded institutions is there is never enough money. These institutions may be well organized and full of smart people but often their collections are very large and high profile and need more people, attention and money. Movers and shakers are needed everywhere. The most well funded institutions still see similar problems. It also depends if the college is state funded or private. This indicates the types of challenges the director or staff will encounter. There are pros and cons at working at either institution and you may find that no situation is perfect. As long as you keep those ideas flowing for improvements and keep up on trends and current technology you are bound to find someone or someplace that is receptive. I think overall our profession is full of fabulous professionals who are open to ideas and willing to grow. It just take convincing those with the purse strings as well as the “older” more staid professionals.

        • I phrased something badly–I knew what I meant, but the addition of one word changes what I wrote. It should have been “I’ve never seen library funding problems in colleges and universities because the library administration sees their value.” Plus I was thinking technology, not collection development, when I typed-that can of worms is another story where there is great debate on funding. I remember sitting in on discussions about which databases and journal subscriptions needed to be cut while serving as a graduate assistant. Most were justified via usage data. That said, you still have valid points that are very much worth mentioning. And I hope you are right when you typed “As long as you keep those ideas flowing for improvements and keep up on trends and current technology you are bound to find someone or someplace that is receptive!”

          Again, thanks for commenting!

  3. Great post! I agree that funding is partly to blame. I work at a small public library and we routinely update computers, but it gets expensive. Also, the staff’s knowledge of technology varies greatly from one person to the next. We had a very tech savvy director who the trustees didn’t ‘get’ so unfortunately they forced her out which was a loss to the rest of us. We have nooks, kindles, and an iPad to check out. BUT many of our patrons are older; they prefer basic books, so that is our main goal–to constantly add to our collection (movies are very popular, too). One idea that has worked well for us is to have a high school student come in on Saturdays to teach basic computer skills. Many patrons sign up for a half hour session to learn how to download ebooks, open Facebook accounts, and other basic tasks. The students usually need the volunteer hours for college applications, etc.
    By the way, I use that same lion head (in your photo) as my desktop background. 🙂

    • Thanks Marcia! I’m glad that your small public library is willing to upgrade the computers and offers e-reading devices for check out. I wish we offered the latter to go with our OverDrive subscription! I agree, the print collection needs a constant influx; it’s not just older patrons who still prefer print. Plus movies are popular here too.

      One of the librarians on the reference staff offers basic computer courses (alas, not me ). They focus on simple thing, like the internet and Word. Anything else is one-on-one as needed, but none on the reference staff are social media savvy so that is an often neglected area. Most of these “students” are older patrons.

      And I do like the idea of student volunteer hours to assist with these technology sessions. Perhaps I can slip that into a discussion at work idea in sometime. It fits with some of what I read and discussed a while back on multigenerational programming (

  4. Pingback: March Ramblings | Amy's Scrap Bag: A Blog About Libraries, Archives, and History

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