Saturday, May 28, 2011

Putting the E in Library

Article written for document for Government Info Pro.

The late Gilda Radner created a character for Saturday Night Live named Emily Litella who would speak out on various topics. Unfortunately, Miss Litella didn’t hear things quite right so she was against the efforts to remove violins from television programs. She was corrected that the effort was to remove violence from television programs. As this new information would sink in she would realize that it was very different from what she had been thinking and she would end her spots with an apologetic, “Never mind.”

I wonder what Miss Litella would have thought of e-braries and e-books and e-journals and e-patrons and e-librarians and who knows what will be next.

It started with e-mail and as that caught on we all started living in an e-world. And to no one’s surprise this didn’t simplify our life in the least. We have to make distinctions between e-mail and postal mail (or the pejorative snail mail), and e-journals and print journals. Having been a cataloger I can appreciate the many challenges this created to the folks describing our collections.

From everything we read and experience we know that a lot of users will still prefer print resources, but more and more will want information made available in a variety of electronic formats ported to multiple devices. And we, being the service industry that we are, will strive to meet that need explaining to our budget folks that it doesn’t mean it is cheaper nor that we will reduce the footprint of the library.

The January/February 2011 issue of Information Outlook was all about mobile applications. Coincidentally in my last job that was a big push as well. The agency rolled out mobile devices to about 1,000 research staff and we let them know what the Library can provide for them on their new tool.

As in other instances, this is not something the Library can do on its own. We need the help of our IT folks – the ones who control access to what is on the mobile devices – to open the gates for the Library content. We have to work with our vendors to find a good solution for subscriptions that will work in our total environment – desktop, physical collection, and mobile devices.

It is exciting when you find a partner for a project who understands the value of what we are trying to deliver to our end-users. Often we have to educate in many directions – and we have to learn. What devices is our agency buying? What information resources have mobile applications? What is the pricing structure for the access? What products will we make available?

The Oxford English Dictionary may have a mobile app, and it would be oh-so-cool to have it, but how many of us would actually push that out to our mobile end-users?

We need to keep up with the wave of e-information. The demand is there and if we don’t do it, someone else will. Like all the other tools for information access this needs to be part of our expertise.
The same way we went from print to dial-up, to software and then to Internet – we need to help our end-users get their information on their mobile devices and keep up with what the next platform will be.

Once you find the IT and Communications folks who are managing the mobile devices work with them to develop the Library application – pointing to the Library resources that staff can access on a mobile device. Talk to your vendors to make sure you are licensed properly to give access to your users.

Review and refine your list. If you already have a page on your website listing online news resources you have a head start! Just as we had to rethink presentation and writing for the web – we have to be even more concise on a mobile device. A segmented list of resources on a website is easy to navigate – on a mobile device keep to the basics until users ask for more.

If you have been around the Internet since the early days then you’ll remember those Under Construction pages that we used to put up and use. Those are long gone – everyone understands that the Internet is under continuous development and updating. It is the same with mobile devices. People will expect additional resources and upgraded applications. Let the vendors take care of upgrading the apps. But don’t worry if you have a great news resource that you have finally been able to contract. Roll it out. If it is a significant resource, then roll it out right away. If you have a couple new resources in the works then roll them out together.

Two agencies I worked for had a lot of agents in the field who were then still using dial-up access for the Internet when they were on the road. For that reason we designed our pages with as little graphics as possible and did our best to avoid anything other than html.

This experience taught me something about our users. You need to take care of your biggest user group. By minimizing graphics we didn’t hurt our onsite users with a fast connection. Our efforts helped them too. Government librarians are looking at a finite set of end users with mobile devices. Yes, they seem to breed like rabbits, but they are still expensive enough that not everyone in your organization will have one. So you don’t want to license solely for the mobile devices. Even the mobile users will want to read the Wall Street Journal on their desktop or even in print. (Print? Remember that?)

To be good librarians we need to see what our patrons are doing and listen to their questions. We don’t need to pounce on everything – but we need to be aware of trends so we can be ready to ride the wave and not get caught by the undertow.

So – there isn’t and E in Library, but there is an E in Libraries and end-users and mobile devices. And there are two E’s in people and those are the folks we are here to serve as librarians.

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