Sarah Houghton-Jan - Future of Librarians Interview

Sarah Houghton-Jan is the Web Services Librarian for the 12-branch San Mateo County Library in Northern Cailfornia. She's the one behind Librarian In Black, a blog about technology and training in libraries. But let's pretend for a moment that you were not involved in libraries. How do you personally use the library? How do you search for and access information in general?

I check out DVDs quite often, as well as fiction and nonfiction books. I have been known to use our local library's wi-fi when mine is down at the house as well. I generally use two or three different search engines when I'm looking for information for myself: Ask.com, Google, and Exalead. Most of the information I access is online, for research purposes. But when I want to relax, I still want a paper book in my hands. Call me old-fashioned.

Your blog's sub-header mentions "tech-librarians-by-default." Can you talk more about that idea?

I think that many librarians have fallen into the technology positions within their institutions rather haphazardly. Library schools did not prepare students for technology until very recently, so a lot of learning has happened on the job. I got into technology because when I was getting my library degree, my supervisor said one day, "You're the webmaster now." I think this happens to a lot of people.

When I read "tech librarians by default" I think about the fact that some librarians are scrambling to catch up with technology and new ways to organize information, rather than leading the digital revolution of information. Many people in the general public are already quite comfortable with technology, as they create and organize it on their own using Web 2.0 technologies. In this context, why are librarians still necessary?

I think it's true that libraries are scrambling with technology. It makes me mad as heck, but it's still true. As institutions, they are very slow to change. They're having to learn the hard way that you cannot create a 10-year strategic plan that will adequately prepare you to deal with the technology changes that will occur. The institution needs to be flexible, its employees need to have decision-making responsibilities, and the freedom to pursue projects without a whole lot of hoopla. And people in general are using search engines, and for a lot of their questions, being satisfied that Google's first page of results holds the entire world encapsulated. That also makes me mad.

That being said, libraries and librarians are still necessary as an institution of our culture. Erase the libraries, and you've erased the single institution in our culture that evens the educational playing field for all people. Erase the librarians and you've erased the people who help get you that information that educates you, stimulates you, and entertains you. Librarians are the people who can help you, whoever you are, find whatever information it is you need. Search engines don't do that. Portals don't do that. You need an expert to get in there and suss out the information you're looking for. For some questions, "just good enough" isn't good enough.

What are the most useful features of libraries today?

Online resources of all kinds are the most useful at this point, I believe, for the simple reason that they reach a huge amount of people. While nothing can replace a live story time, a downloadable audio book can replace a book on CD and an IM reference encounter can replace someone coming all the way into the library to get the same service. The more that we can bring our services out into the real world, to our customers at their point of need (which today is more and more while they're at their computers), then bully for us. Let's continue on that track.

How are digitization and Library 2.0 changing the roles of librarians?

Library 2.0 is allowing librarians to get information out to their customers in more ways, more places, and more formats. It's helping us a lot...especially those without the technology skills, but with the knowledge that they want to share with our customers. I think that Library 2.0, Web 2.0, is the single biggest change in libraries since the Internet was introduced. Digitization is a part of Library 2.0 in that it is allowing us to offer more materials to our customers--and they don't have to come in to the library to use it, or come in during our open hours. Much text, though only a small fraction of the overall body of text, is available online, though not always free and definitely not findable in search engines.

If you had to name a single most important technology to the future of libraries, what would it be?

Video web conferencing. This will allow us to offer face-to-face live services to our users without having to type everything out as we do now in instant messaging or web-based chat. I'm very excited to see the day, and it's coming soon, when we all have web cams on our computers at the library.

What would you say are the most useless features of libraries today? What can libraries do to eliminate them?

The most useless aspects of today's libraries...hmmm. That's a tough one. I think that most libraries have done a good job of getting rid of the useless stuff. I do see some libraries still focusing only on basic technology classes (how to get an email account, Internet 101), and that's getting to the useless point now. While there are still people who need those classes, there are far more people who desire more advanced classes: digital photography, advanced web searching, subject-specific web resource classes, etc. Staff hours would be better directed toward those types of classes at this point. And yeah, yeah--I know about the digital divide. But most people are past that divide, and if the library has limited resources (which it does) it should always do what will affect the most people...and that is no longer the basic technology classes.

Any additional thoughts on L2, the future of libraries or anything else?

I think that the biggest part of Library 2.0 that is being overlooked right now is online marketing and outreach. There are so many outreach opportunities for libraries in social networking software, online community calendars, customer review sites, local bloggers' sites, and more. We need to pay attention to all of these websites, as well as our own. If we don't, we continue down this insular path that has gotten us to the situation we're in now, trying to catch up with the rest of the world.

Thanks so much Sarah for sharing your thoughts with us today. To keep up with insights, resources and discussions for tech libraries, be sure to stop by her blog at LibrarianInBlack.net!

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