When the Internet goes down at my public library, it’s as if someone has pulled the drain plug in a bathtub. The Internet users, usually a large proportion of the total users in the library, swirl around in circles for a few minutes before draining out the front door. Happily for patrons and staff, Internet connectivity is much more reliable than it used to be. Libraries aren’t all about books anymore—in fact, it’s arguable that more people come through our doors to use the computers, Wi-Fi, copy/fax machines, and to have a place to study or socialize than to look at books. It is a reality that libraries and librarians are adapting to; we (librarians) spend as much time, if not more, helping with (and contemplating) technology as we do books.
The public library provides Internet access for quite a few people. This includes many first-time or infrequent Internet users and people who can’t afford a connection at home (or who aren’t interested enough in being connected to spend the money), so we are called upon to help with all kinds of websites. Two common problems we encounter are web forms that won’t advance to the next page because something is not filled out properly, and captchas, those security tests usually composed of distorted letters and numbers in a small field at the end of a form that no one can decipher. Both of these issues bring the user’s progress to a dead stop, are impossible to circumnavigate, and thoroughly frustrate already intimidated computer novices.
When a web form requires a field to be completed in a particular way, it shouldn’t be too difficult to indicate that requirement to the user, perhaps with something more than a tiny asterisk. When a page is submitted with a field left blank or in an incorrect format, the error messages are generally pretty useless. The two worst offenders are job applications and government forms, both necessary for many low-income and older users.
Captchas show up on many different kinds of sites. But captchas can be incredibly difficult to read, and the audio versions are no more understandable. With enough time and people, we can figure them out, it just seems there should be a more elegant solution by now.
We can get people to the Internet on our wired computers easily enough, but Wi-Fi connectivity can be problematic. Plenty of people, including me, don’t fully understand all of the security and connection settings on their laptops, and don’t know what steps to take when their laptops won’t connect. The “Diagnose this Problem” module on computers rarely does anything. On those occasions that IT staff are not required to help, it’s because the laptop will automatically connect, for some mysterious reason bypassing the library’s security portal. This portal is layered on top of our Wi-Fi network to prevent the illegal downloading of movies and music that would force our Internet provider to disable our wireless completely. All wireless activity is supposed to be directed through the portal, yet these systems don’t always play well together. Does a message appear saying, “You must go through the library agreement/security page to get to the Internet”? No. There is no message at all.
E-readers (Nook, Kindle, Sony eReader, et al.) and tablets (iPad, Xoom, Galaxy Tab, et al.) are, of course, making their way into libraries. A few school libraries have moved their entire collections to e-readers and done away with printed books altogether. With all we have invested in books, and the shifting environment of e-book formats, that won’t be happening at most libraries any time soon. Many libraries, however, offer downloadable e-books and assistance to get those e-books to people’s devices. Some libraries are also checking out e-readers to patrons, and those numbers will continue to increase.
E-readers weren’t designed to be used in a public, multi-user setting, however. Each device has to be registered to a specific computer. Usually that computer is located in the person’s home, not at the library, so if she comes to the library to learn how to download books from the library’s website, we can provide only an approximation of the steps our user will need to take. Nor are most of the vendor options for downloading e-books overly simple; usually, multiple steps are required and multiple accounts have to be created. It’s hard to explain and hard for users to remember.
Even products designed with the library and all of its users in mind don’t necessarily equal user-friendly. I didn’t start working at libraries until paper card catalogs were already a thing of the past, so one would imagine that the online public catalog or electronic card catalog would have evolved into a better product. The catalog should be a clean, uncomplicated interface for finding out if your library has the title or author you are looking for. Not everyone wants to have to ask a librarian for help.
Instead, the catalog systems we libraries buy seem to be stuck in the paper card catalog mindset. If you want to look up an author in our catalog, you have to type LastName, FirstName after choosing the “author” option from a dropdown box. The catalog does not tell you to put it into that format, of course, you just have to know. Some of our older users know to do this, but almost none of our younger users do; younger users have been brought up with sites like Amazon and Google, where just typing in the author’s name (FirstName LastName) will give you the relevant results.
Also, I notice that dropdown boxes are not very friendly for inexperienced computer users—it is simpler for these users to display the options from which they can choose, with radio buttons or check boxes, accompanied by clear directions to “Choose One for Searching.” Small improvements like these would make a big difference to our library’s users.
I Do I believe the future is going to bring ever greater amounts of technology to libraries. Are books going to disappear? I don’t think so, at least not any time soon, even though there have been many articles in the popular press predicting the death of the book. People are going to want paper books and e-books, CDs and streaming music, DVDs and video downloads, and they will want it all for free from their local library. As more devices are created to convey information (written, musical, visual), libraries are going to try to provide access to these.
What else do we dream of offering? I wish there was a streaming music service like Spotify or Rdio—as well as video service—that we could get for our public computers so that each user could enjoy his or her favorite media without complicated or potentially illegal downloads and device connections. A few libraries have built digital media labs with scanners, cameras, and recording and editing equipment for their users to create songs, videos, and multimedia projects. I believe libraries will be doing more of this as they try to provide unique experiences and not just deliver content. Virtual reality technology, as it advances, will find a place in libraries for education and fun—where people of all ages will be able to experience worlds and lives vastly different from their own.
Librarians and library users are only in the early stages of imagining what a library not focused on books might look like in the years to come, and how we might deliver those services to people from many walks of life and with different skills.
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