Questioning the Techie Mission
Now that I’ve officially had my blog for almost month, I can reflect a little bit. Things might still change, but I have to confess that at the moment I feel somewhat outside the mainstream of library blogging culture. My blog entries aren’t getting a lot of links to them and I don’t feel much a part of the library blogging “conversation.” It might be because I’ve presented myself from the beginning as not wholeheartedly into the blogging thing. But I think there is a bigger reason, and that is that most library bloggers write a lot about tech topics, and I don’t.
In fact, there is almost a presumption among library bloggers that “we” are mostly techie librarians with an overriding interest and concern with bringing state-of-the-art technologies and 2.0-ish web services into our libraries. Most library bloggers, it seems to me, are advocates of technology in libraries, and often practically missionaries. I question the value in being advocates or missionaries for technology, and question the assumptions behind that posture. Technology advances strongly and securely enough without the help of technology advocates, and as librarians there are more important ends to pursue (often with technology as part of the means, but always with explicit reasoning).
A common theme on library blogs is Why Don’t They “Get It?” The “they” here means usually older, not-so-techie librarians, and “getting it” means “understanding how information technology can change everything and already has changed everything for everyone and how it is the new and overriding mode of communication for libraries – right now.” There are some presumptions behind this theme, and the are:
- That the techie librarians who make up the readership of these blogs represent young librarianship per se. This is probably not so accurate, because there are both lots of middle-aged techie librarians and lots of younger non-techie librarians.
- That these techie librarians generally represent the mass of new, younger library users and potential users, who are equally techie and greater in number than out-of-date librarians realize. This is probably less accurate still.
- That library users and potential library users are generally underserved at present because of the slowness of libraries’ adoption of new technologies. This is an assumption that can be questioned objectively, and may turn out to be true, but hasn’t yet really been tested. It is assumed irrationally.
- That aside from any attention we might pay to our users’ demand or lack of demand for the newest technologies in our provision of library services (and in fact we pay little attention to this, at least not in an objective way), such technologies and all of their effects are automatically good. Technology is a cause to fight for, us against them. This is an assumption that many techie librarians make at a deep level, leading to a fervent zeal that seems very curious to those of us who fail to see its basis.
Library bloggers (and I recognize that there are loads of exceptions) tend to have those presumptions in common, and those presumptions make up a lot of the existing library blogging culture. This has certain significant results:
- Library blogging culture, because of the commonality of technology promotion, feels alienating to librarians who don’t share that mission at any level (even if they are otherwise happy users and accepters of technology and sometimes see technology as a useful means to explicit ends).
- Because of the dominance of the library blogosphere by tech promoters, the assumptions behind the tech-promotional mission of many librarians are unlikely to be questioned within their own culture.
- The unquestioning enthusiasm for new technologies blinds some librarians to the complex and significant, and sometimes negative, social effects that these technologies can have, making nuanced and balanced decisionmaking within institutions more difficult.
- Technology promotion is ultimately the promotion of products offered by major vendors, which leads to an increasing power shift in our institutions away from librarians and toward corporate players. These corporate players have put continuous effort into driving our decisions over the years and replacing our work with their own, and have real success in recent decades, ultimately changing the nature of libraries for the worse by compromising our purpose and public-interest character.
- The focus on the promotion of technology as an end in itself can distract techie librarians’ attention away from the educational mission of libraries, so that as they learn more about technical tools, they learn less about the subtleties of interpreting and responding to user needs, and less about the bibliographic (electronic resources included) knowledge of subjects that’s needed to be a good reference librarian.
There has been little examination, that I am aware of, of technophilia as an ideology. It is an ideology, and a very strange one. As an ideology it is a lens through which things are are rendered according to a set of values in the act of seeing. But unlike the ideologies of Right and Left, these values don’t spring from any idea of what is essential to humanity, but from something else: a prioritization of the process of controlling and reshaping the world through the use of ever more complex tools, and of our own adaptation to that artificial world and to those tools. As ideologies go, seen at its root, it is rather perverse.
It would be saying too much to say that library bloggers hold to a perverse ideology of technology, and it wouldn’t be true. I’m sure most techie library bloggers don’t consider themselves as treating technology as an end in itself, but believe they see it strictly as a means: in their practice of librarianship they keep in mind the real ends of the enrichment, enlightenment and empowerment of their patrons. At the same time, however, I think that there are definite assumptions involved in the technology advocacy posture, and there isn’t necessarily anything supporting those assumptions. In other words, the techie mission is irrational: there would be less emphasis on technology within the library blogosphere if the bloggers involved were more objective about technology.
That is what I “get.” I wonder how many other librarians in my generation and younger agree? It is really rather hard to tell.
20 comments on “Questioning the Techie Mission”
Well said, Rory. We were discussing technology in my Org. of Info class a couple of weeks ago. When I suggested that perhaps librarians latch onto technology as a way to affirm their continuing legitimacy and that the tendancy toward adopting technology as soon as the budget will allow might do more harm than good, I got a lot of silence. I don’t know if it’s because my classmates didn’t have an opinion or because I was speaking complete nonsense to them.
For what it’s worth, I read your blog because I don’t have to wade through all of the tech stuff. So, thanks.
Just briefly–it seems worth noting that some tech evangelists advocate librarians becoming more technologically savvy so that they can avoid some major vendors, or at the very least improve their products through creative hacking. I’m thinking here specifically of the work John Blyberg has done at theAnn Arbor District Library and Casey Bisson’s wpopac.
I suppose you could argue that ultimately even open source software is dependent on vendors, in that someone has to provide the hardware they run on. But on the whole, although I get irked occasionally by the kind of techno-evangelism that’s nothing but “look at this new tool!”, I think there’s more to be gained from technology than to be lost. I have worked mostly in places where technology is not popular and readily available to everyone, and I think we often make the mistake of forgetting that those places and people exist.
But I don’t think that embracing technology has to compromise our public-interest character.
You got my thinking – maybe the reason the biblioblogsphere is so full of techie librarians – is because we’re the first to adobt new technologies. I can tell you that I am the only librarian at my place of work who is blogging – and that is because I’m probably one of the most tech savvy.
What I’m saying is that this trend toward librarian bloggers writing about technlogy is because the librarians who are blogging are the techie librarians – and the non-techie librarians see no reason to blog.
Soooo – it’s kind of a Catch 22 in my eyes.
Okay that funny word in the beginning is “adopt” – darn quick fingers.
Perhaps our colleagues in the reference, adult, and youth services arenas are more than busy with front line work. Many of them have no spare moment to think about blogging. Six months ago, assisted by our firm IT department, I began a blog for my staff. I waited for comments to postings- even planted hints to comment. Nothing happened. As part of our staff communications goal for this year, all staff are required to post new messages once each quarter. Sometimes you just have to drag them into it. As for age and position, suffice it to say, I’m a boomer with 32 years professional experience. My career is now evenly split between administration and technical services. If a librarian sees a real need and benefit to blog, they will do so; regardless of age or position.
Not quite on the topic of blogging, but one person who HAS written about the ideology of technophilia is William F. Birdsall. Two great papers (now dated, but still good for critical thought methinks) are:
The Political Economy of Librarianship
The Internet and the Ideology of Information Technology
John Buschman also talks about info tech as an ideology a fair amount in Dismantling the Public Sphere.
Thanks for addressing this. I’m not a librarian (yet), but I’m seriously thinking of getting an MLS. In researching the career, I’ve scanned (but not really read in detail) many of the blogs and found that there is a predominant technophilia. As a “nerd” rather than “geek” personality, I have to admit that this has cooled my enthusiasm for the profession a little bit, so I’m glad to find that the techie ideology isn’t monolithic within the library world. My question is, is there a place in contemporary librarianship for people like me–people with a reasonable respect for and facility with technology–but with a vigorous skepticism towards blogs, web culture, the internet, digitization, etc.? People who value the book as technology? People who are more interested in investigating and advocating for the general public’s real media and information needs than in hopping on the latest tech trend?
Thanks for your comment, John. I think you will find that there is a place for you. The bloggers are increasingly influential, but still outside the mainstream of librarianship, where most communication takes place on specialists’ listservs and “the library literature,” which consists of scholarly and non-scholarly journals published on a biweekly, monthly, and quarterly basis. When you’re in library school, I suggest that you devote a little extra time to exploring the professional literature. It will help you get a sense of the breadth of the profession and where you might fit into it best. Glad you wrote.
I couldn’t agree with you more. I was a software engineer for nearly 30 years. I started working in a library about a year ago, providing tech support for the public computer users. For a short time this summer, it looked like I might become an “accidental systems librarian.” Thankfully, that did not happen. I entered the library field to get away from that kind of total immersion in technology. I am perfectly willing to make use of technology, but to advance the real purpose of libraries, not to turn them into something else.
Oh, I forgot to add…I am in library school. There’s a great deal of emphasis now on taking classes on-line, at least at my school there is. I’ve been using email for nearly 30 years, but I’m still not comfortable with the on-line “teaching” format. But the school is 35 miles away, parking is a bitch, and many of the advanced classes aren’t even taught “on ground” anymore. A little off-topic, I know, but I see it as part of the trend toward a less personal library environment.
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