Driving Emerging Tech

I was recently asked to speak as part of a panel on emerging technologies. Alas, I couldn’t make it, but the panel description and questions really got me thinking about how libraries decide what new projects to pursue and why. The conference in question was organized around a transportation theme (e.g., the technology bus) and I was asked to think about technologies fueling the bus.

I may be taking the phrasing too literally, as I am wont to do, but it seems to me that this is a bit of a backwards way of thinking about things. Technology should not be in the driver’s seat. Technologies are tools for getting things done. Sometimes the appropriate technology is really great signage; sometimes it is a full-fledged ERM system (just to use a totally random, off-the-top-of-my-head example). Sometimes it’s even a cool Web 2.0 app.

Instead of “what technologies should we be using?” I think the questions need to be along the lines of, “What is our library trying to accomplish? What is the best way to accomplish that? What do our users need that we aren’t offering? How can we offer that?” What is the question that the technology you’re considering answers? If you can’t answer that question, maybe you’re barking up the wrong tree, to switch metaphors.

I have wondered if the reason we can get so focused on trying new apps is because it’s a lot easier than some of the alternatives, such as meeting regularly with every faculty member in one’s subject area, or putting together a first-class marketing campaign, or trying to convince the powers that be to get librarians into every single freshman composition class. When students are characterized as being on all the time, as being permanently connected to their cell phones, MP3 players, and Facebook accounts (I’m sure I’m behind the times with my examples; I’m a lackluster veteran after all…) it can be easy to justify working with a new technology. But with cool geek exceptions acknowledged, the aforementioned are simply ways to talk, write, listen, share, cruise, and declare affinities. We should work as hard as we can to make our technologies of choice so seamless they are invisible to most users and create a loyal fan club among the rest. That goes for signage just as much as AJAXified web apps.