The Case for Non-Digital Technologies

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

The literature fan in me can’t help but begin with William Carlos Williams’s well-known poem from his collection Spring and All (1923), if only with the flimsiest excuse of lifting the phrase “so much depends” for this post (and for the chickens—blog posts can always do with chickens).

As a second semester MLIS student, I have only been immersed in the LIS world’s discussions about half a year, but in that time, I have noticed that digital, computer-based technology is clearly at the forefront of concerns faced by librarians and libraries today. These conversations revolve around the costs and benefits of incorporating new technologies, with concepts like technostress and financial burdens on the one hand and concepts like efficiency, engaging with digital natives, and transforming information access on the other. In general, responses seem to gravitate towards the idea that so much depends on a variety of factors, including your institution’s finances, your community members’ level of comfort with new technologies, your members’ access to technologies inside and outside of the library, and what other industries are doing with those technologies.

So much depends. . . I would love to hear from all of you in the comments about the kinds of discussions that you have in your schools about library technology and about how the curriculum in your programs deals with training students for an increasingly technological library.

This post, however, is about engaging technology and librarianship without getting mired in the technophobia-technophilia dyad, and in particular, it is about the importance of exploring non-digital technologies—rather than just computer-based ones—as ways of building future libraries and reinvigorating the mission of librarianship. I’m pulling my thoughts for this post from a course paper I wrote last semester in which I argued for thinking of dogs as a kind of library technology, recalling that technologies are in a broader sense merely systematic knowledge of processes for the accomplishment of goals. The focus of that paper was the recent emergence of literacy programs for young children in schools and public libraries that employ dogs as reading companions.

Though I did not find scholarly studies on literacy dogs per se, there was ample evidence from psychology and health research about the emotional and physiological benefits of human interactions with therapy dogs. In turn, this research about how playing with dogs and being around them can lower stress levels in humans has become the basis for reading therapy dog programs. The St. Paul Public Libraries run one of these programs monthly out of a few of the branch libraries (see “A Good Book and a Reading Buddy” for a news story about the program).

Photo by Linda Baumeister for East Side Review News

Noel, a 9-year-old golden retriever, waits for children to arrive at the Sun Ray Library Jan. 23.

The premise of these programs is simple—young children who may be reluctant to read out loud in class can sign up to read with a reading therapy dog. The dog’s handler, who has been trained to work with librarians in selecting appropriate reading materials, helps to situate the child and dog, but then the child is simply encouraged to read aloud from a book to the dog in private. These programs have proven to be popular, successful, and financially sound. The children themselves express delight at getting to read to the dogs. Librarians, dog handlers, and parents report that children are reading aloud more confidently to these dogs and eventually outside of that context as well. Since most of these programs run on the volunteer efforts of the dog handlers and dogs, there is also minimal financial cost to the libraries beyond coordinating the volunteers, advertising the service, and providing space for the program. A few different organizations offer training for reading therapy dogs, but the primary one is the Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.) program run by Utah-based Intermountain Therapy Animals.

In addition to my obsession with the awesomeness of dogs, my interest is in bringing discussions of how to incorporate technologies into libraries back to the mission of librarianship. I find R. David Lankes’s formulation in The Atlas of New Librarianship to be useful in this instance: “The mission of libraries is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities.” While it is of course important to consider technostress, issues of access (including the digital divide), efficiency, increased information flow, and other aspects of why technologies are good or bad for libraries, the entrenchment of an either/or dynamic in those discussions is a bit problematic. At times, it seems as if the only important factor is whether new technologies will improve library services, but reconsiderations of what those library services are and what they might be in our changing world fall by the wayside.

Lankes’s mission statement for libraries reminds us that it is not the materials (books, technologies, or even physical spaces) that are central to librarianship but rather the work of librarians to facilitate the creation of knowledge. In this way, instead of worrying too much over what new technologies to incorporate, we should instead focus our attentions on a different type of question—what type of knowledge are we helping to facilitate with our members?

If the type of knowledge is literacy for young children, digital books on iPads may very well be colorful and engaging with the very hands-on quality of touch screens, but so, perhaps, are the decidedly less digital dogs in all their furry wonder. If the type of knowledge is about putting good books in the hands of community members and fostering a love of reading, ebooks are certainly wonderful (I am an avid library user of ebooks myself), but so are programs that put inexpensive paperbacks in the hands of low-income students for them to keep.

If the type of knowledge is enjoyment of music and exploration of different types of music, DRM-free downloads from Freegal are useful (though it’s worth noting Librarian in Black’s dissatisfaction with the vendor), but running programs like the Hosmer Library World Music Series offers not just a wealth of music but also a space for community members to bask in live music and each others’ presence as a live audience sharing an experience. This series also builds the music performances into the local radio station’s programming, including interviews with the music groups and broadcasts of the live performances.

In addition to Lankes’s reorientation of our sense of libraries’ mission, I would add a couple more questions to think about before we rush to think about which digital technologies to embrace: how do computers and internet communications transform the way we think and connect, and is there a way that we can forward non-digital technologies to complement digital thought and communication? There is much discussion, speculation, and research about how growing up digital affects the way children and younger adults today interface with libraries and the world of information today. Beyond simply thinking about information-seeking behaviors, though, it is worth considering the psychological aspects of our increasingly digitized and virtualized lives. I would recommend the work of Sherry Turkle as one place to go for thoughtful ethnographic studies of how people’s use of computers has changed the way we interact with each other.

Finally, I want to emphasize that I am not anti-digital technology. If anything, I am a technophile who thinks that hybrid approaches to incorporating both digital and non-digital technologies are important for libraries, not just to assuage the anxieties of technophobes but also to acknowledge that digital communications and information offer different modes of relationships for our community members, and remembering to insist on non-digital technologies like dogs and live music are ways of complementing the strengths of the information age with aspects of the organic world of human presence.

I would love to hear all of your thoughts about non-digital technologies that you see in your libraries that help to facilitate the creation of knowledge in your communities. Let’s share all the wonderful possibilities out there and help to broaden conversations about non-digital librarianship!

Edited to add: Check out this link to a catalog of bookstore cats. I don’t want to alienate all the cat-loving folks out there, especially since I count myself among that group. How might libraries make use of cat technology, I wonder?

8 replies

  1. Great topic that doesn’t get discussed enough! Libraries have so much to offer beyond digital technology. I think it’s that drive to remain relevant that keeps pushing digital technology to the forefront for libraries, but, as you indicate, there are other core areas of librarianship that should be reevaluated and reinvigorated. Bring on the literacy dogs!


  2. I’ve been begging my work for a library cat! Before I started my current position, I was all for digital technologies and integrating them into the library. When I started working the reference desk, I realized that not all of our patrons are ready for e-books and all the technology that we do offer. I’ve had to convince people that e-books are just as good as regular books. Not all patrons are tech-savvy.


  3. Very cool article Paul. I cannot agree with you more and think that libraries are being overloaded with digital technology as the only means of service when thinking of the future. I think they are ignoring so many possibilities to connect with people and offer something that the public can’t find anywhere else. Oh, and dogs are awesome!


  4. Great post Paul! You’ve given me lots to think about. I agree that I’ve felt under pressure to become more and more technologically literate but in my efforts to get technologically savvy, I’ve been missing the other aspects of librarianship. Mainly the interactions you have not with a computer, but IRL with actual people, helping them find books, information, etc. I especially enjoyed reading about the literacy dogs, I had heard about therapy dogs, but their presence in the library realm. How refreshing!


  5. I find your critical (in the literacy sense) reading of your program quite interesting. I recall when I was in LIS school I would often think,” When do we get to talk about books?” It does seem that now we need to talk about talking — within communities– which I am excited about. I’ll follow your blog. Thanks for posting.


  6. hi tp! welcome to hack library school! our blog is all about talking about what we talk about in library school and librarianship! thanks for joining us.


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