A few months ago at work, at approximately 10:30 a.m., the Internet went down and service was not restored until about 4 o’clock that afternoon. Considering that I work at a public library where many of the patrons are there specifically for using the Internet and that the Internet is my main source of ready reference answers, this was quite the concern. In fact, as soon as the patrons caught wind that the Internet was down and that we had no idea when it would be back, the building cleared out quickly, and the library became strangely quiet. No typing. No screaming children. Few questions. But that day, I had the chance to practice many of the search techniques I’ve studied in library school and to test my knowledge of the Dewey Decimal System and the library’s physical collection. I got to know many of the offline resources that we held, and I got to see the many differences between print and other low-tech resources and my beloved Internet resources.
I began thinking—in this time of “all tech everything,” what is the value of low-tech resources? Are we missing out, simply by searching online before searching in print? What has been lost in this Internet Age?
So I set out on a quest, to examine the many ways in which low-tech librarianship is sometimes a better option. Here is a small sampling of the many ways in which libraries and information professionals can tap into the library offerings that don’t involve computers or Wi-Fi, the ones that are usable even in the dreaded no-Internet situation.
- Microfilm: Microfilm’s low-tech charm, as well as its sustainability as an archival medium, is largely based upon the fact that the only tools necessary to use it are light and a lens. Although storage and physical damage are always factors to consider when using this medium, microfilm continues to be a common method for preserving and archiving newspapers. Online news repositories are useful for searching for specific information, but if researchers are interested in getting a feel for an entire culture, browsing newspapers in full via microfilm is an excellent choice. Newspapers preserved on microfilm preserve valuable cultural information, such as the newspaper’s price, its advertisements, and its short, human interest stories that may never be digitized.
- City directories: City directories are like phone books times ten. They operate like standard phonebooks, providing addresses and phone numbers for citizens in a particular town, but where they differ is that they also provide demographic information, like age and income. They also organize information geographically, allowing researchers to compare data by neighborhood. And though they’re sometimes available online, there is often a fee for this service, so the free copy at your local library may just be the better (and more economical) choice, especially for historical directories.
- Little Free Libraries: The idea behind Little Free Libraries (LFLs) is simple: “take a book, return a book.” But its simplicity is a large part of its charm, especially in such a technology-driven age. There’s something rustic and small town-ish about LFLs—the handmade box, the peek into the neighbors’ reading habits, the community that congregates around the LFL.
- Alternative lending: Libraries aren’t just books and computers anymore. Libraries all across the country are lending seeds, musical instruments, and even community members as a part of their regular circulation. This alternative lending is in keeping with the idea that libraries are not mere repositories, but community hubs. And really, what’s more low-tech than a garden or an acoustic guitar or a face-to-face conversation with an interesting person?
- Coding without computers: Coding is huge in libraries right now, but for those libraries without computer labs, teaching patrons to code can prove difficult. But thankfully, there are a lot of fun, hands-on alternatives for learning to code. You can use blocks and string, draw pictures, or act out scenes that simulate computer programming functions.
- Makerspaces: When we think of makerspaces, we often think of 3D printers and graphic design software and beats machines. But makerspaces also encourage low-tech options by providing sewing machines, arts & crafts materials, and Lego kits. Even devices like Raspberry Pi are just circuit boards, but they can be used to create musical instruments or robots. The makerspace movement isn’t purely technological—many libraries are in favor of helping patrons make tactile, concrete items, rather than born digital or high-tech creations.
- E-readers: E-readers (not to be confused with tablets) are some of the lowest-tech technologies out there. Devices like the traditional Kindle or Nook, which are used strictly for reading ebooks, are marvels in what they can accomplish. They can remain charged for days, hold hundreds of books, and do not require Internet access to work. For people in communities with limited access to books, the Internet, and electricity, such devices allow for greater access to a greater amount of literature, which then contributes to greater literacy around the globe.
That day in the library, the moment the Internet was restored, I could feel the building come to life. People started to stir, and we all came out of the Internet-free haze we’d been in for most of the day. And yes, I checked my email and caught up on the day’s tweets. But I was also sad, the way you are after a power outage is over, when everything’s bright and real again and all you want to do is turn off all the lights, just to have a few more unplugged moments.