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I’ve been putting a lot of thought into user experience and service ecologies at the public library lately. The very nature of what public libraries do necessitates a much more complex investigation than a normal “customer service” scenario would. Developing empathy-driven service for a population of stakeholders as diverse as the entire borough of Brooklyn is a daunting task! Anyways, I’ve been doing a lot of research/reading, so I think that for a little while my blog entries will speak mostly to this subject for a little while.

Marshall McLuhan speaks of technologies as extensions of the human body or mind that modify one or more of our physical or mental abilities. A telephone is an extension of the voice and the ear. A hammer is an extension of your arm and hand. A skateboard is an extension of your feet and thus your ambulatory abilities. McLuhan also points out that every extension also creates an amputation. I like to think of Newton’s 3rd law of motion here, paraphrased as every action has an equal and opposite reaction. This phrase that has been drilled into our heads since elementary school science class really does a nice job illustrating the effects of a technology on a larger information ecology. This is really the basis for ecology thinking in general: anything you add to one part of an ecology subtracts from another. Ecologies are always shifting to maintain equilibrium. Here are a few examples of amputation I pulled from someone’s website:

“An example of an amputation would be the loss of archery skills with the development of gunpowder and firearms. The need to be accurate with the new technology of guns made the continued practice of archery obsolete. The extension of a technology like the automobile “amputates” the need for a highly developed walking culture, which in turn causes cities and countries to develop in different ways. The telephone extends the voice, but also amputates the art of penmanship gained through regular correspondence.”

Reserving library materials online for localized pickup has been a huge tech-enabled access triumph for public libraries over the last 10 years. I feel pretty comfortable saying that the number of materials patrons access in this manner continues to climb every year at all public libraries, but if there are exceptions out there please tell me. I’ll add that I think this is great: anything libraries can do to make their collections more accessible is desirable. But if every action does have an equal and opposite reaction, if every technological extension has its amputative counterpart, then we need to be aware of and reactive to such a scenario.

A library website is very much a service extension for the institution, and any services made available via the web can also be regarded as extensions of “traditional” library service. Consider the amputations that run counter to the library’s extended presence on the web. Decreased foot traffic (which we then offset by creating a “push” to physical services from the website). Decreased foot traffic also means decreased physical browsing (we are trying to offset that amputation by creating browsable OPAC interfaces). It means less peer-to-peer interaction as well (we try to offset this one with 2.0 web tools). All of that said, if it becomes ubiquitous for people to reserve their books online, where in our carefully collected statistics will we see the amputation or decrease reflecting the extension or increase in that type of material circulation?

I am a strong advocate for responsibly implemented new technologies in public libraries, in fact I think our future relevance depends on it. A thorough analysis of our complex service ecologies, considering both quantitative and qualitative data is becoming increasingly urgent so that we can better understand the relationship between our extensions and amputations. Further, a thorough analysis is not enough: we need to be prepared to react to our findings and actually change based on the results. The Pew Internet project, which is more data gathering than a thorough service ecology analysis, found that 2/3 of all public library users come to the library for internet access. Great. Happy to hear it. Are we going to DO anything about it????


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