Thursday, December 22, 2005

If we can't help our own colleagues, who will?

It is not often that I get concerned over something. I fly under the radar, and I happen to like it that way. Once in a blue moon, something comes along that makes me think or makes me vocalize things I have been thinking about for a while. This is one of them.

Chrystie R. Hill wrote a small article for the December 2005 issue of Library Journal. I read it in print, but readers can find it online at the link. This short piece spoke to me in a couple of ways. It moved me to write because when I hear the latest edict from the hyper-techno literacy crowd, I always ask what about those without the resources and funding to implement the latest pronouncement? My other question is what about those of us who do not dwell in Mount Ubertechno, by choice or otherwise? You see, while I am a somewhat techsavvy, I am not one with the latest killer apps. In fact, I could care less about the latest killer app. This is not because I am a Luddite or behind the times, but because I think that if it is really important and will help me accomplish something, I'll get to it. Of course, I have to be able to afford it as well. I ask: what will this toy/gadget/application/tool help me do that I don't do already? Do I really need such a tool now? What is the cost of having it (time and money)? And this is just me personally. I can only imagine the questions that librarians in those rural areas where 52% of residents are Internet users ask (Hill 42).

CNN recently had an article on their Web site about how "We're all tech junkies now." I got the tip from Michael Stephen's blog. He points out in his post that "what lurks in the background are the folks that don't have all this access to services and gadgets. That's where libraries can help: circulating ipods? free wifi, laptops that checkout?" This is the key question to ask. Of course, I will ask what about the libraries that can barely afford a few computers. Where would the laptops, ipods, and other circulating technology tools come from? I am not asking to be snarky. I think it is a very valid question because very often technology advocates will give such an answer when saying that libraries can help with the digital divide. I could not agree more, but it is not as easy as it sounds. What the CNN article leaves out is the question of those who cannot afford the $200 to $500 a month to stay connected with cable or satellite, DSL or cable modem, and cell phones. The assumption from the article is that we should all be able to afford this; the reality is that for many of us it is a good amount of money, and for a lot more, it is simply not an option. This just perpetuates another form of the "haves and have-nots." My wife, who has the ability to ask interesting questions, often asks about this: go to a store, and they often tell you that if they do not have a product in stock, you can order it online. Watch the news on TV, and you can get more information or features on the Web site. Heck, my personal favorite is one of the local radio stations where they advertise that you can get the complete line-up of their songs at the Web site. My wife's question? Simple: what about those people without Internet access? Those folks may or not be able to get to the public library. After all, many public libraries are underfunded, and some are even cutting hours or branches altogether. In the case of those libraries, somehow I get the impression that having a few ipods and a few laptops to check out is not a high priority.

Of course, those with access who can afford it amply may say "so what?" The "so what" comes in the form of all those people left behind. People who may need help learning how to read. People who may need to access the Internet for a variety of information needs or maybe for something as simple as staying in touch with a loved one via e-mail. People who may want to find good books or A/V for their children. People who may need help navigating the information superhighway. And so many others. It's a serious lack of charity and compassion when those who have already, often in excess, assume the rest can simply catch up. And no, this post is not a rant about poverty, though we should rant about that too. It is simply a matter of how we, as a society, are measured by how we help those in the "have-not" side of things, or even help those in the "do not quite have as much, but have some" side of things. More importantly, it's the simple notion of community and common good. A public library is exactly that: public. It is for the good of all in the community, and if some see it as just something frivolous or something that costs money without seeing the larger picture, then clearly those are measuring very low. I don't use my local branch of the county library as much as I would like, but I am sure glad it is there. When I moved to Houston, that branch was where I went to get my information on getting a new driver's license, getting other local things done, and I got to check my e-mail because I had not found an apartment yet. It is not a big branch, and they do have limited hours (some days they only open afternoons, or they close early), but when they are open, they serve all of the community.

But let me try to focus back on the article because it also spoke to me on another issue. Ms. Hill has taken a look at the LIS blogosphere, what is commonly known as the biblioblogosphere, and she found this: "a familiar theme reverberated through the LIS blogosphere: You're a librarian, and you don't know what a wiki is? How hard is it to look it up?" (42, emphasis in the original). Now, I am one of the first that will go and advocate for the importance of librarians to keep up with the profession. Let me reveal a little personal secret. I know what a wiki is, but I have not contributed to one, and I will probably won't do so any time soon. In addition, I also know that there are some free tools out there if you want to make your own wiki, but this would be more work for me, and it would not accomplish anything I can't do already. And yes, I am aware of tools like LISWiki. In the case of tools like that, it boils down to having the time, which I don't have. Does this mean I will never use a wiki? No. It does mean I have no use for it right now. And there's the rub, because for the dwellers of Mount Ubertechno, I am "so two years ago" based on what I just admitted. Hill asks, "are those expectations fair, especially for those in resource-deficient areas and as in love with technology as I am?" I got one word for you: no.

Now, those that know me know that I have no shame. If I do not know something, I look it up, or I ask someone who knows. If I don't have the resources to do X, I will tell you plainly to give me the resources to do it or shut up about it. "Put your money where your mouth is" is one of my mottos. But that's me, and I already know that no one will put me in charge of anything because I just say it as I see it. And in this case, what I see is a significant lack of charity and understanding. If a fellow librarian musters the courage, swallows his/her pride, and feels embarassed when they come ask a colleague what is a wiki, the answer from that colleague should be "here, let me show you." A librarian should not be telling a colleague to "just look it up." We don't tell that to our patrons, so why is it some librarians think it is a valid response to a colleague? I am sure many librarians in those undersupplied areas already feel bad that they cannot have the latest at their library. Members of our profession who have more should not be making others feel like second class librarians by condescension or patronizing. Again, we don't do that to our patrons, so why is it some feel it is ok to do it to our colleagues? Again, we are measured by how we treat others. At least, I try to be measured that way. Hill puts it very well, and she said it in less words, "we should be able to ask each other questions, without apology, without hesitation, and without embarassment. We should be able to depend on our colleagues for answers that are helpful, informative, and delivered with kindness" (43). If we can't help out our own colleagues, who will?


laura said...

Right on, Angel! You've said so many good and worthy things in this post--the importance of recognizing when people don't have tools, or skills, the importance of knowing that they may not be able to get them, or as many of them as they'd like, the importance of helping our colleagues rather than looking down on them--that I hardly know what to praise first. But it's all good, and good to hear. I hope others are listening.

Angel, librarian and educator said...

Laura: Well hello there, and happy holidays. I can only hope many more do listen. The one thing that really got to me in the article I mention was the observation about colleagues being less than helpful. I am trying to have faith that most people out there are not that way, but some of the tones don't make it easy. Thank you for stopping by, and keep on blogging.

Mark said...

I agree with Laura! I meant to come back here and comment on this shortly after it was posted but lost track....

Well said and well argued. I sure hope if I ever do this (condescension, dismissiveness, etc.) in my blog you'll point it out to me.

I'm working on a post about my perceived negativity and criticism of my own work and your thoughts are helpful. Even more helpful will be a slap upside the head if/when you see me doing it.

There is definitely a fine line between criticism/critique and negativity. I only hope I stay on the right side of it.

Angel, librarian and educator said...

Mark: Had not seen this right away. Welcome back. Like you point out, the line is a very thin one or easy to cross. Believe, at some times I am tempted to run over said line and virtually slap some people (don't worry, you are fine). I just try to go by that old rule about "if you have nothing nice to say. . ." Anyhow, I just can't see myself not helping someone that comes asking for help. Actually, Jessamyn West at had a nice post about libraries in Vermont (on Jan 20), and she wrote about this one rural library where they have no broadband, and the librarian needed help with her e-mail (she was getting phishing scams, but did not know it). Now, I cannot help but shudder thinking that had it not been a librarian as nice and generous as Jessamyn is, someone else might have treated that librarian as an idiot for no other sin than she lacks the latest tech or know how. Now that, is wrong. Anyhow, my estimation. As always, best and keep on blogging.