Thursday, 8 November 2007

Digital library...what about the technophobes

I was in the British Library yesterday - something I'd always wanted to do, and never seemed to have time. Staying at the Novotel (quite nice actually) next door, I thought, why not, I'll go and have a peruse...

Well, I wasn't allowed was I (grumble). I didn't have the right ID...something to do with my driving license still being in my maiden name and all my bank cards in my married name (whoops!) but what really struck me was the fact that EVERYTHING is now digital...well, almost.

Anyway, I was signing up, using the terminal to enter my data, and a lady next to me was visibly sweating. She was grumbling "bloody computers" and bashing keys, getting more and more flustered. The registration lady noticed that she was about to pop, and came over to help, saying "I can only do this if noone sees me helping you". I just thought about all the other people who must struggle with the computerised library facilities.

The British library is indeed, highly digital. The catalogue searches are all digital, online collections are available in all the reading rooms (which I wasn't allowed in I remind you), it was hell on earth for anyone with low level technical skills. So what about accessibility? Most of the under 30's are au fait with technology. What about the over 30's? Not everyone with an interest in knowledge and information can use a keyboard and mouse. We spend hours making sure our online contributions are DDA complient, but what about the huge number of people who get palpitations when they have to use a PC?

I know there's been a huge effort to raise the level of IT skills in the UK, but people are still techophobes, or people who just haven't had the need to use a computer, for many reasons. However much we tout the internet and digital services as the way to go, we are in danger of excluding people if we don't support them to be able to use the amazing services we are making available.

Technologically driven improvements are fantastic for those who are adept and interested, and I'm sure digital libraries will do very well in universities etc. But I really felt for the poor lady standing next to me, who I'm sure was having what should have been an inspiring and enlightening visit to the British library ruined because she hadn't learned how to use a computer.

Part of me wants to think - get with the programme Grandma (she was only about 40 though....), the other part worries that we're getting too eager to provide online and digital services without thinking enough about who is accessing them.

Everyone has had problems with new technologies as this video demonstrates (thanks to Karen Blakeman for pointing it out to me)...but maybe we need to think more about making support available to those who really need it, to make the inevitable transition to a world of predominately digital media.

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