What is real library work, anyway?
“I’m not trying to be a pain, but if someone’s, like, just doing Facebook, can I kick them off? Can you? I have actual work to do!”
That’s the eternal library computer lab question, isn’t it? Libraries struggle with it more than plain-vanilla computer labs, I would guess, in that we have a history with computers in our libraries. When we got them eons ago, they were for our newly computerized catalogs, then for research using CD-ROM resources, and then for searching proprietary networked databases. Computers were few and far between (and sometimes still are), and therefore were hot commodities, and we had a tendency to want to ‘protect’ them for ‘library’ use. Signs and policies sprang up. “NO EMAIL ON THIS COMPUTER” and “ONE HOUR USE” and “RESEARCH USE ONLY”. Librarians began to need to troubleshoot computers, and this only exacerbated the frustration about “real library work” and “the computers”.
That’s all changing (more slowly at times than I think is reasonable). Only slowly have libraries begun putting in fully-functional computer workstations, replete with office software, SPSS, image manipulation programs, and the much a-feared openly available web browser. Only slowly have librarians begun to accept that they needed to understand the hardware running the software that makes ‘real library work’ possible. Only slowly have libraries come to recognize that if they support academic work, they cannot define which academic tasks can be done at their workstations. And still the conversations persist, about how many students are wasting valuable seats (because there are never enough computers, frankly) by IMing, checking their email, and using Facebook rather than doing “real library work”.
I have all the sympathy in the world for the student who just came to the desk, and as he asked his question a computer opened up, I pointed him to it, and the problem was solved. I also followed him, and as his computer booted up told him that if he ever has the same problem again he can tell the reference librarian, and whoever is working will make an announcement that the computers are in high demand, and request that anyone who can do their work later and/or elsewhere please do so in order to allow others to do research. It works better than you might expect. Our students are considerate of each others’ needs, and are kind in their use of our resources. So I’m happy to make that request when we’re packed, in an attempt to find a workstation for a student in need.
What I’m not willing to do is go and solicit specific people to get off the computers — insist that they be freed up for ‘real library work’ — based on what they appear to be working on. That kid with Facebook front and center and several IM windows open might, for all I know, be working on a group project with classmates living off-campus, doing the research portion in the library while they put together the PowerPoint in their apartment, IMing about their progress. Or he might be organizing next week’s chess club pizza social, using campus-provided computing resources to post it on Facebook and print posters. He might be studying for his next exam, asking his buddy for help over IM with a hard question on the review sheet, and checking Facebook as a break. Or might be talking to his girlfriend. I can’t know which one’s closer to the truth, and therefore I can’t intervene. Not in good faith, because I also can’t know if the kid asking for a computer to do ‘real library work’ just wants to send an email to his girlfriend. And I can’t care. Just as it’s not my job to decide which reference question is more important than any other, just as it’s not my job to assess whose information need takes priority, it’s not my job to make one patron’s computing needs more important than another, even if one of them doesn’t appear to be doing “real” library work.
Because what the hell is library work, anymore? If it’s restricted to using databases, searching the local catalog, photocopying articles, and checking out books, we’re dead in the water as a profession. It has to be more than that, be a synthesis of learning and doing and researching and working and talking and living in an information-rich technological age. We have to be more than we were if we want to continue to promote our core values, which means that ‘real library work’ is … whatever the users want to do in the library.
And that’s fine with me.