Mike Eisenberg at Sacramento PL’s Staff DayOver the last few days, I was in Sacramento, CA, where I gave a two-hour workshop session on the future of children’s services as part of the Sacramento Public Library’s Staff Training Day. The main library was closed to the public to serve as the venue, and about 300 staff people attended.

Mike Eisenberg, Dean Emeritus of the University of Washington’s I-School, gave the keynote (there he is in the picture, saying something tongue-in-cheek about Bill Gates, on the screen behind him). It had been a while since I had heard him speak, and as always, he was a lot of fun – half trickster and half curmudgeon. He talked about the huge impact that technology has had in the library world – and in our lives in general – and asked us all some questions.

Do you remember the first time you used a cell phone and someone showed you what button to push to make a call and you made that call maybe outside, under a tree? Whoa. How about the first time you went on the Web and how weird it felt to click on a link and go some completely different place? Hey.

Do you remember what it was like, he asked, the very first time you tried a word processor? Wasn’t it strange to type something and then change it or make it go away without using white-out or an eraser? (This last question probably only applies to those of us who are of an age that we remember using typewriters.)

As librarians, as lovers and managers of books and information, it’s seeing digital text that exists only as electrons that should really make us think about what we do. Eisenberg showed us a short video by Kansas State University professor Mike Wesch about digital text, “The Machine is Us/ing Us.” It reminds all of us who spend so much of our time with text and images that are “frozen” into documents – books, CDs, DVDs – how much the rules of our art, literature, and culture have changed. With human interaction, nothing that can be digitized needs to take only one form.

Eisenberg discussed all the Web 2.0 phenomena that play an increasing role in many of our lives, and an even bigger role in our children’s lives, and said,

The library as a place is important. But YouTube and MySpace and Second Life are places, too, and we need to be there. Library services need to be available anytime, anywhere, and in any form.

But libraries have a tough row to hoe before they can compete with Google, which is probably every librarian’s best friend and vilest enemy rolled into one. We all use it all the time, but so do all those kids looking for resources for homework assignments who used to come to us, and now stay home, where they go online and swallow up everything, unmediated, that they find on the Web.

Eisenberg said that people would use library Web sites and databases more if they were just like Google – if they had a single search box that took you to a list of things you might want, and deliver those things to you in one more click. (And that’s something children and teens need to see on library Web sites even more than adults.)

But he took us to a typical library home page, crowded with links and graphics all over the place, and then to a “choose a database” page, and next, one with a text box to type in a topic request, and next to a page that asked you if you wanted full text, and then to another that asked you if you really wanted that article. By this time he was swearing. On Google, it took him two easy clicks to reach a good article. On the library Web site, it took him seven dense, jargon-laden clicks to reach one. The message was clear.

More about my time in Sacramento soon…