Updating My Communication Toolbox

In 1985, when I was a young librarian working at Saint Louis University Law Library, we took part in a revolutionary and forward-thinking grant project.  The Mid-America Law School Library Consortium (MALSLC, since renamed MAALCO), under the leadership of Washburn University Law Library Director John Christensen, won an IMLS Technology Grant to equip each of the member law school libraries–dispersed geographically across Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, Iowa, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and North and South Dakota–with the most advanced telecommunications devices then visible on the horizon: fax machines.

The large, bulky, slow fax machines–one in each law school library–enabled the 19 or so participating law school libraries to provide ILL services to each other almost instantaneously.  This was a vast improvement over the traditional methods of delivery: snail mail and, in extremely rare cases, FedEx.  Of course, not everyone saw the benefits of the new technology immediately.  One library director complained that they never used their fax machine; further inquiry revealed that they protected this expensive piece of equipment by keeping it in a locked room in the basement of the law school.

The fax machine, like the telephone before it, is a classic example of network effect: one fax machine isn’t much use, but if there are two in existence, they can be used to send documents back and forth–and the more fax machines in use, the more useful they became for everyone.  Eventually, however, most of the business uses of fax machines were taken over by an even faster and more efficient technology: Internet email. 

Many of us still take pride in our technological advancement: we have email, and we know how to use it.  And of course we all know senior attorneys or law professors who still can’t bring themselves to use email effectively.  But how willing are we to adopt even newer technologies?

Evidence has been growing for years to suggest that email, while not obsolete, is taking its place alongside the fax as a more formal and slower medium, no longer the backbone of modern interpersonal and business communication.  The listserv messages that once filled our mailboxes no longer come in with the frequency they once did, replaced by blogs and RSS feeds, or by networked communities from Facebook and Google Groups to Ning and Airset.  I’m finding that my individual emails are increasingly being supplanted by my use of IM (instant messaging) services like Gtalk and Yahoo! Messenger.  By using a multi-protocol chat client such as Pidgin for Windows or Adium for Mac OS, I am able to combine all my chat services in one tool: not only Gtalk and Yahoo, but MSN and AIM, even MySpace and Facebook. 

As a law librarian, I need to continually update and expand my communication toolbox.  IM has become an essential part of my work life; I’m even trying to accustom myself to texting on my cell phone.  On the other end of the spectrum, I’m expanding my experiments with podcasting.  I’ve more or less stopped doing Check This Out!, but I’m still producing UBLaw Conversations for the Law School, and have been doing some purely recreational podcasting with The Shadow and James Show.  I’m also experimenting with video; I recorded a gallery of very short interviews with almost two dozen attendees at the AALS Workshop for Law Librarians last week, and posted them on Flickr.  Each medium has its own uses.  Instant messaging brings ease of conversation and agility of response to online text communication, but short form video recorded with a simple, inexpensive digital camera brings immediacy and personality to online information sharing. 

If you’d like to learn more about new communication tools and how other law librarians are using them, go to http://lawlibraries.ning.com/ and sign up.  Law Libraries and Librarians on Ning is a growing community of law librarians interested in online social networking.  It’s a friendly and welcoming group of colleagues, all interested in exploring new online communications together.

I don’t know what’s next, but I’m excited by the thought that a year from now I’ll be working with new tools that I haven’t even heard of yet.

(To be printed as “President’s Message” in ALLUNY Newsletter.)

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