The Very Rich Hours of the Lambrights

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Pushing Paper Out the Door

February 13th, 2008 · No Comments

Cross posted to SELCO Librarian

The New York Times recently published an interesting article entitled Pushing Paper Out the Door (free registration required). As you might guess, the article is about people using less paper as digital storage and access becomes more and more common. Among the anecdotal evidence and interviews is an interesting statistic: In the richest countries in the world, per capita paper consumption has dropped 6% from 2000 to 2005.

I don’t see paper disappearing anytime soon. Remember the promise of the paperless office? Having said that, the article struck a chord with me. In the past year or two, I’ve been striving to cut down my use of paper in my personal life and at work. Honestly, it wasn’t planned or carefully thought-out. It just sort of happened:

  • Maps and phone books are largely things of the past as Google Maps and online phone books have become my navigational tools of choice. I still print out my maps from Google, mostly because I’m too cheap to spring for a GPS unit or smart phone with Internet connectivity. When the price barriers drop a little more, I’ll be all over it.
  • I’ve become much more likely to take my laptop to a meeting at work and simply access relevant documents online from the SELCO web page or our shared storage drive. Anymore, I don’t even take a pen; any notes I take will be typed up in a text editor. Every once in awhile, I’ll be embarrassed when I cannot come up with a document quickly enough in a meeting; I still find it faster to shuffle paper than to shuffle documents in Windows. This hasn’t happened enough to make me go back to printing everything out before the meeting.
  • I still tend to print out documents if I have to compare them side-by-side. That is changing, however, as I now have a monitor large enough to display two standard size documents side by side. The annotation tools in Microsoft Word and Adobe Reader aren’t second nature to me yet so I still tend to reach for my highlighter and Post-It notes when editing documents. The jury is still out on this one.
  • Business cards last just long enough in my office to have their contents typed into Outlook. Then they are gone regardless of the fancy embossing or card stock they are printed on.
  • All my finances are done online. If you don’t have a web page where I can access my account and make payments directly from my bank, you’re unlikely to get my business.

Two needs have driven me to trade electrons for ink:

  • The need to find things more efficiently. I’m one of those people who cannot stick to a personal filing system and I constantly find myself digging through stacks of paper. I would much rather file this stuff electronically and use tools like Search and tagging to find data. In a similar vein, email has become my personal information management system. Any conversation I have in email gets archived where I can search it later. There are sophisticated software solutions for this kind of thing but email still works for me.
  • The need to reduce clutter. My inability to stick to a personal filing system means I tend to have stacks of paper on every available surface. Yuck.

So it may not be a paperless world just yet but I think more people are going to embrace this way of operating as digital storage becomes more ubiquitous. What can libraries do to serve patrons who want to lose the paper?

  • Make every communication from the library available electronically. Notices should be available via email, text messaging, instant messaging and whatever else comes up. Checkout receipts should be handled this way too. Wouldn’t it be cool if checkout receipts could be emailed as an iCal or Outlook appointment? The patron could just drop it into their calendar and get a reminder a few days before the item is due. I think most libraries have gotten the word on email but support for the other tools is uneven at best. Support from ILS vendors on this kind of thing has been uneven as well.
  • We’ve got to find a better way to deliver online content like e-books. The existing tools are cumbersome and difficult for both librarians and patrons. I don’t have a better idea on this but I’ll look closely at any vendor who partners with an e-book provider to build this into their ILS.
  • More public access computers for patrons trying to manage their lives on the run. I think that libraries have mostly gotten this and have put out as many computers as their buildings will allow. There are other ways to push the envelope, however. Making sure that all the public access computers are relatively new (thus fast) and not locked down to the point that patrons cannot access their data and applications is a place to start.
  • Wireless is your friend. Wireless Internet has the potential to help rescue us from the pressure to constantly add more public access computers. Many patrons would love to use their own laptops if the library would just offer WiFi. And don’t stop at laptops; we also need to embrace other wireless devices like smart phones. It’s time to take down the “Please turn off your cell phone” signs.

None of these are new suggestions but they point the way forward. What other strategies come to mind? Are you looking to lose the paper or do you think this is just an updated version of the “Someday, we’ll all work in paperless offices” hype? Leave a comment and let’s talk about it.

Tags: Library Technology

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