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Librarian blogger keeps tabs on tech revolution

Library Journal
Sarah Houghton authors the library technology blog "Librarian in Black".

In 2003, librarian Sarah Houghton was tired of having to wander around the Internet looking for information about technology and Web services. So she stopped looking and made a blog of her own. She called it “Librarian in Black,” so that her blog would match her wardrobe.

Part of Houghton’s appeal is that she looks and acts nothing like the stereotypical librarian. Most people imagine librarians with gray hair, giant glasses, mouthing the words, “Shhh… This is a library.” Though Houghton is acting director at the San Rafael Public Library, she doesn’t fit that description. “My mother would be the first one to tell you that,” she says.

Houghton is young, has no glasses, and her hair is actually not gray, but sprinkled with dashes of blue. She wears all black, all the time. She has a tattoo on her arm of Alice from Alice in Wonderland, and another of Winnie Pooh.

Aside from written blog entries, she also posts video blogs on her site and hosts a question and answer session called “What Sarah Said”. In one of these videos, Houghton reads aloud a question from a reader named Linda about e-reader etiquette. “If I have bought a Kindle book and want to lend it to a friend,” Houghton reads, “Can I send it to her Kindle to read with the assumption that she will send it back to me when she’s finished or delete the book from her Kindle?” Houghton’s answer is a resounding “no.”

“Librarian in Black,” which focuses on the topic of technology in libraries, gets up to 1,500 hits per day. It has made Houghton the rock star of the librarian world, in part because she’s not afraid to step on people’s toes. Her opinions have gotten her fans around the globe – and they have also made some companies pretty angry. But Houghton doesn’t mind. “[Libraries] are always trying to figure out how to make other people happy,” she said. “And so we don’t speak out when things go wrong. That’s how you know something’s bad: the librarians are quiet.”

When Houghton started “Librarian in Black”, blogs were just becoming popular. At one conference she attended, librarians were encouraged to start blogs of their own. “I remember them saying, ‘If you have something to say, this is the way to say it,’” Houghton recalls.

When she first created “Librarian in Black”, it stood out as one of few blogs about libraries and technology. And because of her signature black clothing, Houghton often gets recognized in San Rafael.

“People will stop me on the street and be like, ‘Hey, you’re that librarian!’” Houghton recalls. “Or, ‘Hey, didn’t you say something about how Amazon is keeping all our information?’ Tell me more.”

When it comes to libraries and technology, much has changed since back when Houghton was growing up. “When I was a kid, there was no real technology at libraries,” she recalls. “I remember when they first had audio cassettes you could check out.”

In those days, librarians were the gatekeepers. To get anything done, a patron had to ask the librarian. Today, everything is stored on the Internet. “Now libraries are free Wi-Fi hot spots” with desktop computers and laptops that patrons can borrow. “There’s self check out stations,” she points out. “Everything is computerized.”

In spite of the conveniences technology has to offer, Houghton has some serious concerns. She describes the digital content arena as something like the Wild West. It’s lawless, she says, because everyone is still figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Meanwhile, library e-book lending has increased up to four hundred percent. And Houghton is concerned with the licensing issues surrounding lending e-books. “The problem is that the way the licensing works with the digital content, unlike with a physical book or piece of music, libraries don’t own it,” Houghton explained. “So we can’t guarantee that we’ll have access to that piece of information.”

She’s also worried about user privacy. According to the Readers Privacy Act, a state law that took effect on January 1, 2012, government agencies must obtain a court order before they can access records regarding books purchased or loaned to any reader. But when patrons check out library books using a Kindle, they supply all of their personal information to Amazon.Librarians are powerless to stop Amazon from giving over the patron’s information, Houghton says. As a librarian, this puts her in a gray area that leaves her uncomfortable.

“Because how do you tell people, ‘Well this great device that works really well, and it’s the smoothest check-out process of any device or format that we offer here in the library – but it violates your privacy, it jeopardizes your intellectual freedom, and, you know, it might kind of be against state law, but I’m not really sure’?”

She’s also optimistic. Houghton envisions a future where libraries will be technology hubs and hacker spaces, with 3-D printers and the latest, greatest laptops. People will gather to program code and make artwork and music videos.

As for “Librarian in Black”? She says blogs are on their way out. Fortunately, she has a Twitter account.