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David Lee King: Active and passive technology

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Image: Active and passive technology

Next time you do some planning for your next big library building project, or when it's time to update your strategic plan, here's a different way to think about technology needs for customers who visit the library.

Image: David Lee KingDavid Lee King

David Lee King is the Digital Services Director at Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library, where he plans, implements, and experiments with emerging technology trends.

He speaks internationally about emerging trends, website management, digital experience, and social media, and has been published in many library-related journals. David is a Library Journal Mover and Shaker.

His newest book is Face2Face: Using Facebook, Twitter, and Other Social Media Tools to Create Great Customer Connections.

David blogs at

Read David's other articles…

Think in terms of providing both active and passive technology for your customers.

Active and passive technology? What's the difference?

Passive technology

This is technology that your customers aren't directly aware of and not directly interacting with. When passive technology works well, your customers probably won't notice it. Passive technology doesn't get in the way of the customer, but instead it helps them out in the background.

Image: Active and passive technology

Examples of passive technology include:

  1. RFID tags in books.
  2. Wifi (customers use it, but don't actually touch anything, other than their own devices).
  3. Power - it's there to charge up a smartphone, but a customer doesn't really interact with the power, other than plugging their device into the wall.
  4. Digital signage - customers see it, but it's just a sign (assuming it's not a touch screen display).
  5. Boring building stuff, like the building's HVAC system and lighting would also fit here. You need it, but it's not really noticed if it's doing its job well. It just works, and stays out of the way.
  6. Audio systems in an auditorium - they should never be noticed.
  7. Network backbone, internet connection. Again, customers use it, but don't really interact with it.

Active technology

Customers directly interact with active technology in the library. Customers touch it, figuratively or literally. They engage with active technology.

Examples of active technology include:

  1. Public computers
  2. ILS system (library catalogue)
  3. Library databases
  4. Charging stations (sometimes, there's overlap. For example, the power to the charging station is passive technology, but customers interact with the charging station device - the hardware).
  5. 3D printers and other tools in a makerspace.
  6. Touch screens
  7. Websites and social media - you read, watch, and interact with the content.

See the difference between active and passive technology? Both are important, and both are needed in a library.

When it's time to dust off your library's technology plan, start thinking about technology needs from the customer's viewpoint. What technology is needed that is necessary but might not be noticed? Plan for some passive technology in the background of your customer's experience.

Also plan for active technology needs. Find out what your patrons really want to do, and help them achieve their goals with some active technology that helps the customer interact with your library, your stuff, and your staff.