Ask a Librarian: When do you touch a patron’s computer?

Conversation with my friend Peter (in italics) about teaching technology and when it’s okay or even helpful to touch a patron’s device. Slightly edited. I run a drop-in time weekly during the school year where people can come and ask questions about technology. First come first served.

I will also link to How to help someone use a computer by Phil Agre because I think it’s the single most helpful thing I’ve read on this topic, ever.

Peter: I am a fellow technology-explainer librarian. What is your policy about touching the devices of those you are helping? Do you make them do everything themselves, or do you take and manipulate things on your own? I find I’ve been doing the latter more and more. Thanks!

Me: Hey there. My general feeling is if it’s a thing they will need to do again I always make them do it. If it’s a one time configuration thing that, for example, should have been done by a tech at their workplace or something, I will sometimes do it and narrate what I am doing. Its hard right because people type slowly and there are only so many hours in the day, but I feel that for anything where they need to actually repeat the process, making sure they can do it for themselves (and what the pain points are like “Oh this has a drop-down menu and they don’t know what to do with that”) is important.

Sometimes I will “tee up” a site or something for them. If the class or example is “How to type a letter” and we’re learning cut and paste, I may step through getting Word up and running for example. One of the things I like about drop-in time the way we do it is that there are multiple people you are helping at once, so someone can be fussing with getting their password right on their own and I can be helping someone else at the same time. It’s a downside to short one on one sessions.

Peter: Thanks. We have drop-in time, too–in fact almost all of our tech help is now drop in since attendance at our classes was very low and unreliable. I’d much rather address their questions individually and directly. Seems so much more productive and they go away happier (I think). I tend to handle the devices of people who seem in a hurry or “just want you to” show them something or change something about their device/computer. I will take your approach to heart, though. I really do want them to learn how, so I will try to stick to encouraging them to do it themselves with my guidance unless, like you said, it’s a one-time configuration deal (Overdrive accounts, oy!).

Me: Well and it’s challenging I agree. Some people maybe don’t want to learn the ins and outs which is their right but I often (politely) make the point that if they just want me to do a thing for them, there are people you can pay to do those jobs and they are not me 🙂 And yeah for longtime users who I KNOW actually understand how to do the thing but are in a hurry, I will totally do a thing for them but I’m pretty fussy about making sure they know I’m doing that more as a friend to them than as an employee. I just don’t want to set up expectations where they assume they can, as an amusing example, get their watch battery changed at the library when it’s not technically a service we offer.

Peter: I agree with your concern that people will start to think there are things you can/will do that go beyond digital literacy instruction/learning. I do try to focus on learning by doing for those who come. I worry about becoming too successful, so to speak–of reaching a level of drop-in attendance that will overwhelm the helper (i.e., me), but I have only had that challenge a handful of times in the past couple of years. Most of the time I can juggle helping multiple people, as you described. I have some regulars that come every week, but they are very good about sharing the time with newcomers. I think it may be time for a new round of publicity, though, to make more people in town aware that the library is a place where you can get this kind of help/knowledge. My fall back is to make appointments with people at a time when I can focus on their issue exclusively for a little while.

: Yeah I do a certain amount of triage where I sometimes refer people elsewhere (“You need to pay someone for this, here are some suggestions”) and also I spend some time coaching people into how to have conversations with others when that is what needs to happen (“Ask your son who gave you the laptop if he knows the admin password”) specifically how to talk to tech support (“Tell them the wireless card isn’t working and ask if it’s under warranty still”). I find the attendance is self-regulating, if we have too many people one week we’ll have fewer the next week. This year, for the first time, I have an intern, a 13 year old friend of a friend who is very good at computers but could use some people skills. He’s got great energy and enthusiasm, and so for people who mostly just need someone to sit by them while they do things so they feel more confident that they are not making mistakes, it’s been helpful. And he gets community service credits for school and all the snacks we can bring in!

Peter: Snacks! We don’t have snacks. I too do a lot of work with people helping them to understand the language of tech. One of my guiding axioms is that people don’t begin to understand something until they start to get a handle on the terminology. I try to be careful to use terminology consistently, and to call things by their factory approved names–i.e., the names their makers give them. I think that will help them if they ever talk to an official tech support person–to anyone, really.

Ask a Librarian: New Library Director Advice?

An old one from the inbox about starting as a new, youngish library director in an established library.

Here are some quick links and things to think about:

1. How to manage smart people.

If your staff is smart, they mostly need you just to help them with resources and support to help THEM be awesome and don’t need a lot of top-down guidance. If they’re not as smart, you have a different set of issues.

2. Know the work.

list of rural library director's jobs

A friend make this list. You’ll have to view this large but it points out all the different parts that go into library directorship in a smaller place and even though all those jobs aren’t going to be yours, many of them will be SOMEONE’s

3. Outreach.

I think the biggest thing that libraries do is they sort of hang their OPEN sign out and wait for people to come in. That doesn’t help or affect the people who aren’t coming in. Reaching everyone or as many people as possible in your service area is mission critical, to me, they spend money on the library so how do you help them. Populations that often get ignored are

  • the elderly who may have mobility/cognitive impairment
  • prisoners
  • teenagers (people think they’re annoying, want them to come back
    when they’re less annoying)
  • the disabled who may need accommodation
  • the computer illiterate

Basic improvements in signage, accessibility, staff training (for friendliness, usefulness, etc) can go a long way towards helping ALL these sorts of people without sort of unhelping other people at the same time. I really think every library needs to take a good look at their website, OPAC and other tech services to see if what they do is working for the patron, not just the staff. I mean you have to make the staff happy too, but reworking so that you’re visibly helping the patron is also good for funding and general satisfaction levels.

4. Eating your own dog food.

Make sure you’ve done a Work Like a Patron Day yourself and,at some appropriate point, for your staff.

Ask a Librarian: How do smaller libraries work together to get economies of scale?

GMLC logo with the group's name and an poen book

Someone I work with at Harvard’s Library Innovation Lab asked me for examples of smaller rural libraries working together to “combine forces” to get more done. I realized that for someone outside the library world, the breakdown of state libraries, state library associations and regional consortia may be really confusing since every state does it differently. In Vermont we have the State Library doing some consortia-like things, the Green Mountain Library Consortium doing some other things and the Vermont Library Association doing still other things.

I split out some examples.

Hey there — you asked about libraries that band together and provide programming. One of the things I do a lot of public speaking (talking to libraries about tech, the digital divide, what life is like in VT) and one of the people who hire me a lot are consortiums for staff development types of things. So I have a higher-than-usual level of interaction with a lot of different states’ consortia.

Here are some links to give you an idea of what some of them do. Smaller states like CT and MA have statewide consortiums. Bigger states like KS, NY and FL have many consortiums.

Massachusetts – I grew up in MA so am fairly familiar but things keep changing. MA has

Mass Library System – the consortium –
Mass State Library – run by the state –
Mass State Library Association – a professional association for
individual librarians –

Connecticut has a lot more money and you can see it in some of their projects

Connecticut Library Consortium –
Connecticut – state library –
Connecticut Library Association –

Some other example consortiums so you can see what other people are doing and what sophistication level they are at. These all encompass small/rural library systems. Often large city libraries are not part of consortiums because they’re so big they don’t need to be, if that makes sense.

NEKLS – Northeast Kansas Library System –
STLS – Southern Tier Library System – 48 small libraries in central NY –
PLAN – Panhandle Library Access Network – tiny libraries in Florida’s panhandle –

ARSL is also worth knowing about, they are the Association for Rural and Small Libraries – and they do a conference every year (info online usually) and a lot of it has to do with the general question you have about smaller libraries combining resources etc.

Ask a librarian: My library is requiring proof of citizenship to get a library card. How do I fight back?

Question from an author who recently learned that her library is requiring proof of citizenship for patrons to get library cards. She wanted to know what she could do about that.

I’m sorry the library where you’re from is doing this. We’ve been seeing a lot of boldness recently in terms of how people are treating people with any sort of issue in their citizenship or country-of-origin status. It’s undemocratic and lousy. Everyone should be allowed to use the public libraries and everyone should be welcome. I’ve been personally working with my Senator (Leahy) to try to get the Bill of Rights as it appears on to be accurate and show that the rights in the bill of rights are for EVERYONE in the country and not just citizens.

So as you write your letter it might be worth a few things

1. Consider writing to the library board to let them know this. They may be on board with what the library is doing but they also may not be and can change library policy.
2. Consider speaking with your state library association. I looked at your website and it looks like you are from Illinois? Apologies if that is not correct. If that is correct you could contact the Illinois Library Association.

Advocacy page:

Elizabeth Marszalik is the chair of the ILA Cultural and Racial Diversity Committee (CARD) and a Polish American librarian. I can’t find her email offhand but she’s reachable at her library and could probably let you know what the state rules are concerning citizenship status.

Illinois is also home to the American Library Association (in Chicago). They have a lot of resources on the subject of the rights of immigrant (and undocumented) Americans but it can be a little daunting to dig through here.

Your best bet for people to speak to within ALA might be the Ethnic & Multicultural Information Exchange Round Table


These are all librarians from all over the country who work on this project under the ALA banner, committee members. They have a staff liaison at ALA proper who works for the Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services

Phone: 800-545-5433 x4294

If I am wrong and this is NOT about Illinois, please do let me know and I can find you some local resources. You can check out some of the stuff here for more national-level stuff, not quite the same populations but not unrelated. I think it’s important to push back on this sort of thing where we see it. Libraries are for everyone and no one should be made to feel unwelcome. If I can help more let me know.

Ask a librarian: How do I learn tech skills in a fun and interesting way?

One of the things I do a lot lately is write email to people who ask me librarian-type questions. Sometimes the answers are more widely applicable and I figured I should note them somewhere. This was a reply to a question from a Drop-in Time student who wanted to know about ways to learn “new skills” for older students who might need to learn tech for work or just know what’s out there. How does a librarian know where to point people?

Hey there — yeah the 23 Things stuff is a good place to start exploring. The other things I mentioned that I think you wrote down
Universal Class through the library
Khan Academy
GCFLearnFree for basic skills

The other things that is a bit more on the “fun” end of the spectrum but can get some tech interactive experience AND feel like you are part of a project is looking for crowdsourcing things that people do online to help enhance cultural institutions digital data. So I think of things like this…

Citizen Archivist at the National Archives

Text Correct Cambridge Newspapers at Cambridge Public Library

Smithsonian Digital Volunteers at the Smithsonian Institution

These don’t always help people who need paying work, but can give people more familiarity interacting in an online environment which can translate into better skills which they’ve learned in a more interesting and engaging environment than just “Watch this video, now try this stuff” Because of Vermont’s unusually low tech saturation (for reasons we discussed a little) there are very few, if any, of these tech projects based in VT or centered around Vermont resources. And RSVP doesn’t have as much of a hold here as it does in other places.

You can poke around this list here and see if anything else piques your interest.