Should Tech Support Be An Explicit Library Service?

“Tech support is the key to our future”, wrote Laura Cohen in a post entitled The Accidental Tech Support Librarian. When I read this post, I had an real ah-ha, dawn-breaks-over-marble-head moment. I think that Laura is on to something that hasn’t really been talked about too much in the library world. Tech support has become a real problem in our computerized world. Computers, online systems, and technology play a large part in most people’s day to day lives. Despite the prevalence of technology, problems and issues abound. Laura explains the problem:

Our role in tech support has evolved slowly but surely as our operations have moved online. It’s sneaked up on us and now it’s a part of our (often unstated) mission. I suppose you could say it’s the law of unintended consequences at work. Put something online, and people will have problems using it, so the type of support we provide has undergone a transformation. We’re a service profession and providing help is in our blood, so we forge ahead and try to solve problems that are laid at our feet. We’re accidental tech support staff.

I think this is right on target and is a great explanation of tech support, especially for patrons, in the library. Laura is primarily concerned with the types of problems that remote users have – and she has a point that remote use has created a whole host of support issues. However, I think that tech support is as much of an issue for users within the walls of the library. In my library, we have three lab areas: one is primarily designed for reference use, one is a classroom setting used as an space for bibliographic instruction, a space for faculty to book classes on a one time basis if they need additional technology and as an open lab when a class isn’t in session and the last is an open computer lab that has software in support of classroom use. This means that people in the library aren’t just using library resources. They are also using word processing products, email clients, web-based social software sites, IM clients, statistical software programs, html editors, photo editing software, etc., etc., etc. Traditionally, the library is very different from ITs help desks which don’t often offer specific program support – and are staffed by students in off hours. I’ve noticed that if students are having difficulty with something they often come to the library to ask because there are staff people available – who are willing to at least try and help.

Ultimately, libraries need to decide whether they will provide technical support to their clientele. I personally think that if we offer technologically-driven services, we should be obligated to provide good, reliable and consistent support for them. Going further, we should not provide any service to patrons that we cannot support. Currently, I don’t think that we are doing a good job of providing technical support – specifically because we are still providing accidental tech support in a rather haphazard and inconsistent manner. Laura exhorts us to

. . . be clear about the types of tech support we’ll provide to remote users when the problem rests with their technology setup. Let’s determine who will provide this support, and at what levels. Let’s be sure that staff on the front lines are sufficiently trained to handle common questions and make appropriate referrals. Let’s provide decent Web-based FAQs to assist with basic, recurring issues. And by all means, let’s conduct regular assessments.

Again, my only addition is that we should be doing exactly this but including detailed support guidelines for those patrons who use our services in house.

In my experience, library staff on the front lines provide incredibly inconsistent technical support to our users. Certain staff have a greater understanding of technical issues and are more willing to try and help when problems arise. Obviously, they have only good intentions by trying to help. But are we doing more harm by providing asymetric service to our patrons? Wouldn’t it be incredibly frustrating for a user to ask for help with something like wireless and one day get the right answer and the next get no help at all? Shouldn’t we be able to provide patrons with clear cut and consistent answers to what we can support and what we cannot.

Do I believe that this will be easy to sort out? No, I do not. However, I think we need to make tech support an explicit library service and one which our patrons are aware of. Thanks to Laura for her post – and bringing this subject to light.


6 Responses to Should Tech Support Be An Explicit Library Service?

  1. GeekChic says:

    I think you and Laura raise important points. I wonder if people have a different sense about offering tech. support to patrons in public vs. academic libraries. My previous job was at a public library as is my current one and both places have a very different mindset than what the two of you are proposing.

    Namely, we will provide what FAQs and documentation we can – but we will not provide tech. support if the problem does not lie with us, with two exceptions: authenticating to our computers or databases and using our OPAC. Anything else is beyond what we can do (it is felt). Indeed, at my current job, systems staff never interact with patrons and we are instructed not to talk to them if we are in a public area fixing something – save to direct them to another staff member.

    Now, two libraries don’t constitute much of a trend – but these are two very different libraries in terms of size, budget, mission, offerings, other policies, even countries. Yet, they have the same policy about tech. support for the public – so it makes me wonder if this thought process is more wide-spread or if it is justified.

  2. Hey Jennifer & GeekChic:

    As a public librarian i can pretty much assure that the tech support issue is one we are thinking really hard about. At minimum I feel we need to sort out basic navigation/interface issues from the configuration/hardware ones. Front-line staff are certainly being expected to offer some level of support with laptop access, peripheral devices and the like. And don’t get me started on the curious person who asks “what does Access do?”

    Web 2.0 stuff is changing our needs though. People are beginning to notice all those Firefox extensions people are adding to their systems and want in on it too. And why wouldn’t we at least forward someone to a good wikipedia or W3 article to help them get their mind around things like RSS, XML or whatnot if that’s what they want? The problem is, who are the people that know about RSS and XML in our library branches?

  3. Jennifer says:

    GeekChic, thanks for giving some background about your experiences at public libraries. I have to say that as a systems person in a academic setting, I don’t interact with patrons much – but there certainly is no directive for me not to. If I am in public areas, I always answer questions (which usually involves pointing people to reference or circulation staff). If I hear questions about technical issues, I try and hover a bit in case staff need some help or additional information.

    I find it odd that libraries actually try and restrict certain people from interacting with patrons, but I know it happens (and often). Over the past year or so, I’ve really come to realize that by deliberately separating myself from patrons, I am missing a vital piece of the puzzle. It is important for systems staff to understand patrons and how they use the library and the library’s services.

    It seems that many policies that restrict the level of tech support are probably justified – if for no other reason than the fact the staff do not have the know how to provide the support. I’m coming to the realization that we desperately need to change this. I doubt it will be easy or that it will come anytime soon. However, we need something to aim for.

    Ryan, I’m glad to hear that your library is thinking about this. Firefox extensions, personal firewalls, anti-virus software, wireless, and a whole host of other technical issues are causing problems. I think your are spot on with your examples of RSS and XML. We can actively decide to take on a leadership role in this arena or we can choose to let it pass us by. And you got to the crux of the problem – how many people know about these things in the average library – public or academic???? My impression is that enough library staff have sufficient technical knowledge to be able to provide this level of support.

  4. GeekChic says:

    Jennifer, I certainly see your point about the dangers of being too cut off from patrons. At my previous job I was also a public services person – I just didn’t provide tech. support to the public. To be honest, I am relishing not dealing with the public at my current job – I don’t miss the angry, the unrealistic and the mentally unbalanced that one can see at a public library. It is enough work providing tech. support for staff! 😉

    I also agree that the lack of tech. support in the public libraries that I’ve dealt with has largely to do with a lack of knowledge on the front lines – or (as Ryan put it) a lack of knowledge across the board. If a library is going to offer tech. support, it definitely needs to ensure that a patron can get an equally high level of service regardless of which staff member (at which branch) they happen to approach. This can be very difficult.

    One thing that our web coordinator is planning on doing is creating screencasts and video tutorials that can assist patrons whether they are in the library or not. I think that this is a great idea. However, I think that we are going to have to serious think about going beyond that.

  5. […] Macaulay of Life As I Know It asks “Should Tech Support Be An Explicit Library Service?” in response to an earlier post by Laura Cohen. Be sure not to miss the comments. Ultimately, […]

  6. Mark says:

    This post was a Ringmaster’s Pick for the 62nd Carnival of the Infosciences, 7 January 2007. This installment of the Carnival may be found at:

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