Technical Support Should Be A Core Competency

Steve from Blog about Libraries shares a story of a former coworker who “. . . didn’t get an MLS to do that.” Essentially, the person did not believe that she should be expected to help patron with computer-related problems. I can certainly understand the thought – and I am willing to bet that plenty of librarians may well feel that way. As Laura Cohen has suggested, technical support has become sort of an accidental library service, and I suspect that many librarians don’t feel comfortable enough with their own technical skills to provide support to others. I believe that this needs to change – immediately. I agree with Cohen’s assessment that “tech support is a key to our future.” We have no choice about providing technical support to our patrons. How can we possibly justify offering services within our spaces and not support them to the fullest extent possible?

Steve did not agree with his coworkers sentiments and offered three reasons why not: “professions do not stand still, we don’t have a choice, and the jobs that we signed up for may not exist anymore.” These are three great points. Ultimately, there is no choice in the matter. Hardware issues, software problems, and even networking troubleshooting are things that everyone who works in a library needs to know how to deal with. My question is how many of us are at this point where everyone can deal with these issues? I know that where I work we are not where we ought to be – and that this is not necessarily the fault of the library staff.

The ability to troubleshoot computer problems is not something that can necessarily be taught in library school. Sure, everyone who graduates from library school today should understand that technical support will be part of their job. However, what one might learn about troubleshooting technology today will not necessarily be valid in the near future. As operating systems change, new hardware breakthroughs are made, software updates happen, changes in network protocols happen, etc., library staff need to keep pace. It has to be the responsibility of individual libraries (or consortium or support agencies) to keep their staff up to date with  technological change – a sort of continuous professional development program.

Steve writes that “a reasonable response to this post is to ask where the line is. How far should we go to help patrons (because sometimes their expectations for assistance really are more than we can or should provide)?” We do need to make some types of decisions about what we can possibly support. There may be some tough decisions because if we can’t support something we probably shouldn’t offer it. Ultimately, the decisions may be different from library to library. But in some ways, I think we need to come back to Laura Cohen’s idea about how key tech support is to our future. We need to make every effort to provide as much support as we can. Technical support needs to be a key library service – and a core competency for every level of library staff.

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6 Responses to Technical Support Should Be A Core Competency

  1. Ann says:

    I do not believe that everyone needs the same level of competency for technical support. One of the most important competencies is the ability to determine when to refer a problem to other experts, in the library or within the organization’s technical support system. Each staff member does not need to know how to fix everything in the library. But each staff member does need to know how to approach technical support issues, how to reassure patrons, and how to easily find someone else to help if needed.

    Our library has a computer help department, where computer issues are referred, and where patrons come directly. This helps to keep the technical support load away from reference, so they can handle other questions, such as finding resources and searching databases. It also helps to avoid having someone who is not sure what he/she is doing take apart a $2,500 printer that is not working (and that did not need to be taken apart in the first place!)

  2. Jennifer says:

    Ann, I do not believe that everyone needs the same level of competency for technical support either. I think you make an excellent point that staff need to know how and when to refer problems – and more importantly reassure patrons. Of course, to me that is a big part of technical support. However, troubleshooting printer issues, computer freezes, issues with removable drives, software questions and the like are the types of things that everyone who works in the library (especially those in public service) absolutely needs to know how to do. When a student comes over to print a document at midnight on a CD, I don’t think it is acceptable for library staff to tell them that they can’t help. Neither do I appreciate late night phone calls for simple questions. If the printer jams up while the traditional tech support staff aren’t there, waiting isn’t an option.

    I think it is awesome that your library has a computer help department – mine does not. This ulitmately means in our environment, the circulation and reference staff are the front line of defense for technical problems. In the past, I often had situations occur where a printer jams up on a Friday evening – and when someone comes in on Monday morning, there is an out of order sign on the printer. It is very frustrating when a simple reboot solves the problem – and I can only imagine how frustrated our users were all weekend long. We have made some good progress, but I think we could still do much better.

    I will say that I DO NOT blame our evening and weekend staff for these issues at all. We haven’t provided the right tools or the right knowledge to them so that they feel comfortable. We need to set clear and defined boundaries – so that no one tries to take apart a printer!!!! Technical support staff need to train people and make them confident in their abilities to provide this type of support. This is why I think this type of support needs to be formalized.

  3. […] asking me why their laptops that won’t print, I stumbled upon several posts questioning whether librarians should be solving patrons’ computer problems.  Of course, these librarians are tech-savvy enough to agree that while we didn’t get an MLS […]

  4. Jason says:

    The situation in my library is fairly similar to the one Ann mentions above. I do think that it would be wonderful if library staff could fix more technology problems, and minimize the level of bugging IT staff; they have important things to do, and they are not just available to jump “immediately” when public services staff say so. (My wife used to work in the IT department of the same library, so she helped raise my awareness of that problem.) Nevertheless, I think it’s up to library administrators to make technology competencies a part of the institutional culture. That means making staff feel more at ease around technology (beyond basic programs, e-mail, and the Internet), facilitating in-house training of library staff in troubleshooting, and sending staff to workshops elsewhere. And this should all be on work time; if a library wants to make staff more resentful about learning technology, just tell them to learn “on their own time” (and, even worse, don’t tell them what they need to learn).

    As a final note, the training should be fun. We hear about all the “fun” ways young people learn, and how we should utilize such strategies. The irony is, the same people who admonish librarians to make things fun do so in a manner that’s not fun. It’s high time that technophiles “model” the kinds of things we should be doing, and not just act as reverse scolds.

  5. Jennifer says:

    Technical competencies definitely need to be part of the institutional culture. I agree that staff need to feel more at ease with technology. Fun training would be key – and would certainly help to make technology seem less intimidating. We don’t have enough fun in our work. These are all wonderful ideas. It is the actual implementation of the them that gets to me. Where I work we do have a college IT trainer who teaches technology classes to staff. Sadly, they are not well attended. We haven’t given enough thought to how to transform our institutional cultures to make technical knowledge important for everyone.

  6. […] Technical Support Should Be a Core Competency (Life as I Know It) […]

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