My Research Topic

January 25, 2008

This semester is just about 4 days old. My class this semester, ILS680-Evaluation & Research, is built around a research project. I’ve been thinking about this since the end of last semester, doing some preliminary literature searches on issues relating to technology in libraries and/or technical support issues in libraries. Since Tuesday, I’ve been immersed in literature about computer self-efficacy – a fascinating field with a great deal of literature devoted to it. Of course, there isn’t much in the way of evaluating levels of perceived computer self-efficacy among library staff. I have to thank my professor for mentioning self-efficacy which was the missing piece to my jumbled research ideas.

So, my research question, which I’m sure will undergo future revisions, should be something along the lines of “Do different models of technical support in academic libraries impact computer self-efficacy levels of library staff?” Some of the questions that I’m hoping to be able to get answers to: Do different models of technical support affect computer self-efficacy? Do combined IT/library departments engender greater computer self-efficacy? Less? I also want to compare computer self-efficacy across demographic groups. Is there a difference depending upon educational attainment? Age? etc.

I’m pretty excited about my topic – which is good considering how much time I will be spending with it over the next several months. Computer self-efficacy is a key issue – once which I think must have a huge impact on library staff’s ability to make the most of technology in the workplace. I am definitely looking forward to getting started. Of course, in the near future, I need to refine my research question, do a literature review, and fill out an IRB (Institutional Research Board) application. There is lots and lots of work to be done, but I think this might just be the best ending to my graduate school experience.

How’s that for some positive thinking?

My Biggest Tech Support Challenge

September 12, 2007

The start of a new academic year always brings new problems, challenges and questions. No matter how much one plans for change, there is always something that throws a wrench into the best laid plans. This year, programs like Windows Vista and Office 2007 are generating many calls for help. While I certainly expected many of these issues to appear, they are causing frustrations for both staff and students – and for me too since I’m struggling with the best way to offer support. This struggle highlights one of the aspects of providing technical support that I find most challenging – trying to find the right balance between giving someone the tools and training necessary to solve their own problem versus actually solving the problem for them.

When someone calls me with an issue, my first task is to listen, ask questions and make a preliminary assessment. At this point, I need to make a determination about the best way to resolve the issue and make a determination about whether or not this is the type of problem people need to be able to solve (or attempt to solve on their own). Some issues that play into this decision are the following: does the problem involve a student? is the problem related to standard procedures and/or practices (connecting to the network, printing, logging onto a computer)? does the problem require my intervention? There are, of course, other factors as well. This isn’t easy, and I’m constantly trying to make sure that I am offering the right level of support to everyone. I want people to feel empowered – and confident about their technical skills. But, I do not want people to think that I don’t want to help them – to think that I am being unapproachable and/or unhelpful. I’m pretty sure that I don’t always get it right, but I do try and I do try to learn from the mistakes that I do make.

One of the most important factors in trying to determine the right level of support is making the determination about whether or not this is the type of problem that might happen when I am not around to offer support. If this is the case, I believe it is important to give people some verbal help and then give them some space to try and resolve the issue. This is why when presented with any problems that involve student issues, I almost exclusively try and offer phone support. I don’t immediately offer to fix the problem. I specifically wait until a staff member either asks me to personally come and help or until I get a sense that the staff person is seriously at a loss.

One of the things that has become clear to me over the time that I have been engaged in technical support is that technical training for staff is a big problem. Honestly, I don’t feel as if it is one of my strengths. So often, there is so much work to do day to day to keep everything running smoothly that training takes a back seat. So staff may end up feeling as if they have the knowledge or the tools to solve the types of technical problems that patrons have. This, of course, means that I need to spend more time trying to troubleshoot basic problems. Right now, I’m on somewhat of a mission to try and make a serious effort to get people the tools they need. Hopefully, this will help me feel more comfortable when faced with the choice of helping staff solve problems themselves or solving it for them.

If anyone has any words of wisdom about how they deal with this issue, please feel free to share!

It Was Just One Of Those Days

July 19, 2007

Today was the type of day that makes me question whether technical support is a viable task – and more specifically whether it is something that I can do and remain sane. I can tell that today was stressful because my entire head aches – especially me teeth and jaw. My entire body is tense – and I need some serious down time. Fortunately, I have finished the assignment that I have due today – otherwise, I would be in serious trouble.

Sometimes it seems like trying to offer decent technical support is like trying to nail jello to a wall. Today, I had to tell someone that due to a virus, spyware and human error, they had lost all of their email. I also had another situation where someone’s email seems to be just disappearing from the inbox. Realistically, it must be downloading to a POP3 client somewhere – somewhere that I don’t have control over – somewhere that I can’t pinpoint. Adding to the problem is confusion over where and how email is stored – on a local computer or on the server. This is not an easy concept for many to grasp (probably because it isn’t explained well enough). Technically, the email probably isn’t lost – but it isn’t anywhere that the user can find it either. The worst part is that with better planning, better training and more information, both of these situations could probably have been prevented. A great deal of the blame rests with me. I’m the one that failed to make sure that either person had a good knowledge base about best practices for email and/or backup procedures. So often, it is easy to let information sharing go – there is just so much else to do. And, let’s face it, catastrophic failure isn’t that frequent.

Today was a painful one – and not just for me. Sadly, these types of things are part of the job. There probably is no fullproof way to prevent catastrophic failures. Sometimes, nature combines all of its forces to allow a series of events to take place that wreak havoc for some. Meanwhile, I will continue to persevere – try to minimize the chances of these types of events taking place – and try to be there to help. Now, I need to go take a bath!

Some Ways To Give Good Tech Support

July 10, 2007

Sarah Houghton-Jan put together 5 excellent tips for getting good tech support over at the LibrarinInBlack blog. This made me think about the fact that we often place the heavier part of the burden on those who need help – we make it the responsibility of the person who needs help to figure out how best to get it. While I am all for giving people information that will empower them to get the assistance they need, I think it is also important to remind people who give technical support that they can also do things to make the process easier on the end user. The end user is the customer here. Using technical support should not be frustrating – it should be a rewarding experience that makes their life easier.

Technical knowledge is important to giving good support, but good customer services skills might just be more important. If people don’t feel comfortable coming to you for help, they won’t.

  1. Don’t patronize – Yes, often times, it seems as if you get asked the same question over and over – and as if the problem may be an easy one to solve. And yes, sometimes, the same person may have the same problem over and over again. It may be frustrating to answer the same questions repeatedly, but it is part of the job. Also, if a particular issue comes up time and time again, this may be an indication of a larger problem. Maybe there is a need for training or a opportunity for a new approach. Patronizing people will make them feel stupid.
  2. Don’t give an answer before the person looking for help has finished explaining the problem – This is a huge pet peeve of mine. I often have a good idea of what the problem is before someone has finished speaking. Problems tend to come in waves – after a new Windows Update or software upgrade. However, I don’t like to be cut off when speaking – and I doubt most other people do either. Also, there are times when the problem isn’t what you would expect.
  3. Listen to people – People get frustrated when they can’t use their computers or equipment properly. Sometimes, they just need someone to listen to them and give them some gentle guidance. Honestly, this can help make them feel better. Sadly, not all problems can be solved, but you don’t want people to stop calling because you couldn’t help them.
  4. Treat others as you would like to be treated – Most people who work in technical support also find themselves in the position of having to call or request help at some point. I take cues from the positive and negative experiences that I have had using technical support – using what works well and learning from that which doesn’t.
  5. Make yourself available – Answer the phone when it rings, have an open door policy, respond to problems in a timely manner. This helps make people believe that you want to help them, that you want them to call you – and will give them a sense that you actually can help them solve their problems. To be effective in technical support, people need to have faith in your abilities, but they also need to believe that you actually want to help.
  6. Be honest – Often times, people may not entirely understand why something has happened – and they may not really want to know the technical details. However, lying is never a good idea. If I don’t know the answer to a problem, I say that I need to investigate. I try to be realistic about the time frame for fixing issues – and try to keep people informed about what is going on. The problem might be routine for me, but it probably isn’t for the person having the problem. This is especially true if it is a major problem that renders their computer unusable.
  7. Learn how to bite your tongue – Everyone will have awful days – experiences that will make them want to scream – personality conflicts will occur. Learn how to deal with it. Don’t complain about it or specific people among the people you support. This can undermine your effectiveness.

These are guidelines that I try to live by in my job. Some of these lessons, I learned the hard way – and some just seemed to make sense from the beginning. I try and remind myself of these things every day!

Libraries & Technology

July 5, 2007

Over the past year or so, I have become extremely interested in the topic of technology in libraries, the problem of technical support for patrons and the problem of technical knowledge among library staff. The whole “the user is not broken” discussion made me realize that library staff are not broken either. Sometimes those of us in the technical support arena work off the assumption that the user is the problem. This attitude isn’t helping us get the most from people – nor does it help us provide better customer service to our patrons. Technical knowledge for many people working in libraries is a big problem – even bigger for public services’ staff who are often expected to support and help patrons with technical problems. I’m hoping to do some type of study of this for my capstone experience, special project, or whatever you want to call it (which I will be doing during the spring of 2008).

Along these lines, Emily Clasper put together a list of technical competencies for librarians over at Library Revolution. Clasper is adament that these skills are an absolute must. I agree with her. I’m just not sure where these skills need to come from or who should be responsible for assuring that people have them. I tend to think people should have these basic skills before they even apply to library school. But, I think that since technical knowledge is so incredibly critical, we, in libraries, need to find a way to provide better and more effective continuing education for our staff.  The basic skill set changes fairly rapidly – and I can only see it getting worse.

I love this quote from Clasper:

So here we are trying to sell 2.0 technologies and initiatives, and all too often hitting a brick wall. But is it any wonder? Sometimes I feel like if I have to explain to one more librarian how to cut and paste a string of text I’ll just about die. No wonder I get a glassy-eyed look when I mention XML syndication!

I agree that dealing with Web 2.0/Library 2.0 is so far beyond the day-to-day things that go on in most libraries. I don’t think we can fully move forward with new technologies until we have a decent grasp of the basics.

An Old Twist On Tech Support

April 4, 2007

From BoreMe: Introducing the Book – Gutenberg offers ‘In your home’ support for those having trouble with this new technology called a book (versus the much easier to use scroll).

This is a funny video clip that made me chuckle this morning.

IT Management In The Library

February 22, 2007

In a new blog, Red dirt librarian, Carolyn McDonald writes about Models for managing IT in libraries. In the post, McDonald suggests that there are three types of IT models: all IT support provided by the library, all IT support managed by an outside agency or a hybrid model where IT support is provided from within the library and from an outside department. McDonald writes:

This last option is the one I am most interested in. It seems to me there are significant advantages, and risk of major problems. I’ve seen both at work. So how do we get the mix right, how do we ensure good communication, how do we develop enough of an understanding of each other’s business to appreciate what is being done and enable the business of the organisation?

In four short sentences, McDonald gets to heart of the matter for those libraries that have a hybrid mix of IT management. There is a natural tension between library staff who want to ensure open and easy access for everyone and IT staff who are charged with protecting an institution’s computer and network assets. I know that it seems to people that if they ask an IT person for something the answer is always no. I also know that many IT people shake their heads because “those library people” are always asking for something else – and that it is usually something that isn’t straightforward or easy to accomplish (this is my role in my work life). Open lines of communication and understanding of the mission of each organization are essential keys to making this hybrid relationship work. It really is all about give and take – and a little understanding.

I often have to ask for exceptions to the rules, holes through the firewall, LDAP access, guest accounts for patrons, wireless access for visitors and all sorts of other things that aren’t often available anywhere but in the library. I have found that it helps to have a good working relationship with the IT department. I make concessions sometimes – and agree to wait on some initiatives. I also offer to help the IT department with big projects. I will at times volunteer library computers and staff for new IT initiatives because the library can provide sufficient critical mass for test cases. I have also found that it is critical for me to be open and honest with the IT department about library initiatives that involve technology. I don’t EVER spring anything on them as a done deal. In a hybrid mix, the relationship between the IT department and library systems people makes all the difference in the world.

A Story About Technical Support Issues

January 11, 2007

This week at work, I received a call from one of our reference librarians asking about some trouble that a patron had experienced on the previous evening. The patron was a student in a satellite program that is offered by another institution, but is taught on our premises. This puts the students in the program in a rather difficult situation – they are not technically part of our college community, but they do use our physical resources. Our college provides the space for the actual classes, the students have network privileges on our campus and they have complete access to our on-campus library resources.

On this evening, this particular student came into our library in order to try and print out a syllabus and some documents on reserve. These items were in the course management system used by the college that runs the program – not run by my college. I’m not exactly sure what the exact nature of the problem was – except that the student could not print out the syllabus nor the documents. I’m not sure if the student couldn’t log into the course site, couldn’t open the documents or just couldn’t print them out. Our reference librarian called to ask if the issue could have been related to the fact that all of our library computers have IE7 installed. My response – yes, of course that could be an issue, but I really need specific information in order to troubleshoot. Without any information about the course management system, without access to the courses in question, without a username and password, without actually being there when someone was experiencing the problem, my hands were somewhat tied. Neither could I provide a definitive answer that would solve the problem. After a brief conversation about the problem and what we could do to try and resolve the issue, the reference librarian had a great idea. She thought we should ask the program coordinator for a test account so that we could try and troubleshoot on our end – which is where the students in the program are using their resources. Someone did in fact contact the coordinator and ask for this information – the response was rather curt. There was no need for us to have this information. The coordinator had heard about the problem, was meeting with the student and would work it out. A pdf of the instructions for accessing the course sites was emailed with the hope that our systems person would be able to work things out with that information. Oh and yes, the coordinator explained that the system only worked with IE6 or Safari for Macs. Sadly, this information did not help.

Our systems person (oh yeah, that would be ME) was left feeling frustrated and unhappy – and unable to help resolve a basic technical issue for one of our constituents. Even more frustrating is the fact that I actually use the same course management system in question for my coursework at SCSU – and I use it with IE7 even though it isn’t supported. It works fine with some tweaks to security settings and pop-up blocker settings. As such, it would be fairly easy for me to rework the instructions for IE7 if given the opportunity. Since these students use our resources and need to access their course management system, something needs to be done. At this point, I do plan to sit down at one of our public computers, log in to my course management system and show the reference librarians how it works. Hopefully, they will be able to tell me if this helps the students in question.

Ultimately, I really thought this story helped to illustrate some of the problems of technical support in libraries today. It is a messy, messy situation. With remote access, satellite campuses, distance education, browser issues, personal firewalls, antivirus, wireless, etc., technical support isn’t something that is solely the purview of systems people. All library personnel need to have a better understanding  of technical issues in order to provide the best service possible to our constituents. When they don’t, we end up with frustrated and disappointed patrons. I honestly hadn’t really thought much about our agreement to host this satellite program on our campus – and about its impact. This was clearly a mistake. As a result, students are required to use a system that (supposedly) only works with IE6 in a library which only uses IE7. There is clearly a communication issue here – and I’m left feeling as if it is my fault. While it really may not be entirely my fault, it is my problem – as the fact that overall our technical support to our patrons needs to be better. I’m trying to learn from stories like this and hoping to eventually eliminate them all together at some point.