Ponytailed Young Men And Older Women Librarians – Bad Mojo?

January 16, 2008

My boss sent me a link to an article from the January 18, 2008 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education – “Strains and Joys Color Mergers Between Libraries and Tech Units” by Andrea L. Foster (Section: Money & Management, Volume 54, Issue 19, Page A1). As a systems librarian, this is a subject that is of great interest to me. Despite the fact that I do not work in an institution with a combined IT/library department, I know that I can learn something from the successes and failures in this arena – and be prepared for any discussions that may come up at my place of work.

The article was an interesting read. The bottom line is that sometimes such mergers are succcesful, but sometimes are not. More often than not, these mergers seem to happen at smaller and less complex institutions. The mergers are not a cost-saving move. Usually, the library is absorbed into the IT organizational unit and the chief librarian position is eliminated. Librarians are often quite apprehensive about such mergers, and books seem to be the biggest loser. There is often an underlying assumption that books are becoming less important to the academic mission. Many are usually moved to make room for “information commons” areas.

The most interesting part of the article, however, was a discussion about a highly problematic merger at Gettysburg College. Foster writes:

Tensions arose when technology workers, ponytailed young men, began sharing the same office space with librarians, most of whom were older women, said Ms. Wagner. According to her account, the men brought in a huge microwave, were slobs, had messy cords dangling from equipment and said they worked much harder than the librarians who left work at 4:30 and took breaks throughout the day.

Yikes! This definitely doesn’t sound like a successful venture. The account gave me a rather comical vision of shushing-type, bun-wearing, librarians having their space invaded by food-stained microwave ovens covered in cords behind and odd young men with long hair. Sounds like a big no, no to me.

The Technology Our Users Want

July 24, 2007

I’ve been pondering the question that Jessamyn West asked last week, do library users care about our new initiatives? There is quite a bit going on in this post – and in the survey done by the Wisconsin Public Library Consortium. Rochelle Hartman comments with Tech Apps in Libraries? WI users valuse them, but don’t use much – and Jeff Scott ponders The future of libraries or getting them what they want. Without doubt, trying to actually determine what our patrons want is quite a challenge. Trying to figure out if they care about technology initiatives, let alone 2.0 initiatives, is probably even more complicated.

I’ve mentioned in the past that in my experience, patrons (the majority of whom are 18-22 year olds) are not clamoring for 2.0 technologies – they are not pushing for the library to be on the “cutting edge.” As I have been thinking about what the aformentioned blog posts might mean for my library, I’ve been trying to think about how our patrons currently use technology, what technologies they use most and what both might mean in terms of identifying which new technologies would make the most sense to implement.

Students primarily come into the library to use the computers – and to study. When studying, a large number bring their own laptop to use. Most of the computers that we have for student use have college-owned software that students must use for class assignments. Sure, they use library resources in addition to their use of productivity software, etc. However, students actually use more non-library-related technology in the library than library-related technology. Questions about printing, about scanning, about managing files, about using laptops, about using wireless, about using Microsoft Office, about making presentations, etc. certainly outnumber questions about the OPAC, electronic resources, electronic reserves or other library technologies. Currently, decent and knowledgeable technical support on all technologies that are available within the library seems to be much more important than adding dynamic content to our catalog or implementing virtual reference.

My impression is that the majority of students could care less about Library 2.0 initiatives. Our experience mirrors that of Jeff Scott in that when asked about improving library services, the most common request is to extend the hours that the library is open. Extended hours, social spaces, cafes seem to be the things that draw today’s students – not virtual reference, RSS feeds, blogs, wikis or interactive OPACs. Overall, this leads me to conclude that students aren’t overly concerned about technology in the library. This makes it difficult for me to try and figure out how to plan for future technology initiatives. What to do, what to do?

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.

Just Say Yes To Technology?

April 11, 2007

One of the most interesting blog posts that I have read over the last week is Ryan Deschamps’s What the Library 2.0 Crowd is Trying to Say about Technology. Overall, I really like Ryan’s enthusiasm for libraries and technology. I so often find his enthusiasm infectious. In this particular post, I understand (or at least think I understand) what Ryan is trying to get at. He is trying to figure out why technology is so often a problem. Ryan concludes early in his post “that technology problems are ultimately organizational culture problems.” His solution? “Technology has reached a stage that any idea to implement a technology ought to begin with a “yes.”

I’m not convinced that just saying yes to ideas that involve technology is going to help resolve organizational issues. Really, I don’t disagree with anything else in Ryan’s post other than this point. Ryan has 10 great reasons why librarians need greater freedom to play, test and monitor new technologies. I think this means that we need to make technology play a more central role in our organizations – make it seem fun – try and make technology less intimidating – integrate it into our work more fully. I love Ryan’s take on playing and having fun. I think following this suggestion could be the key to helping people be much more comfortable with technology. Without changing the organizational culture, I have a suspicion that actually just saying yes to new ideas involving technology –  and then worrying about the actual plan – might actually cause deeper cultural divides within the organization. And isn’t there already a divide that we are trying to overcome?

Additionally, just saying yes doesn’t take into account a whole set of other issues, like technical support or impact on support staff. I admit to often being baffled why some seem to resist simple enhancements that don’t require any resources from those saying no. However, sometimes there are important reasons for saying no. Library 2.0 isn’t just about (or shouldn’t be just about) technology. The technology needs to fit the situation, the library and the people.

I agree with Ryan about the impact of organizational culture on technology ideas. However, it seems that it is imperative to try and change the culture. Technology is only a tool to try and accomplish something. I think that simply saying yes to technology doesn’t take into account the human aspect, the human resistance to change and to technology, and/or the human fear of the unknown. I don’t think it should be about the technology.

Ultimately, it seems that people are trying to figure out why the answer to proposals dealing with even simplistic technologies is more often than not no. This is tough question. I deal with it constantly – sometimes as the one who says no and sometime as the one who gets told no. In many ways, librarians need the freedom to make some of these decisions for themselves without always answering to an outside department. The library needs to have an organizational culture that accepts and even embraces change – one that encourages testing and trial by error. It is easier to say yes to ideas in a testing environment and it may be less threatening to those who don’t take well to change.

The Nightmare of Daylight Savings Time

March 1, 2007

Right about now, I’m hating daylight savings time. I’m up to ears in software patches, notifying people that their appointments in Outlook might be off and all sorts of others things that are off just because of the change to the start of daylight savings time. The three week time period starting on March 12th promises to be quite fun. I’m really thinking that I ought to take at least that first week off!!!!

This is one of the really irritating and thankless IT tasks – that always seem to creep up. Nobody really understands how much time they take up. Nothing else can get done until they are completed. If we are lucky, nobody really notices anything at all.

What has been patched? What hasn’t been patched? Who knows? Let’s keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best. Let the fun begin!

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.

Technical Support Should Be A Core Competency

February 6, 2007

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.

The Problem of Technology

January 29, 2007

As a systems librarian, I know quite a bit about technology in libraries – and conversely about how technology has the potential to be our biggest problem. Currently, all of SCSU’s web sites are inaccessible – their email system, their web site and the course management system. Everything has been down for several hours (all seemed to come back up about 9PM est). As a student, I cannot do anything at all (other than read printed material). In my role as a systems person, I understand how much of a disruption it is when systems go down. At my place of work when systems do fail, it is my responsibility to do absolutely everything in my power to restore them for use. Nothing takes precedence over system failures – absolutely nothing. I like to think that because I am responsible for such problems, I have some understanding for problems when they happen elsewhere. Although I am extremely frustrated because I can’t access any of my course materials, I understand that no one at SCSU decided this would be a good idea. I also have some sympathy for the plight of those in IT working to correct the situation. But this makes me think – from a user perspective system failure has to be the ultimate frustration.

Technology has become our biggest point of weakness – and we do not have enough redundancy built into our technological infrastructure. In my library, nothing has more power to clear the physical building than system failures. The biggest problems include print server backups, internet outages, library system crashes and of course, the biggest one of all, electrical outages. When the power is out, there is absolutely no way we can function. There is nothing more frustrating than inaccessible systems. Fortunately, most outages are of a short duration – and now that SCSU’s course management system is back online, I must go do some homework!!

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.

Should Tech Support Be An Explicit Library Service?

January 1, 2007

“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.