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.

The Challenge Of Technology

November 20, 2006

Recently, K.G. Schneider asked for people’s technology wish lists – in order to put together a post on ALA’s Techsource blog. People had some great suggestions, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading both the posts and the comments. I thought about the subject quite a bit to try and figure out what my biggest technology challenges are on a day-to-day basis. After a while, I started to think about the ways in which technology presents barriers to our customers (and staff) and makes life more difficult. Sadly, there are far too many ways in which technology interferes in the flow of information. Interestingly, in the midst of my thinking about this, Jason Griffey posted about helping a student – or trying to help a student – print out documents from a jumpdrive in the library. The student couldn’t print out the documents because the jumpdrive required that the student have administrator rights on the computer.

These types of problems are on the rise as operating systems, browsers and software respond the challenges of viruses, phishing attacks and user problems. The trend is to create software that may be easier to use (I think this may not actually be the end result), but that is more difficult to “mess” up. For businesses and institutions, operating systems are being locked down in order to reduce maintenance time and costs. Permissions and access rights come into play – and IT departments naturally want to use these tools to reduce system crashes and software corruption. This adds a great deal of complexity to systems – and frustration for users.

The sad fact is that incidents like Jason Griffey described with the student’s jumpdrive are all too common. It is getting more and more difficult to actually provide services to students on institution-owned computers. We have many software programs that require administrator rights to actually run correctly. At the college where I work, we end up creating local admin accounts on the computers and installing the software on each computer – by hand. Students then have to know that in order to use certain programs, they need to use different accounts (and log into the local machine rather than the domain). This is becoming more and more prevalent. As browsers add functionality to disable web pages running things like ActiveX, to identify phishing attacks and to protect users from unauthorized downloads, they add complexity for things such as downloading and opening PDFs. PDFs are one of the mostly commonly used file types in libraries – and with IE7 (IE is our college’s supported browser) one has to continuously click all over the place to actually download the file. Additionally, students bring CD-Rs, CD-RWs, DVDs, DVD-Rs, DVD-RWs, floppy disks, zip disks, etc. to the library with no idea of which computers have which types of removable drives. Sometimes, students bring in their laptops with their modem cables (and we don’t have any active phone jacks). The stories of technology-related frustrations are seemingly endless – and create the exact atmosphere that we do not want to provide to our customers.

I guess the point to all of this is that what I really want (and what I really think would benefit libraries) is technology that does not erect barriers between our information and our users. Ideally, shouldn’t technology enable the free flow of information? All of this talk about library 2.0 and improvements to library services can only take us so far. It isn’t only our library systems and services that are creating problems, but the direction of technology in general. Things like DRM, software conflicts, incompatible file formats, hardware conflicts, etc. cause huge problems for us in libraries. It isn’t just ILS vendors that we need to be talking to about better systems, but software providers in general (and hardware vendors, too). For patrons to have good experiences in libraries all of our technologies much play well together – library systems, DRM, Windows & Mac operating systems, browsers, removable devices, portable devices, and any other technology-related item that our patrons want to use in the library.

Technology that provides barriers is not user-centric in nature. There has to be a better way to use technology to provide a user-friendly library experience that is inclusive of those with differing levels of technical knowledge, different portable devices, different software requirements, and different information needs. Today, because of barriers, we are often unable to meet the basic needs of our students without serious staff intervention. I want better technology that enables our patrons to be self-sufficient  and frees library staff from having to spend time rebooting computers, reformatting documents for printing and trying to get laptops connected to the network rather than helping patrons find information that they need.

Blue Screen Of Death Screen Saver

November 9, 2006

Lifehacker’s Download of the Day for November 9th is the BlueScreen Screen Saver from Microsoft TechNet. This could be used to wreak havoc on unsuspecting co-workers (or even family members). Cool!!!!! You just don’t get to see the blue screen of death like you did with Windows NT. I might even miss it a little bit. Ah, the good old days.