or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk


Take-Home Tech Support, or, Why Second Thoughts Are Important

   October 29th, 2014 Brian Herzog

tabletphoneLast week, a patron came in and asked for help using the scanner. No problem.

But while I was helping her, she explained that she has an all-in-one copier/printer/scanner that used to work great but is now giving her trouble, hence the trip to the library. She tried describing to me what the problem was, and it seemed like it should be diagnosable and solvable, but I was just not getting it.

One great thing about the emergence of mobile devices, and increasing prevalence of laptops, is that people can bring them into the library for tech support. But with desktops, and in this case copier/printer/scanners, even something that would be simple to correct continues to plague them because it's too difficult to communicate either the problem or the solution remotely.

So, the idea struck me - why not start a program offering in-home tech support? I think it would be unrealistic to send library staff out to patrons' homes, but how about this: we have a special "tech support tablet" that patrons can check out, and then when they get home, use Skype or some other video chat service. That way, I could actually see what the problem was, read the error messages on their screen, see what lights were flashing, tell them which menus to click, etc.

Really, it'd be offering the same service we currently provide to patrons who can bring their devices to the library, so why not offer it remotely too?

Well, any number of reasons, if you think about it. First, this would still be difficult, and not like being there in person. Second, and maybe more frighteningly, who knows what else might show up on the screen besides tech problems. This was basically the reason this idea went no further.

I mean, I still like this idea, and think it could help people. But it would be tricky, and has a lot of downside potential, so for the time being this is just going to be filed under "maybe someday."



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Reference Question of the Week – 3/31/13

   April 6th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Hello.  Have you tried turning it off and on again?This wasn't a very difficult question, and although it didn't have a great ending, I thought it was interesting anyway - and happy we could help because the patron had no where else to go.

A patron walked up to the Reference Desk and asked to use the phone. We generally only let people use desk phones to call for rides or other quick things, mainly to make sure phones are available for staff to answer incoming patron calls.

Since it was fairly early in the day, I asked him if he was calling for a ride, and he said,

No, I need to call email tech support. I called them last night to help with my email, but he said I needed to be in front of the computer. I don't have one at home, so I always use the library computers. I don't have a cell phone either, but I think this computer here in the corner is close enough to the Reference Desk that I could stretch the phone cord across the aisle while I talk to him. It should be a quick call.

Okay, by the time he was finished speaking, all kinds of red flags were waving for all they're worth.

I sympathize with people trying to use technology without actually owning their own technology - libraries are great, but obviously some things are much easier to do at home. However, also obviously, I couldn't allow this patron to:

  • block an aisle way by stretching a cord across it
  • engage in a phone conversation at the public workstation, since we routinely ask people doing this very thing to take their cell phone call in a different area of the library so as not to bother the other computer users near them
  • tie up one of the Reference Desk phones for this long a time - no tech support call in history has been "quick"

Hoping to avoid this situation entirely, I asked the patron what he was trying to do, and if I could help. His answer kind of surprised me:

I've always used Hotmail, but now I'm switching to Gmail. The Gmail people said they were able to import everything from my Hotmail account, except what was in my Drafts folder. But when I went in to move those myself, I accidentally deleted some, so I called Hotmail to see if they could be restored.

First, I had no idea that Gmail offered a migration service, but they do. Neat. Secondly, I think he's right in that he'd need Hotmail tech support to recover deleted messages. I did check his account with him, just to see if there was something he overlooked, but from what we could tell the draft messages in question were gone.

And so, this left us with the original question of how he could use a phone and a computer at the same time. Eventually it dawned on me that he could borrow one of the laptops we loan to the public, and the Reference Desk's cordless phone,* and sit in an area of the library where his talking wouldn't bother anyone. It seemed like a good solution, and he was happy.

45 minutes later(!) he came back, a little dejectedly, and said Hotmail couldn't recover his messages after all. He wasn't entirely sure of the reason, but by this point had accepted it. The messages weren't critical, but he certainly would have preferred to have them. I apologized and we commiserated a bit about technological dependence, then he thanked me for the library being able to accommodate his situation, and left.

So in case anyone was wondering, the digital divide is still alive and well. It also made me wonder: do any libraries loan cell phones to patrons? I'm not an expert on cell phone technology, but I think there are the the kind where patrons could just pay to put minutes on them, so it wouldn't cost the library anything. It would have been helpful in a case like this, or if a patron was going on a trip or something and wanted the security of being in touch. It seems like a good idea, but I'm sure I'm overlooking some vital flaw.

 


*Our Reference Desk has two phones at the desk (and two computers), as well as a cordless phone in the Reference Office behind the Desk. We carry this with us when we know we'll be away from the desk, because it sure beats trying to sprint back to the desk when the phone rings while you're in the stacks.



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Reference Question of the Week – 7/22/12

   July 28th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Hello.  Have you tried turning it off and on again?I'm on vacation most of last week and next week, so I don't have a real reference question to share. Instead, I thought I'd highlight this post from last year from Lifehacker.com: Top 10 Tactics for Diagnosing and Fixing Your Sick Technology.

Just about everyone who works in a library is a de facto tech support person - whether it be for your own work station, or helping a coworker or patron. So instead of an normal reference question, hopefully this post will help in answering reference questions.

The tips they provide really run the gamut of applicability, but tips I think are most relevant are:

10. Disable Crap You Don't Need.
Helpful in the way they intend, but also relevant in patron support in terms of "focus on one aspect of the problem." For instance, if a patron says, "I can't download books from Overdrive," you have to go through a mental checklist every single time: is their computer connected to the internet, are they getting to the Overdrive catalog, are they checking out the book properly, is their any kind of block on their account, are they getting the right format for their device, etc. By ignoring extraneous details and deliberately going through the process, you can usually fairly quickly identify whatever the problem may be (fixing it, on the other hand, is a different matter).

8. Talk It Out with a Troubleshooting Buddy
This is good for any type of reference question - if you get stuck, ask a coworker. Any two people will probably approach a question differently, and someone else might think of something you haven't. Relying on colleagues is a great way to provide excellent customer service (well, provided you have excellent colleagues).

7. Make Sure It's Not Just You
I actually use downforeveryone.com frequently (and am always oddly delighted when I find someone else who does too). Patrons seem to be less upset about not being able to get into their email if you can show them that the problem seems to be with their email provider, not the library's network.

3. Use Alternative Search Engines When Looking for Help
Definitely. It's good to be come very familiar with your standard tools, but don't be locked into them. And not just search engines - remember to use the library's print resources, databases, vertical file, local resources, etc, when looking for an answer.

2. Hit Up Helpful Q&A Web Sites
I do this all the time, both for answering patron questions and IT support within the library. Patrons think up some pretty weird things, but chances are someone else on the internet has already figured that weird thing out. Look for help forums, and don't be afraid to interact on them. And tell the patron you've asked their question, just to give them a heads-up that the answer might not be immediately forthcoming. Also, any time I get a strange error code, or try to do something slightly counter-intuitive (like read Kindle books on an iPad), searching web forums is a quick way to pick the internet's collective brain. Likewise, calling other libraries, relevant organizations, or real-life experts can be a good idea, too.

1. Restart
This applies to so many things - from literally restarting a frozen public workstation to taking a fresh tack on a difficult problem. Turn it off and turn it back on again is the #1 suggestion for a reason - and why Roy always answers the phone that way:



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Reference Question of the Week – 6/17/12

   June 23rd, 2012 Brian Herzog

W hand signThis reference question can be filed under, "no matter how much you know about something, there's still more to learn."

One afternoon this week, a patron called in and asked for me specifically. She had a question about Microsoft Word, and since I've always been able to solve her technology questions in the past, she knew I'd have an immediate answer this time. Her question was:

How do you make Word automatically indent the first line of every paragraph?

I thought for a minute, and then realized - I had no idea how to do this. Whenever I want to indent, I just hit the Tab key. But she wanted it to indent automatically - which I was sure Word probably did, I just didn't know where this was in the menus.

I figured it had to be a Paragraph format option though, so I clicked the little square in the bottom right corner of the Paragraph box on the Home ribbon in Word 2007. Nothing immediately stood out, so I did a quick web search for word indent first line of every paragraph, and the first result explained how to do it - turns out I was on the right track.

Once you get to the Paragraph format box, you need to select "First line" from the "Special" dropdown box in the middle of the page. Then you can also set how much to indent by.

Paragraph format box

Great. I found all this in a minute or so, making small talk with the patron while I searched. As I started guiding her through how to do it, we hit a snag: she's still using Word 2003, and I'm on Word 2007 (which is also what the online directions were for).

I use this Paragraph format box all the time, but for the life of me I could not remember how to get to it in the Word 2003 menus. So, it was another web search for word 2003 paragraph menu, and again it was the first result that gave me the answer: Paragraph was an option on the Format menu.

Now I can navigate the patron to the Paragraph box and explain how to set the auto-indent feature. It work, she was delighted, and I was able to maintain my perfect record for her tech support - even though I had never done this before in my life.

Which just goes to prove the reference librarian's motto: you don't need to know everything, you just need to know how to find everything.



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Make Online Tutorials with Tildee

   October 20th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Tildee.com: You Explain. They Understand.I was flipping through the October issue of Computers in Libraries and found that Donna F. Ekart's Tech Tips for Every Librarian column certainly lived up to its name - not only was my library mentioned in the column, but she also profiled a tool I'd never heard of before (and can certainly use).

We were mentioned for the Library Use Value Calculator, and I was happy she included it as an easy-to-implement tool for libraries.

The tool that was new to me is Tildee.com, a very quick and easy way to make online step-by-step tutorials. Sure there are other ways to do the same thing, but this was really, really easy - type in your text for each step, upload an image/map/video if you want, and you're done. That's it.

In about two minutes I made one showing patrons how to log into their catalog account.

I think if I spent more than two minutes at it, it would look a little better, but still - two minutes. They also have a nice listing of other tutorials (how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, how to use Animoto) to give you some ideas. And it's got a bunch of social media tie-ins too, for easily promoting your tutorial.

I did have some trouble uploading images the first time, but it worked itself out. Something I'd love to see added is the ability to add circles and arrows or otherwise highlight portions of uploaded images - like being able to point to a "Login" link. You can always add that to the image before you upload it, but it'd still be a nice feature.

I think this tool is a great compliment to creating screencasts, because sometimes combining text and images (or videos, maps, whatever) is more suitable than just a video - and better than just emailing someone the steps.

See, even us techie people have a lot to learn (hence why I read Computers in Libraries).



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Reference Question of the Week – 7/17/11

   July 23rd, 2011 Brian Herzog

Speed Limit Infinity signThis questions wasn't at all difficult, but I thought it was interesting because it was something I thought I knew how to do, but it turns out I didn't.

A patron walks up to the desks and says,

I have some software at home I want to install on my computer. However, there are two install disks - one for computers with a 32 bit processor and one for computers with a 64 bit processor. How do I tell what processor my computer has?

The patron had an XP computer, which is also what I was on at the desk, so that made things easier.

My first instinct was to go to Device Manager, so we did, but no matter where we looked, nothing I could find gave the processor speed. I sure there are multiple ways to find this out, but in the interest of time I searched the internet for is my processor 64 bit or 32 bit xp. The first result was titled What operating system Do I have? A 32bit or a 64bit? | Computer Tips - perfect.

The site itself looked a little suspect, but as we read the page together, the information seemed okay. It gave instructions for both XP and Vista - and the XP instructions guided us to somewhere I never would have even thought of:
Start > Programs > Accessories > System Tools > System Information

Menu path to System Information

When that window opens, look for the Processor line:

System Information dialog box

Here's how the site says to read it:

If it says x86 then you have a 32 bit operating system. If the processor area mentioned ia64 or AMD64 then this means you have a 64 bit processor. If it said Microsoft Windows XP Professional x64 Edition Version then this means it is a 64 bit operating system. However as you can see from above, it says Microsoft Windows XP Professional and the processor starts with X86 so therefore this is a 32 bit processor with a 32 bit operating system.

This answered the patron's question, and since we both learned something, it was a good exchange. The funny part (to me) is that the patron said he was right in the middle of installing the software, and came to the library because it was the only place he could think of that would give him free computer information. He was happy I found the answer so quickly and he apologized for rushing out.

Free is questionable, but quite timely on people thinking of the library as genius bar - all the more reason reference staff need to also provide some degree of technical support.



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