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 – 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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Knowing What We Should Know

   February 17th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Computer with Question MarkJessamyn's observation on this USB keylogger thing got me thinking - without the context of that article, if I saw one of those in my library, I wouldn't have known what it was.

I would have known it shouldn't have been there, and maybe being plugged into the keyboard would have given me a clue, but I don't know.

This reminded me of a Technology Skills Library Staff Should Have list Sarah posted at ALA Learning (via). I wouldn't expect any staff to recognize a keylogger, but staff do need to be familiar enough with library equipment to recognize when something gets out of whack - printer not working right, copier making funny noises, website down, a monitor cable unplugged, or a foreign device plugged into a computer.

I like her list a lot, and am going to spend some time merging it with the idea from the Wilmington (MA) Library to break tech knowledge up into different levels to form a tech skills matrix.

Tech competencies is a topic I keep revisiting, because it is something that continually evolves - identifying keyloggers are just the latest addition.



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Reference Question of the Week – 10/24/10

   October 30th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Instead of a reference question this week, I wanted to highlight something else from NELA2010.

In the Trends in Reference session, Pingsheng Chen from the Worcester (MA) Public Library discussed the overall trend of reference questions in general - that there are fewer of them, but the questions we do get asked are harder and less traditional.

This is due to people turning to the internet to answer the easy factual questions, but still coming to us with the tough ones that require assistance or instruction. Her slide below listed a few example questions she's gotten in Worcester:

Reference Questions from the Worcester Library

I'm sorry the photo is tough to read - the questions are:

  • How do I activate my iPhone on a library computer? Can I download this mp3 to my iPod from a library computer?
  • My laptop cannot connect to the library's wireless. Can you help?
  • Which e-reader should I buy to download the library's ebooks?
  • I bought Barnes & Noble Nook and would like to download the library's ebooks to it. Can you help?
  • Could you recommend and create a booklist on China, its history and culture to my group? I would like to know if the books on the booklist are available at the library.
  • I got this letter telling me to come to the library to obtain this document...(e-government info)
  • I am looking for work and would like to know how to set up a LinkedIn account.
  • Many more questions are asked my job seekers: people need help to find a job, fill out an online application, write a resume and cover letter... (Many of them have no computer skills, no email account, no English skills...)

Her question to us was, if you were asked these, how would you answer them?

Most of the libraries represented in the room had at least one person on staff who is the go-to person for "techie questions." But is that good enough anymore? Do you feel the questions above are beyond the scope of reference work, or are you of the opinion that modern reference staff should have the knowledge and training to answer modern reference questions?

So that's the challenge for this week - how would you handle these questions if you were asked them by a patron?



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Staff Technology Competencies

   May 27th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Thumbs UpIn addition to Email Scam Competency Testing, here's another tool for evaluating staff technology competencies.

Developed by Alicia Verno, Head of Technical Services at the Wilmington (MA) Memorial Library (who generously agreed to share with everyone), this is a nice staff technology competencies matrix [pdf], breaking down tech skills by subject/software and assigning different skill levels based on position.

The skill levels are:

  • Level 1: Basic (Circulation Staff, Tech Services Asst.)
  • Level 2: Intermediate (Department Heads, Information Desk staff, Administration)
  • Level 3: Advanced (Technology Committee members)

and the required skills are broken out into these categories:

  • Workstation Basics
  • Operating System
  • System Security
  • Printing
  • Internet
  • Email
  • CASSIE [time management software]
  • Horizon [ILS]
  • Horizon (Tech Services staff only)
  • Microsoft Excel
  • Microsoft Word

I really like this fine-tuned approach. Assigning library positions to different skill levels is an easy way of being able to find help if a question is over someone's head.

I also like breaking out each skill area. It plainly lays out which skills are important for staff to know, but also shows them skills above their level, perhaps enticing them to be curious and figure things out.

We're going to modify Alicia's matrix [pdf] for use at my library, and I'd like to add:

  • Printers/Copiers: changing toner, adding paper, cleaning jams, checking print queues, deleting print jobs, overriding payment system, shutting down/starting up print server
  • Museum Passes: booking a pass, deleting a reservation, checking out a pass
  • ILL Requests: requesting through local catalog/state-wide catalog/OCLC requests, checking on a request

I'm sure it could be an endless list, and I know the point isn't to be exhaustive - nor is it to point out peoples' shortcomings or reasons why someone shouldn't be in the position they're in. Really, competencies lists should identify the areas in which staff feel uncomfortable, so supervisors can make sure they get the training they need.

Thanks again Alicia!



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Talking Tech

   September 22nd, 2009 Brian Herzog

tech support manNew technologies are constantly becoming more integrated into how libraries perform their core functions. As this evolves, staff (and patrons) of all experience levels need to be able to communicate, but this is often difficult and problematic.

Enter Roy Tennant's recent The Top Ten Things Library Administrators Should Know About Technology post (via LISnews). It's a good start to getting people unfamiliar with technology to start thinking about technology in realistic terms - it's not something to be afraid of, it's a tool (and even tech people don't know everything). All of his 10 tips are helpful, but #5 is key:

  1. Iterate, don't perfect. Librarians seem to love perfection. We don't want to put any technology out for the public to use until we think it is perfect. Well, we need to get over ourselves. Savvy tech companies know the path to success is to release early and iterate often. One of the major benefits of this is that your users can provide early feedback on what they like and don't like, thereby providing essential input into further development. Do not be afraid of a "beta" or "prototype" label -- people are now accustomed to such, and it can provide the necessary "cover" to being less than perfect.

But this is not new. Roy's post reminded me of two other articles I had seen last year Computers in Libraries:

These two are more focused on how front-line staff can become more comfortable doing their own tech troubleshooting. But best of all, by raising their comfort level and tech competencies, conveying problems to the dedicated tech support (whether internal or external) should also improve.

Naturally, these two articles overlap a bit on the tips that are most important:

  • Make sure the power is on to all components (if not, turn it on and see if that fixes the problem)
  • Make sure all the cables are plugged in and connected firmly (feel free to unplug and plug back in the cables
  • Try rebooting - that works more often than you'd imagine

But also important are the areas in which they don't overlap. The Singer Gordon/West article provide excellent tips on basic tasks anyone using a computer should (but might not!) know. And the Ennis article focuses more on how to avoid more serious problems, identify them when they happen, and then communicate important information to tech support.

My favorite sentence of all three articles comes from Lisa A. Ennis's article, in which she reminds tech support staff that the entire burden doesn't rest with the front-line staff. Her personal philosophy as a systems librarian is:

I'm not here for the technology. I'm here for the people.

That is key. Example: an email system that delivers no spam but sometimes blocks legitimate messages is not a good email system.

Technology is not a one-person game. Everyone uses it, so everyone has a role to play in making sure it works correctly - and that it is serving the mission of the library.



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