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

Reference Question of the Week ¦ 10/6/13

   October 12th, 2013

school signOne of the interesting things about working in a library is that you encounter such a wide variety of people.

One patron can impress you with their motivation and dedication, and the next can disgust you with their self-interest and sense of entitlement. Sometimes patrons will shock me with their flat-out inability to grasp a most basic concept, or their genuine delight in library serendipity, or show such altruism that just makes me feel good about being human. This particular patron displayed many of these traits, all in the course of thirty minutes.

My library offers 1-on-1 computer training sessions. Patrons can sign up for a 30-minute appointment with me, and I'll help them with whatever computer issue they'd like to work on - email, using the library catalog, listing something on eBay, etc.

One of the appointments last week was with a woman, probably in her late sixties, who just wanted to learn "the computer." She said she has computer at home, but only used it for one specific task (accessing a CD-ROM book), and didn't know anything else about it.

That's fine. Even beginners really vary on how much they know about a computer, so I usually ask people to describe their home computer - this helps me gauge their level of expertise, as well as sometimes lets me know what operating system they've used, software, hardware, etc.

In her case, she described her computer by describing the keyboard and monitor. When I asked her if there were any cables that connected those to anything, she then remembered there was a big box on the floor. This is usually a sure sign that the person hasn't yet "gotten" computers.

So we got started, and I found she was actually quite good using the mouse (I guess from using her CD-ROM), but everything else seemed completely new to her - opening a program from the desktop, closing it, even typing gave her trouble. So we took things slowly, and she seemed to be absorbing as we went.

After we got some basics down, I asked her in general what she'd be using a computer for, so that we could tailor what we covered to activities she'd actually be doing. She said,

My grandson lives with me, and I'm planning on homeschooling him. Since computers are everywhere now, I need to learn how to use it so I can teach him.

Holy smokes. After she said this, I felt some pressure to be a really good teacher, knowing that this would all be used to instruct her grandson.

People who homeschool kids always amaze me for the sheer dedication it must take to do it - however, you can't be knowledgeable about everything, and I really had to wonder if this was a good idea in this case. I don't know how old her grandson is, so maybe she has a couple years to learn more before she starts teaching him - at least, based on what she seemed to know now, I hope so. I haven't seen her name signed up for any subsequent sessions, though, so maybe she got everything she felt she needed from that one half-hour session.


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