Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Mind the Gap or Turning a weakness into a strength

I have really enjoyed the rounds of "tech-nos" that have gone around numerous library blogs. It is always good to be honest about abilities. In contrast, I remember a discussion many months ago talking about a technology competency list for librarians.

This brought out a thought. On one hand, we are talking about our gaps in knowledge, and in the other, we are punishing each other for those gaps. Both of these conversations discuss technology gaps and technology needs. If we don't understand that our abilities are far in advance of our users, we may not realize that the technology applications (in the name of convenience) that we provide may be creating more barriers.

If I don't realize the gap between my ability and the ability of the public, it will result in having services that are too advanced for the average person. If I don't realize the gap between myself and staff, it can be even worse.

I was listening to LISTen Podcast this week and heard a very interesting piece about the average person in the United States and their interaction with technology. The host (Stephen) was speaking with Don Reisinger of the Digital Home Blog. Even as tech savvy as he is, when asked how many people are using applications like Facebook or Myspace, he said less than 10%. Furthermore, he goes on to say that the average John Q. Public is not on Facebook. Providing overdue notices or other interactions by libraries via facebook would not be an effective way to communicate with your users. It is easier for someone from the library to make a phone call about that overdue notice than to send an alert via facebook. Furthermore, it is difficult to predict this behavior. What is popular today in social networking won't be popular tomorrow. The key is not necessarily going where these users are, but just making it more convenient to use the existing services the library provides.

This brought up the question, am I making the library more convenient with technology. In some cases yes, the computer reservation system and self-check work well, but constant need for assistance at the public access computers or for the wireless internet is a constant grind. This necessitated training for staff.

I provided a six month training program for library basic training. I mentioned it over here. All of the surveys on technology competencies were the same. People needed to know how to operate the technology at the library. They understood Word the basics of computers, but they were not very interested beyond that. Teaching them how to use the computer reservation system, or to repair the self-check were more interesting.

So, at the brink of implementing a library 2.0 training program, I pulled back. Mostly from an aversion by staff to new technology items. They felt that they were at their limit. We had implemented many technology pieces, from self-check, to computer reservation, and wireless internet. We trained them on how to use all of it. (AND they remembered it because they have to do it as part of their jobs. ) However, too much technology can result in just as much work as having no technology. Furthermore, reliance on technology in place of people can result in catastrophe. If the technology breaks often, it is ineffective. As a result, we held off a bit on any technology push, even the advertisement of overdrive, so that staff could feel more comfortable moving forward. If staff aren't prepared for the technology that currently exists in libraries, they won't be able to handle new stuff thrown at them. For that matter, neither will our users.

The "Tech-no" conversation was a good conversation because it demonstrated our shortfalls. Many librarians would view themselves in this way, even though their general competencies are still well above the average person. We need to remember that and we also need to capitalize on the feeling we get when we run into our own technology gaps. If we remember all the times where we were stuck on something because we fell into our gaps when helping a patron, we will make that person more comfortable and more able to learn something new.

I can't follow directions very well. I even have trouble with the IKEA instructions and those don't even have words! I turned this learning gap into a strength because I now write instructions so that even I could understand it. That means that each step is very clearly defined, demonstrates indications that you are still on the right course, and what you should see when you are finished. When I worked reference, my guides were very detailed. When I try to describe how I did something, it is detailed to the point of painful. We should always remember our gaps and when we help people. Remember what it feels like to be stumped, and proceed as if we are helping ourselves. That's why these conversations are so important to me.

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