Bridging the digital divide in more ways than one

laying fiber in braintree vermont

I was at the Lake Superior Libraries Symposium last week talking about the digital divide. The theme was “bridges” which was perfect because “librarians bridging the digital divide” is the subtitle of my book, now three years old. The talk was a variation of the talk I gave in Michigan, plus it had slides. You can check it out here: Bridging the Digital Divide. I had a wonderful time in Duluth and have to thank the organizers for putting on a really excellent one-day symposium.

This image, though it looks super old timey, is actually from late 2012 and is what it look like: two guys laying cable through the woods using draft horses. It’s a very dramatic image just because of the colors but I think it also shakes people up a little “Wow, there really are places in the US that aren’t there yet….” I talked a bit about the culture of learning new things and about our roles as not just teachers but emulators of good technology practices.

And it was timely because I’ve spent this week enmeshed in terrible, confusing, and poorly designed websites as a result of a job shift. I’ll talk about this more in a separate post, but in an effort to get more librarianing in my life, I’ve moved on from MetaFilter and taken a small job at the Internet Archive working for Open Library. This involved a shift in health insurance and possibly some unemployment payments (going from full-time to part-time). And, since this sort of thing is all done digitally nowadays I’ve gotten to experience first hand what it’s like to feel beaten down by technology when you feel like your money or your livelihood is dependent on it.

I am fine, nothing is wrong with me, I have health care and am still well-paid, but the creeping dread that came over me when I was worried “Did I fill this out correctly?” “What does that phrase mean?” “Why isn’t this Submit button working?” and the inability to get timely help or support via the website (I seemed to always start these processes 20 minutes after the phone support ended for the day) just made me frustrated with our culture of bad technology and poor user interfaces and made me sad for people less savvy than me having to navigate these waters and being worried that maybe the problem was them. As always, we have so far to go.

Free tech learning resources – short list

screen shot from Chinese advanced email handout

I mentioned back in January that NYPL has said they were putting all of their handouts for their tech classes online. It took a while for them to get that sorted, but they’re online now and worth checking out. There is rarely any good reason to reinvent the wheel in tech instruction. While computers and the internet have changed a great deal, many old favorites like Mousercise still deliver. There are a lot of things people point to for good tutorials and lessons, but very few that have good information in a clear and easy to understand way. For anyone who is looking to actually spend money on tutorials, Lynda.com is the definite go-to. Otherwise the short list of worth-a-damn sites continues to be short.

If you’re on facebook there is a good group there that is low traffic where people regularly swap ideas for this sort of thing (or answer questions) called Technology Training and Libraries

more librarian at the library escapades

My boyfriend and I wanted to go to a museum this weekend so we called his local library to see what museum passes they had available. The woman on the phone told us to check the website. We did. The library uses Library Insight which I’ve used before and like decently. There were passes for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum available for Sunday. We tried to reserve them via the website’s system and kept getting an error message saying that my boyfriend’s password was wrong. I glared at him saying “You don’t have any overdue fines, do you?” He said no. We called the library and it turns out that you need to have your card “set up” by them to get museum passes via the web site. They set up his card and reserved the passes for us over the phone.

Now, getting Sunday passes involves picking them up at the library on Saturday. We headed over to the library to get the passes. When we got there, the librarian said that someone else had reserved the passes and sorry but that was how it went sometimes. We asked if she was sure that it wasn’t us who had reserved them [she had scanned my boyfriend's card and showed no passes reserved and the passes we wanted weren't available according to her computer] and she said she was. She was sure. I put on my politest voice possible and said that we had called and done this whole routine twenty minutes ago and how unlikely it was that someone else had reserved the passes and would she please check that the passes that she showed as reserved were not, in fact, reserved for us? I probably do not need to tell you how this story ends. The museum was delightful, marred only slightly by the fact that bad software, wonky library policies and erratic customer service nearly stood in the way of us getting them at all.

This is just a big lead up to tell you that Brian Herzog has written a nice post with Rich Boulet reviewing calendaring and room reservations software and you should go take a look at it. Maybe there’s a better alternative to the software that you use?

ways to help new computer users

“Once upon a time, young people helped senior citizens across the street. While this is still a good idea, it’s just as important to help them setup their Facebook page.”

This short article makes a few points very well. Many novice tech users are experts in other things and get easily frustrated feeling like they’re back at square one. That sort of thing needs to be considered when you’re figuring out the best way to approach teaching topics. Additionally, find ways for people to succeed, whatever their level of skill is. This can be a challenge for people who are really brand new, but just having simple taks like mouse proficency and “send an email to me. Oh look there it is” can give peopel the confidence they need to explore on their own. [thanks barbara]

some interesting reading/commenting from MeFi

I had been holding off on linking to the Web Tech Guy and Angry Staff Person video/blog post because I have mixed feelings about the idea generally even though I know it was a big hit when they showed it off at the conference. Then it hit MetaFilter and I found the discussion there helped me not only flesh out my own feelings about it but gave me a look into how other professionals from different perspectives saw it. Most notably, I was interested in this comment by Larry Cebula who works for Washington State and runs an award-winning northwest history blog.

I work for the Washington State Digital Archives. We have something like 80 million documents, mostly from Washington State counties, online and add millions more per month. After years of resistance the counties are really hopping aboard and have become great fans of our service.

But still we get these complaints and worries. It is even worse with archives than museums because so many county and local archives count on revenues for access to fund their offices. We are about to put up thousands of cases from county courts, some dating back to the late 1800s. But the county insists that we display only the top half of the first page of each record–and charge 25 cents a page for users to even view the records beyond that first half page! It is anti-democratic and eliminates many of the potential advantages of digital history, but there you have it.

Slightly related librarian topic over at AskMetaFilter, a question about questions: What questions do library users most often ask?

brokenness and compassion

I’m a bit of a scab-picker as far as technology goes. I’m more interested in how stuff breaks than how it works when it all goes well. This is why I do more troubleshooting than tech creation. I’m good at it and I enjoy the problem-solving angles of it. As a technology instructor in a rural location, I sometimes feel like I’m dealing more with broken stuff than stuff that works. Given this, having an approach to brokenness that isn’t just “Oh, that’s not supposed to happen…” is key to helping people feel comfortable with technology. Leigh Anne Vrabel who runs the Library Alchemy blog has a concise post that summarizes a way to move forward inhabiting this sort of world.

Technology has to be supported by brotherhood, sisterhood, understanding and compassion.

And if I can paraphrase, I’d have to say “We’re all in this together and we haven’t all learned until everyone is leaning.” I’ve definitely been guilty of throwing up my hands trying to teach someone something because they had so much emotion wrapped up in why the computer “didn’t like them” that they couldn’t follow steps to do the actions they theoretically wanted to do.

Just like people who choose to live in the frozen north up here do so “for a reason” I think that most people who don’t know how to use a computer in 2009 — similar to people who don’t drive, who don’t have a telephone or who don’t have electricity — don’t know for a reason. For some people that’s an active reason, they’re not interested, they don’t see a need for it, they’re already busy enough, but for some people it’s a passive reason, they’re resistant to change, they’re easily frustrated, they have a disability that makes technology difficult and no one to help them with adaptive tech, they’re poor. As a technology instructor, part of my job is making technology a genuine option for people who have a need for it, not to sell it to people who don’t want to buy it. At the same time I explain what technology actually IS, apart from the television commercials and relentless boosterism about the promise of the Internet. That’s my interpretation of “technology with heart” [ttw]

How long do you forgive bad tech? What do you do next?

I’m aware that accessing someone’s conference planner is not the same level of hackery as stealing their credit cards or breaking into their email account. However, I would just like to say that having an event planner where the password is not only the same for every user (until it’s changed) but also printed right there on the web page, turns the whole idea of having a password or any sort of security into a big joke. How do we teach librarians what good technology looks like if this is how we make them interact with us? For the record, using just the ALA Staff list, I was able to log in to someone else’s event planner in under a minute. The vendors get their password in an email, not much better.

I went to this page from Nicole’s post (I’m not going to the conference) just to see if it was really true that the page claims it is “best viewed in IE” which is yet another “tech don’t” in the world of 2008 browsers so much so that it calls into question all the rest of the site.

I don’t belong to ALA anymore. I did my time, paid my dues, donated a lot of service time to the organization and tried to be gentle and patient as they steered a big organization through the minefield of technological change. The Event Planner has been an outsourced, broken and insecure tool since they started using it. I’d like to see ALA do better, but my optimism that this will happen is flagging.

Sustaining 2.0 services in libraries

Sarah Houghton-Jan has written a great presentation that she gave as the keynote to the Arizona Library Association’s annual conference. It’s just a few MB pdf and you can get a lot of her points just by reading through it. It’s full of humor and good ideas. Go read: Sustainable Technology in a 2.0 World

ruminating about privacy

I was emailing with a friend this week and he was saying how it seems strange that librarans are so aggressive in their defense of privacy while at the same time the population seems to be more and more shifting towards openness and “hey here’s my list of books” behavior outside of their library. I always draw the line between what people reveal about themselves versus what their institutions reveal, or must legally disclose, about them.

I also often feel that one of the reasons we’re in this strange place is because many privacy issues are ones that technology could be solving for us. Yet, at the same time the technology we’re working with doesn’t allow us the granularity of making, for example, patron reading information available in the aggregate while still keeping the patron’s identity completely private. We have many patrons

Patron 1 wants to make sure no one ever knows what they are reading. Tells the OPAC to not keep his reading list. Knows his PIN. Wants to make sure the public access PCs don’t retain records of the sites he’s visited. Is a bit horrified that the library data we do keep isn’t in some way encrypted or otherwise protected.
Patron 2 wants to know every book she has ever checked out. Wants the library to leave the name of the book she has on hold on her answering machine. Wants her friend to be able to pick the book up for her at the library. Doesn’t remember her PIN and finds it vaguely annoying that she needs more than her library card number to use the OPAC.

A privacy solution that works for Patron 1 becomes a usability impediment to Patron 2. While libraries have the responsibility to keep both patrons’ data safe, they also have the responsibility to be usable and accomodating to both patrons. Technology, in my opinion, can address these issues but librarians have to a) embrace it b) request it from their vendors c) be willing to tolerate the learning curve that comes with any new technology.

I’m off to the tiny library today to help them with their slow automation project. In the meantime, these are the articles I have been reading about privacy lately. They’re about the information the mailman has, not the librarian, but it could apply to any of us at our job as well. The blog post is about an NPR story following a mail carrier on her route. She talks about what she knows about the world and the economy based on what people are getting delivered. She is supposed to keep people’s mail private, and she never mentions any names. Yet, there’s a lot of metadata in mail delivery, things the mailman knows. The blog’s author wonders how simple it would be to identify the people getting mail delivered from the information the mail carrier imparts. Feel free to read the rest.

world usability day is tomorrow

If you’re into the whole usability idea — and more and more our interfaces to technology are all we have when interacting wiht the goods, services and government in our lives — then you might like to know that World Usability Day is tomorrow. I’ll noodle around a bit looking at my own websites and I suggest that you and your libraries do the same.

Technology should enhance our lives, not add to our stress or cause danger through poor design or poor quality. It is our duty to ensure that this technology is effective, efficient, satisfying and reliable, and that it is usable by all people. This is particularly important for people with disabilities, because technology can enhance their lives, letting them fully participate in work, social and civic experiences. Human error is a misnomer. Technology should be developed knowing that human beings have certain limitations. Human error will occur if technology is not both easy-to-use and easy-to-understand. We need to reduce human error that results from bad design.