How to Help Someone Use a Computer by Phil Agre

image of two women looking at soimething in front of on older mainframe. Black and white image

 

Note: This list, written in 1996 by Phil Agre is the best advice I can give people who are helping novice users with computer issues. Phil Agre was a visionary technologist and this list was up on his website forever but has been up and down lately so I am reprinting it.

Computer people are generally fine human beings, but nonetheless they do a lot of inadvertent harm in the ways they “help” other people with their computer problems. Now that we’re trying to get everyone on the net, I thought it might be helpful to write down everything I’ve been taught about helping people use computers.

First you have to tell yourself some things:

  • Nobody is born knowing this stuff.
  • You’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a beginner.
  • If it’s not obvious to them, it’s not obvious.
  • A computer is a means to an end. The person you’re helping probably cares mostly about the end. This is reasonable.
  • Their knowledge of the computer is grounded in what they can do and see — “when I do this, it does that”. They need to develop a deeper understanding, of course, but this can only happen slowly, and not through abstract theory but through the real, concrete situations they encounter in their work.
  • By the time they ask you for help, they’ve probably tried several different things. As a result, their computer might be in a strange state. This is natural.
  • The best way to learn is through apprenticeship — that is, by doing some real task together with someone who has skills that you don’t have.
  • Your primary goal is not to solve their problem. Your primary goal is to help them become one notch more capable of solving their problem on their own. So it’s okay if they take notes.
  • Most user interfaces are terrible. When people make mistakes it’s usually the fault of the interface. You’ve forgotten how many ways you’ve learned to adapt to bad interfaces. You’ve forgotten how many things you once assumed that the interface would be able to do for you.
  • Knowledge lives in communities, not individuals. A computer user who’s not part of a community of computer users is going to have a harder time of it than one who is.

Continue reading “How to Help Someone Use a Computer by Phil Agre”

Ask A Librarian: How can I get my product or book viewed by librarians?

Image of a glass statue of a woman who appears to be reading a book in front of a bunch of illuminated glass books

This is a question from the FAQ but I’m updating it and fleshing it out. Even as blogs are not the main place where people go for information, I still get pitches from people who find me when Googling “librarian” or some other impersonal way. I know it’s hard to promote a book or software, especially in today’s days of information overload. At the same time, barring you becoming some sort of viral sensation, libraries learn about books in a lot of the usual, normal ways.

The short answer to this question is “Go to library conferences. Have a decent, short pitch. Be familiar with their issues and concerns. Don’t be the typical salesperson.” Continue reading “Ask A Librarian: How can I get my product or book viewed by librarians?”

2018 in Libraries

tree in the Warren Library kids' room

I continue to visit libraries every chance I get. This year I worked in my local library so my visit count is way up, I also gave my privacy talk at six Vermont libraries which was more visits. The rest were working on my VT 183 project or just curiosity. The pie chart isn’t that interesting, but you can see it here. I decided to just include a photo of one of the great libraries I visited in Warren Vermont.

This year I went to 45 libraries in six states and one Canadian province. One hundred and three visits total. Previous years: 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009 and some reviews from 2003. Continue reading “2018 in Libraries”

Ask A Librarian: Librarian Resistance tips?

sign that says PRAXIS in big letters on the side of a building

From the Mailbag, a UVM grad: I’ve always had a deep love for libraries, reading, and learning. In college, that love coalesced into a passion for leftist politics and I hope to direct this love into constructively making a difference in the world. I’ve been researching and working on applying to graduate school to get a Master’s in Library Science. In conversation with one of my favorite professors… she recommended I look you up. Your work as part of the “librarian resistance” as you call it is super inspiring to me as a firm believer in libraries as having massive potential for advancing social justice as far as they spread free access to knowledge and technology to the community they exist in. I’m wondering if you have any advice for an aspiring librarian?
 

Hey there — always good to hear from another library-interested person in Vermont. I should note before I go much further that I have a lot of interesting jobs but do not currently work in a library, so I may not be the best person to talk to about actual library work. I do have a lot of advice though. Continue reading “Ask A Librarian: Librarian Resistance tips?”