technostress and jerks in the library

I have two things to talk about that seem unrelated until I explain more. I wrote a chapter in the book everyone’s been writing about: Information Tomorrow. There are a ton of excellent chapters in it, and I am also pleased with mine It is about Technostress. My general thesis is that technology stresses us out when we get stuck in between other people’s expectations of what we need to do with technology and what we are actually able to do with it, for whatever reason. This covers a wide range of problems including

  • Reference staff being seated nearest to the public access computers and being continually asked for help despite not haivng enough free time to actually help patrons.
  • Staff being expected to offer training to patrons without getting trained themselves
  • Designers and IT people being expected to build 2.0 tools without any clear sense of WHY they’re building them.
  • Managers getting snippy with staff for explaining technology in a way that is over their head, and both people being unclear whose responsibility it is to clear up the lack of knowledge.
  • Vendors rolling out new features without fixing core functionality issues in their software
  • Updates, from anyone, that break things.
  • Everyone needing to recognize that in order to improve a lot of the technology we deal with, we may have to admit that some of it is lacking.

In any case, it’s a decent chapter. I think for many of us at home with our computers, we don’t get as stressed out as when we’re at work because we’re using it for whatever it is we want to do. We have the time we need and most of us are savvy enough to track down the resources when we hit a wall. However when someone is breathing down our neck to tell us to get Office 2007 on the public access machines and then deal with the patron issues with it and all the while doing the same things we’ve been doing every other week, you can see how it might make us stressed, even jerkish.

Which brings me to my next point, Ryan Deschamps’ post Jerk: The Current Library Brand. It can be hard not to take out technostress and other stresses on patrons, especially trying, complaining, angry or jerkish patrons. Over time as I’ve been reading the library_mofo group at LiveJournal I’ve been surprised just how many of these encounters are the result of the library worker trying to enforce a somewhat confusing or counterintuitive policy and the patron reacting with confusion or doing something “wrong” as a result. Granted, some people in the library are just being jerks, but with 20/20 hindsight a lot of these bad patron/librarian interactions seem like the result of odd, misguided, confusing or outdated policies. The library workers have to try to enforce these policies or get into trouble themselves, and yet when viewed from the outside at least some of these personal interaction disasters seem avoidable.

We get more positive accolades from our jobs if we uphold policies and protect materials (and our bottom line) than we do if we do all the warm fuzzy stuff that always makes the local papers. Being a patron asking the librarian to bend the rules is likely to result in you being branded a mofo, even if the rule is stupid. I enjoy reading the blogs of librarians who show the human side of the difficult work that is librarianship and public service. When I did my lifeguard training a few months ago, I was surprised that one of the things we learned, that was on the test even, was how to convey the rules to people in a way that actually tried to ensure that they hear and understand you. This included limited use of the whistle, a friendly and approachable tone, and keeping a level head when there was a crisis. While I think some of us excel at these sorts of things at our jobs, it seems rare that solving these sorts of patron-librarian (or patron-librarian-technology) problems in a way that keeps everyone’s dignity intact is the desired outcome. To my mind, if you can’t both do your job and not be a jerk you may be in the wrong line of work or working with the wrong ruleset.

6 thoughts on “technostress and jerks in the library

  1. A guy came in the day before yesterday to pick up his book on hold. Was looking for another book and asked me to put it on hold for him. I did, but he expected to come back and get it in about 45 minutes. There are some people have even forgot these principles:
    1. get familiar with the catalogue.
    2. get familiar with the reference librarian.
    3. pull the book from the shelf.
    4. take it to the circulation clerk.
    5. have your library card when you come to the library. present it to the library clerk.
    6. keep track of what is checked out on your account and its due dates.

    This organization is disappearing. what will remain is chaotic.

    It saddens me that it is not encouraged to enforce these principles. Patrons and admin want us to do any warm fuzzy instant gratification that is possible. Grown folks are getting irresponsible and jerkish like immature children holding their hands out whining for more candy.

    Library 2.0 sounds like a fast food joint to me. And those who are not administration are expected to get shitted on. When I was at my interview the assistant library director described a “regular ebb and flow” that was people getting hired and people resigning from our department. What the. . . ?

  2. This probably sounds familiar to most folks:

    I’m one of two youngish librarians at a public library. Our release time (time away from the reference desk) is frequently interrupted by older coworkers who request help troubleshooting minor tech problems posed by patrons (or simply equipment) in our computer lab. When we arrive at the lab to help, they usually go back to the ref desk rather than watch us resolve the particular problem.

    It makes sense that they be available for the phones or other patrons–why have two librarians standing around in one spot? And obviously, we’re glad to put our knowledge to work and be seen as useful coworkers.

    But from a training view, it would be nice if they observed the problem-solving we use, since the problems are usually common ones. We lose as much time that is assigned for our other projects and responsibilities (e.g. collection development, program planning).

    I’m sure every library would function more smoothly with regular, practical tech training: more even distribution of skills and confidence among staff, a better balance of staff time, and (hopefully) happier patrons.

  3. John,

    I would say that many para-professional staff have the same technology competencies as the local patrons. They won’t get it just by watching you do it. I’ve seen some try. They write it down, but it is just too tricky on the first try. More of my staff can do this over time from training and then a practical application. For on the spot (and weird) troubleshooting, this isn’t always effective.

    In regards to rules and jerks:

    Once upon a time there was a library full of books. Those who ran the library said, “Take what you want, bring it back when you are finished.” Then they realized, a larger amount of books were not being returned, so they created punishments for those who did not return the books. Then for those who didn’t return them on time. Then rules for those who figured out away around that system. On and on rules were created that punished their users because a certain small percentage (1%) repeatedly found ways to break the rules and/or cripple an aspect of library operations. Instead of relying on patron goodwill, it was crushed by a few. Thus you have the modern day library with rules of control and those enforcers dedicated to the fact that they won’t allow patrons to screw over their library. (They forgot the reason why though, something about fairness or rules.)

  4. Sometimes I simply have to commisserate with the patrons on how things are set up at the library. Due to certain requirements (statistics on computer use, etc.), we sometimes put extra hurdles in their way to using our computers. This applies to non-technology items, too, though (like the built-in location of the book drops since a renovation, based on the architect’s suggestion rather than the staff comments). That said, I’m with Jessamyn on how explaining why we do something or using the right tone sometimes makes a world of difference in the patron interaction. (“Yes, isn’t that computer sign-in annoying? We have to give an annual report to the state that includes how many people use our computers and that’s the only way we can do it without our staff going insane.” People seem to understand that. Or, “We had the brilliant idea to put the item return drops outside on this level so people could return things on their way in! Unfortunately, we then realized that only works if they know about it in advance. Here, may I show you where they are for next time?” usually goes over better than “You have to return those in the drops outside.”)

    As to para-professionals (or professionals, as I thought the original commenter meant) following your troubleshooting, I think that depends more on the person than on their salary level. I can pick out people from every level who could probably watch me go through some troubleshooting a time or two and pick up the basics… and some from every level where I will have to type out the steps for them for any new procedure. I seldom find that a Masters degree makes anyone suddenly technologically savvy.

  5. I am looking forward to your chapter, Jessamyn! One thing that is increasing my technostress is the apparent budget-cutting mechanisms at several state agencies. They eliminate jobs which help people who are on public aid to apply for jobs. They are requiring evidence that people have applied online for 5 or more jobs for a continuation of benefits. And then they say–your librarian will help you do it. That results in a person showing up at my desk who has never touched a computer, does not have an e-mail account (needed for online job application), and who does not have an online version of a resume. That person has a maximum of one hour on our computers if all are full to accomplish that goal–and that person may have never used a typewriter much either (they are an unemployed machinist). This is a person who needs at least two hours of one-on-one handholding that their caseworker has assured them the person sitting in my seat will provide, so that they can hand in the applications tomorrow so that their checks will not be stopped. Oh, and by the way–the HR site they have been directed to uses nonstandard ports.

  6. This issue of library staff being expected to train people & not recieving training themselves might also be extended to all other aspects of library work.

    Badly designed OPACs makes for staff being expected to do more book searches than needed.

    Badly thought out library design makes for staff having to for ever rushing from one end of the building to another desk, set of shelves, computers, etc, etc.

    I can cope with all of these issues, but library managers who sit all day in their offices which are well away from these work stresses creates another set of unsolveable problems which really piss me off.

    Working within a library which has a very high multilingual population means that I get to be expected to help people out with computer use, while what they really need is someone to can expain technical terms in very simple terms to people who have a very basic understanding of the language.

    It is not just how to use the computers which I seem to be asked to help out with, but how to complete online forms too.

    In my own library we now have a wireless internet connection, which is great for those who use laptops. The only problem is that staff keep being asked to help with any connection problems which library users might encounter.

    My problem & that of most of my co library workers is that given our low pay we just can’t afford to buy laptops for ourselves. Thus we have yet another library service for which no staff training has been given, & about which library managers have given no thoughts up our need for some staff training.

    It’s not just one issue which needs to be focused upon here, but a number complex related issues.

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