Ask a Librarian: Older person wanting to learn about tech

screenshot of the Yahoo Internet Life web site from 2002

Subtitled: What’s the Yahoo! Internet Life for this generation?

From a friend: A nice older lady asked for advice on keeping up with technology and the kids. Are there any resources you’d recommend that I can in turn recommend to her? Web pages, books, etc?

That’s super challenging because some of it depends on what level she is at already.

  • Online or offline information?
  • Is she in an existing community?
  • What’s her level of understanding? (for some people you have to overcome some pretty serious “I am an idiot” intertia, for others, not so much)

If she just wants to learn about her own technology I often suggest dummies guides or a few “for seniors” books that her library might have. GFC Learn Free has some great online tutorials as does Lynda.com (now owned by LinkedIn, UGH but that’s just a you+me complaint I think, most people don’t care). Also, of course, check out if there are classes at the local library.

If she’s just curious “What’s new in tech this week” she could do worse than AARP. I thought they had a “what’s new in tech” podcast and I guess they don’t? They do have this landing page which would be good, some older people don’t like AARP (can’t blame them, some of their stuff is annoying) but if she’s already in that zone, it’s a good one.

One group that does an good job for a specific niche is AAA for road/travel stuff. Their magazine is nice and readable but will also talk about apps and tools for traveling and I’ve always appreciate that. Same thing with Kiplingers for money stuff. I don’t know why I assume older people want “magazines” but that is what my mom liked. Yahoo used to have a great magazine that would highlight new tech trends and I think we all miss it. Wired is really not it and I don’t think there’s another one that does what the Yahoo mag did.

Podcasts are places a lot of people get information (I’ve never really made the jump) but they have some trusted brands. I think the big deal is convincing people that it’s just like listening to the radio which it can be but there are some hurdles first.
This NPR podcast covers “the kids” though it’s more geared towards parenting. NPR also has this one but I am more shruggo on it.
If she’s already using some news platform (Reddit, Google, I know I know) showing her how to get the “tech” section of those can be useful. Like Google News has a technology section and I find it good for skimming what’s going on lately. Reddit’s ELI5 is great for basic explanations of stuff as is Simple Wikipedia (Wikipedia written for about a third grader but you don’t have to tell her)
Hope this is helpful. I suspect there is probably a better place to go (I’ll ask people at drop-in time) but it’s so far outside of my wheelhouse I don’t know about it anymore. Cheers and happy autumn

Ask A Librarian: Practical advice for my parent’s computer?

an image showing me interacting with my mom over Skypeliveporn

From a friend’s email: My parent has become increasingly befuddled by things in older age, especially computers. I think the main problem is that everything offers way too much functionality, and they find it overwhelming and confusing. They are definitely confused by things updating and changing layouts and such. But they are also confused by long-standing things like tabs and new windows – when I went to help sort their laptop recently I found 78 Safari windows active, all opened to the same Yahoo Mail account. They had no idea. Are there any tools that you know of (hopefully for Mac) that maybe “simplify” things somehow? Or maybe an entirely different OS?

I feel like the Mac is usually the best option for older people if they want to use a computer and not a tablet. Tablets do solve some of these issues, but cause other ones. At the same time, I agree, I see my landlady’s computer like this all the time. And part of it is… maybe it’s okay to have it be weird?

One of the things I’ve been trying to get my landlady to do is turn the computer off every night. And then I set up her browser to not open all the old tabs (one of the culprits) and just open to her email. So when she opens it that day, there’s only so messed up it can get before she turns it off again and then… new start. And I think part of it all is that some people are just more… derailed by things. And so some of it is just “Well things change a lot, you do not have to like it (I sure don’t) but lets’ figure out how to get you to your email….” that sort of thing. Sometimes you have to let yourself be comfortable with someone else’s discomfort and just step them through how to get where they want to be.

Some people have found it easier to just get their email delivered via Mac’s Mail program. I think it creates more problems than it solves, honestly but it’s an option. But yeah, I have some people who
have been coming to drop-in time for over a decade and no matter what new tech they get they always sort of…. fail to learn how it works and then bitch or whine that it’s hard. Which, hey, those feelings are real and I can sympathize with them. But also realize that for whatever reason, absent any mental health issues, this is the way they are choosing to interact with it. There are some great “Missing manual” books for the Mac that can help explain things. But this is only good for people who are okay deputizing themselves to learn this stuff. The line I use a lot lately is: there are some people who demand lists when we try to give them flow charts. And you can’t learn to effectively operate a computer with a list, not anymore.

It might be helpful to hook them up with a local person who could swing by once a month and make sure stuff was basically working. I don’t know if you do this job but I feel like this is a great niche type job. One hour tune-ups. Don’t cost a lot but just swoop in, do software updates, make sure nothing is out of control, Flash is working nothing sketchy is going on, swoop out. If there’s a local senior center and/or library and they use a laptop, that can be a good place to send them. Otherwise, setting up Skype or Facetime to do desktop sharing and you can swoop in yourself to help with some of this. It’s always hardest with parent/kids. I always thought a good idea would be for people to ‘trade parents” with each other and like, I would have your parent with stuff and you could help my mom (RIP) with her stuff.

reading about typing – technology books

One of the suggestions I frequently make in my library talks is that one of the things that libraries can do to help patrons deal with technology is have many current books about technology for check out, and to bring these books to computer classes so people can take them home when the ideas are fresh in their minds. The whole Web 2.0-as-meme idea came from Tim O’Reilly who was looking for a way to brand a new conference about how the web was changing. I explain this to people and then I say “You probably know Tim O’Reilly, he publishes the best series of tech manuals out there, the ones with the animals on the cover…” and I’m always amazed that most of the librarians I speak to don’t actually know about them.

This isn’t totally surprising, the books cater towards a techie market, they’re expensive and many of the people who would need or want them are buying them themselves. I had them as textbooks in several library school classes. But it’s also interesting to look a little in to what the deal is with technology books and the publishing industry generally. Tim O’Reilly talks about how Amazon sees themselves (according to tax filings) as competing with not just bookstores but publishers. He has a really good follow-up in the comments section.

Let me give you an example of how today’s much more consolidated marketplace makes it harder to place publishing bets. Borders and B&N have largely thrown in the towel on many high end books, saying “Amazon’s going to get that business anyway.” So they’ve shrunk their computer book sections, and are taking zero copies of important books, even from important publishers like us. We recently told them of our plans for a Hadoop book for instance, and both B&N and Borders said they won’t carry it. That leaves us with Amazon. Amazon will pre-order only a couple of hundred copies.

I’ve had to fight with my publishing team to get this book approved, since they’re worried that they won’t make back the investment it will take to bring it to market. It’s a lot easier to be sure of making money on a book like Mac OS X: The Missing Manual, to which the chains will commit an advance order of thousands of copies. Now that’s also good publishing, but you can see how the opportunities are shrinking.

Meanwhile, Amazon is increasingly throwing their weight around. Conversations with the buyers start to sound like this: “Are you really telling me that our books won’t show up in searches unless we agree to contribute to your new merchandising program?” [emphasis mine]

I don’t doubt that in the long run, there will be new long-tail economic models that support investment in specialized forms of content that don’t have the volume to be supported by advertising, but we’re heading for a really tricky period where the old models will be dead before the new ones have arrived.

How do libraries fit into this model? We’re frequently told that we’ve got crazy buying power in the aggregate but what happens when we’re not even given the option to see these books brought to market? O’Reilly also has some interesting commentary on ebooks and their profitability that’s worth a looksee. [rc3]

On Donated Technology

This week at work I went back to one of the teeny libraries to help them get their three donated computers running. There is a local insurance company that upgraded and gave the library their old computers. For a library that has two computers total, including the one the librarian uses for all her work, this is a boon. Sort of.

I plugged in the computers and turned them on and was greeted with a Win2K registration screen of the “enter your product key” variety. I asked the librarian if the computers came with software and she said “just what’s on them.” You may have read about this part in last week’s post. I asked the librarian to call her friend and see about the product codes and we’d try again. I work at this library about 90-120 minutes a week. This week I showed up and the librarian said that her friend has said the product key was on the side on a sticker. “Doh!” Sure enough, there were 25 characters and I dutifully typed them in. No go. Turns out the sticker on the side of the machine is a Win98 product code and somehow, mysteriously, these computers have Win2k Pro installed on them. No one knows how. I ran down the options with the librarian. 1) Buy an XP license or three from Tech Soup. 2) Hassle her friend to figure out wtf is up with the software on these computers. 3) Wipe the drives and install Ubuntu.

I’m pushing for #3 and the librarian just doesn’t want to do #2. My friend on IM is pushing for a fourth option, a Linux thin client solution where all the machines run off a central server. It’s an appealing idea but I’m not sure if I can even explain it in a way that makes it sound like less of a risk than a life rich with Windows nonsense. So, we start with #3 and figure we have #1 as a backup. I start downloading Ubuntu and it’s going to take two hours, minimum. My class starts in four hours and it’s an hour away, so this project is going to take at least one more week to accomplish. While I’m futzing with the computers I notice that one of them doesn’t seem to be running the monitor correctly, or not at all. I do a bit of brief troubleshooting and determine that both monitors work but only one CPU seems to work to run the monitor. I look in the back of the computer and notice the vent fan is pointed sideways. I have no idea what to make of this. I do know that if we want to get rid of this computer in any sort of approved way it will cost us money.

Meanwhile we’ve bought 50′ of ethernet cable to wire up the computers in the basement (we’ll pay the electrician to drill the hole in the floor and run the cable), cadged a donated switch from a friend, bought three surge protectors and carried three computers and monitors down a narrow flight of stairs. I spend the last 30 minutes of my time there uninstalling IM clients — well not uninstalling them but setting them not to autorun on boot and not autologin when they start. The librarian was getting a bunch of messages for studman1234 when she started her day. She’s a practical gal, but everyone’s got their limits. I didn’t have time to run Windows Update or do any defragging.

I told this story to a local friend of mine who said “Geez, you can buy a new Dell for less than a thousand bucks, what a headache all of that is.” I had to explain to my friend that the library runs on a budget of less than 20K so a thousand dollar computer (and I think it’s more like $500 now) is not really in their universe for now. I’m sure there are well-meaning people who would love to help the library out, but it’s tough to find the time to sit down and compose thoughful and considered letters to them when you’re open 18 hours a week.

So, I don’t want this to be an entire “looking the gift horse in the mouth” post, but mostly I wanted to highlight that there is a range of costs associated with “free.” Most libraries I know don’t even want to take tech donations because they’re concerned that just this sort of thing will happen. On the other hand most of them are running Gates Foudation hardware from several years ago and they’re thinking about upgrades and considering their library’s future technological directions. Meanwhile I bought an old IBM X31 Thinkpad from ebay and I’ve been messing with it in the evenings to get it running the way I like it with an open source OS and software. It cost less than $300, but that’s only really a bargain if I don’t count the cost of my time. Since it’s a hobby project for me, I don’t, but when I’m on the clock it’s nice if things don’t take forever.