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.

a fable in five ims

my im friend (2:49): so i went to [Vermont public library] .. and was like.. you teach computer classes?
my im friend 2:49 : and theyre like YOU NEED TO COME BACK WHEN THE HEAD LIBRARIAN IS HERE
my im friend 2:49 : and im like no no.. i was just wondering if i could volunteer to help out with them
my im friend 2:49 : and theyre like WE HAVE SOMEONE <repeat DEFAULT LIBRARIAN IS HERE PHRASE>
my im friend 2:50 : so im like.. ooooookay .. and left

You can learn a lot about people by what they take away from this story.

…and about those techie librarians

As I was writing my post about losing your techie librarians last week, I did some thinking. My list was a little longer and I removed a few items that could have gone either way — that I saw as important as a techie librarian, but that I thought non-techies might say “See, that’s what’s wrong with those techie librarians….” Examples like “Make them submit all of their work to a non-techie committee that meets infrequently” can highlight this nuance. In my world, getting all of my techie decisions second guessed by non-techies can be frustrating and seemingly fruitless. To other staff, I’m sure that seeing me working away on a project that springs fully formed from my laptop is equally frustrating, possibly. I learned, at my last library job, how to ask for feedback on projects as I worked, to try to get people to feel like they were part of the process while at the same time not just saying “So, what do you guys think of the new website?” Getting responses on the new website design that indicated that I should change the colors, add more photographs or rework the layout when we were a few days away from launching it made me gnash my teeth thinking “But I’ve been working with you on this all along, for months…!” and yet their responses indicated that clearly I hadn’t been, not in a way that was genuine to them.

Or, maybe not. One of the hardest things about technology is trying to assess people’s relative skill levels when the information they give you about their own skill levels is all over the map. While we have long worked with best practices in many aspects of the library profession, many best practices in the technology realm either exist totally outside of most people’s consciousness, or the “tyranny of the expert” problem pops up where a library director assumes that because they are in charge, they can overrule best practices without a better follow-up option. The websites of our professional organizations and those sold to us by our ILS/OPAC vendors don’t help.

There is a blind spot in working with technology where people making the decisions have a tendency to assume that other technology users are like them. The ideas of usability, web standards, and accessibility as abstract concepts don’t matter as much as what’s for sale, what your tech team can build, and what your library director’s favorite color is. The patrons become a distant third consideration when techie and non-techie librarians battle for turf. Trying to bring up the patrons in a usability debate becomes a complicated mess because everyone knows one or two patrons that, as exceptions to the rules, complicate the approach and strategies employed by the bulk of the rest of the patrons. Especially in rural or poorer areas, users with very little access to technology understand it differently than people who have grown up with it, used it at work for decades, or who have a familiar working knowledge of it. Do you design a website for your digitally disadvantaged community (who pays your salary) or do you design the site that will help them understand it, and do you know the difference?

I’ve been enjoying teaching adult education tech classes more than I enjoyed being a techie in a non-techie library, but let’s be fair, the library probably runs more smoothly without me there also. No doubt, hiring and retention of skilled technology-savvy librarians is an important point and a good management concern. On the other hand, there is an oil and water aspect to the techie/librarian mix and the techie in a library can be seen as the new kid in a classroom where everyone else knows the rules and the local customs. The techie librarian often doesn’t look, work, or sometimes even talk like longer term tenured librarians. This we know. The same can be said for catalogers often, but since their jobs are understood and understood to be essential for the functioning of a library (and have been since day one) I find that their eccentricities and quirky non-patron-facing job function seem to be less problematic than some of the same oddballness of the techies.

Again, it’s just me saying blah blah blah about the work that I do and the things that I see but I know that as a techie, the longer I work outside of libraries but with librarians, the more I wonder how to fix this problem and the less I think I know how.

fifty ways to lose your techie librarians…

I am sorry I was busy with houseguests this weekend while a lot of these posts hit the blogosphere but I have to say I’ve found myself nodding in agreement to a lot of them. The topic is tech staff and the loosely phrased question was: how do I lose my tech staff at the library? Here are some answers

Ten Ways to Lose Your Techie Librarians from Michael Stephens
How to Lose your Tech People by Karen Schneider
Ten Ways to Lose Your Techie Librarians by Sarah Houghton
Fifty Ways to Lose Your Techies (actually six) by Dorothea Salo

I have a few more for my own personal list. Yes I used to be a semi-technical person in a non-technical library.

  • Make sure you never give them any sort of real ownership of tech projects; once everyone signs off, it’s as if everyone built it.
  • Involve them only tangentially in your technology plan as a “special guest” and not someone who should be driving the technology directions.
  • Criticize them for not training up everyone to wizard-level skills in the new item. Make sure that you blame any failure of staff to use and learn technology on the tech librarian directly.
  • Refuse to learn the new tools, not directly, but indirectly by simply ignoring them.
  • Let them build the technological tools inside the library but continue to make all the technology purchasing decisions elsewhere in the hierarchy without consulting them.
  • When they have a new web-based tool to roll-out make sure you test them on the computers in the basement that are running seven year old browsers and then make “tut tut” noises if the web content doesn’t look identical to how it looks upstairs. Ignore their explanations.
  • Call the Gates Foundation just to check if it’s okay if they install Firefox on the Gates computers.
  • Give them a workstation that is shared with other staff members in a room where they are frequently interrupted. Stare at their screen often and try to puzzle out what they are working on, or comment that it doesn’t look like work.
  • Don’t give frontline staff the password to do basic maintenance and troubleshooting of public computers and insist that they call the tech staff to reboot or log in to computers. If tech staff is on vacation or otherwise unavailable, hang an Out of Order sign on the computer and be surly when the tech staff returns. If the tech librarian wants to give the passwords out to more people, thwart them. If they want to train staff on maintenance of the computers, disallow it.
  • Disallow computerization of any forms or tallysheets (though you might want to straighten out your skewed and fuzzy photocopies of last decades ILL forms so they’ll stop trying)
  • Don’t let them buy any books. Don’t let them teach any classes. Don’t let the patrons get attached to them. Don’t let them give you the old “best practices” flimflam.

This is only sort of intended to be amusing.

can you help the LA State Library with technology equipment?

The State Library of Lousiana has increased its hours so that people can use its computers. They could use even more computers and printers. If you can donate, please help. You may remember that Rebecca Hamilton the Louisiana State Librarian has been at her job only a month or two, though she was Associate State Librarian for a few years previously.

“To all-we are in desperate need of computers/printers. We are being inundated with evacuees needing to file FEMA applications, unemployment, search for loved ones, etc. and are coming into our public libraries to use the computers. Our libraries have greatly extended their hours to accommodate the people but they need additional computers and printers. If you can please put the word out that if anyone wants to help immediately, this is our greatest need.”