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.

Another change-related post, go where the things are broken

Meredith has some good things to say about dealing with change averse organizations. I particularly like reading what she has to say because 1) I work with many people who are culturally similar in terms of technology, so I learn from her and sympathize with her trials at her job, and also 2) I think sometimes analyzing what isn’t working is a better way to learn than just to celebrate what works and keep doing it.

I believe I’ve said this before, but one of the hardest things for me about working in the library/non-profit world is that when you work directly with patrons/clients, there’s often a teach-the-teacher aspect, either overtly or not. So, while I love working with librarians and patrons directly and helping them learn, there is often an organizational expectation that whatever I do can be transmuted into some sort of learning module or training program that can then be given to other librarians or educators who can take it and run with it like I run with it. In my two year outreach librarian contract as well as my first year of AmeriCorps, this was a stated expectation.

And yet, some of the things that make me effective can’t be put into an outline or taught in a class and I struggle with this frequently, as I’m sure Meredith does. I’m very good at my job in no small part because I’m ME. I’m enthusiastic and my enthusiasm is infectious. I’m supportive and even if I find that I can’t do something, my approach is “Well, let’s learn it together.” I have the patience of a saint and can tell when people come to drop in time mainly because they just want someone to talk to. I believe in what I do and I’m confident in my abilities and my approach, enough so that I’ll happily debate them with people, to a point. I can give someone else the slides for my basic email class, and they can watch me teach it, but they can’t be me teaching it and this is where things break down.

I’m in Brooklyn working on an article about technostress. It’s a little weird to walk out the door and see people who look and talk like me, hundreds of them. Where I live, this is not the case. However, where I live, there’s a need for people like me to help people not like me do things with computers, and libraries. People like me tend not to go to places like Central Vermont, or if they do, they don’t stay. This is one of the reasons why I am there, but it is also one of the reasons that it’s hard for me, and sometimes lonely, and frequently frustrating. I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think large-scale change — bringing a computer into your life or your library — isn’t going to be frustrating or difficult. I think the part we also need to remember is that it can be worth it, and then we need to learn to explain why.