libraries as "tech support of the last resort"

Shirl Kennedy sdk at
Mon Dec 1 22:42:03 EST 1997

"Something funny happened on the road to the digital library of the future,
though. Far from becoming keepers of the keys to the Grand Database of
Universal Knowledge, today's librarians are increasingly finding themselves
in an unexpected, overloaded role: They have become the general public's
last-resort providers of tech support."

from:  "Are We Ready for the Library of the Future?" asks an article in the
current Salon.

Certainly caught my attention...  When I started doing Internet training in
libraries back in 1994, staff members were already complaining about this.
Typical scenario:  The patron calling the reference desk ostensibly for help
dialing into the OPAC actually was trolling for someone to assist him/her in
installing telcomm software and configuring his/her modem.

I've pretty much been away from public libraries for a couple years now,
other than as a patron.  But I could have predicted this "trend."  As
"official" vendor tech support has dried up or become accessible only to
those willing to wait on long-distance hold and/or pull a credit card out of
a wallet, the average computer user is desperate for help.  And, let's face
it, those buying their first computer and/or venturing onto the Internet
these days tend not to be among the more technologically sophisticated.

I'm curious...  Those of you who work in public libraries...  Give this
article a quick read and share your thoughts.  Is this a problem at your own
institution?  In public libraries where I've worked, it was always much
easier to get money to buy "things" (e.g., computers, CD-ROM towers, etc.)
than to hire sufficient staff to support this stuff...and help the patrons
who ventured in to use it.

Meanwhile, I've been witnessing an analogous situation in the local public
schools.  Typically, the school media center is the technology hub.  The
library media specialist is often the most technologically savvy person in
the building.  In addition to his or her usual library duties -- collection
development, technical processing, bibliographic instruction, story hours,
etc. -- the media specialist may often be performing the work of half a
dozen other people.  At the elementary school my youngest son attends, the
media specialist maintains and repairs audio-visual equipment (including
esoteric stuff like laser disk systems and video piped into classrooms),
administers the local area network, trains other staff members in
technology, runs around the school servicing recalcitrant computers AND
heads up the school's mock TV network.  The woman is truly amazing and,
whatever she's paid, it's not enough.  Imagine what this diverse skill set
would be worth in private industry.

And so the Clinton administration has decided that wiring schools and
libraries is a top priority, and Mr. and Mrs. Gates are coughing up Big
Bucks to help get the job done.  I just wonder who is gonna take care of all
this spaghetti and silicon, and who is going to help the dazed and confused
public take advantage of it.

Shirl Kennedy (cranky after a bad day with a dead car battery)
Internet Waves columnist
Information Today

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