libraries as "tech support of the last resort"

Mike McGuire mike at
Mon Dec 1 23:21:13 EST 1997

On Mon, 1 Dec 1997, Shirl Kennedy wrote:

> 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.

Oh, and recommending modems as well as anything else trying to deal with
getting a computer to work.

> 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.

And it's even worse for those who buy used computers or get on handed down
from a friend or familiy member. We're faced with this because we are a
public library *and* we run the Traverse Community Network.

> 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.

We're in the midst of constructing a new library more than 3 times the
size of our existing one. Included in that new building is a 'Public
Computing Center' with 20 terminals (we have one public terminal now) and
it will be staffed every hour we're open. You're right, though, things are
easier to get than people. Stuff is cheaper and disposable. People are
expensive and long-term commitments.

> 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.

Odd you should mention this. Last week I attended a two-day seminar on
network administration. Most there were from schools. The
administrators' qualifications included being associated with the media
center, they took Fortran in college, the actually had used a computer
with a modem ... in other words, the schools took existing staff and is
trying to turn them into district computer experts. In our local school
district, they've still got year-old computers in boxes, networks not
completed, and little to no training of staff. 

Stuff is cheaper.

Mike McGuire
Library Director
Community Network Administrator

(and, yes, I took Fortran in college)

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