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Diary of a Librarian: SupportAssist Is The Root Of All Evil

Technically, I’m a technology librarian. That means that I know kind of how to make the computers behave themselves under ideal circumstances. Under less-than-ideal circumstances, I can either call tech support and spend hours on the phone or gracefully give up and text our IT contractor. However, there’s a decent handful of problems that I can manage on my own.

In a strictly professional sense, SupportAssist is one of these. However, I am not emotionally qualified to handle this cringingly horrible piece of Dell bloatware. Every time it does a new weird thing, which is about once every other week, my heart falls.

Even when SupportAssist is working correctly, everything about it is annoying. For example, when it’s processing, it flashes three little waiting dots. One two three. Right? Dot 1 flashes and goes out, dot 2 flashes and goes out, dot 3 does the same, then repeat. Right? RIGHT?

WRONG.

SupportAssist’s first dot flashes correctly, but the second and third flash together. Simultaneously. Every. Single. Time. Even though it’s a stupid superficial thing that doesn’t matter at all, the obviousness of this bug galls the hell out of me. It looks so bad. Also, if your intuition tells you that someone who missed that glaring issue might have missed others, then give that intuition of your a big wet smack on the lips, because it’s a winner.

Problems with SupportAssist abound. I could schpiel on for days about the nonsense I’ve endured with this damnable program, from times I’ve tried to remove it (it reinstalled itself) to times I’ve tried to update it because it was being an enormous heckin’ vulnerability. (Incidentally, during that fascinating episode, SupportAssist actually refused to install. What a world!)

For the past several weeks, I’ve been trying to stop SupportAssist from forcing popup notifications on our patrons. These are just update requests, but they require an admin password, and patrons, skittish darlings that they are, aren’t equipped to deal. Anyway, making any change to these computers requires turning off our disk imager, DeepFreeze, before I make any changes. There are a couple of restarts involved. The process is a bit of a slog, but it’s worth it because DeepFreeze is a great piece of software that keeps everybody’s filthy data off our nice clean library machines.

So I’m not sorry that I’ve been unfreezing and freezing our DeepFreeze clients for the last month, trying to figure out how to make SupportAssist stop yelling at our patrons. That’s just part of the game. I’m also thrilled that our IT consultant figured out a lasting fix – yay! What maddens me is that today, when I tried to apply said fix, I discovered that the issue had begun because SupportAssist had either a. tried to update itself and installed a bad version; b. become universally corrupted on all computers and decided to watch the world burn instead of working; c. decided to ask the user before updating its own bad self while also not being capable of doing that because it was too broken; d. all of the above.

I’m going to go with d. Somehow, it’s d.

That meant that I had to reinstall SupportAssist on each machine just so that I could tell it to never notify the user about its need for updates, driver or otherwise, ever again. It took…a while. I spent a lot of time watching its little waiting dots.

On the bright side, it does seem to have worked. As a certain TV hero once said, I love it when a fix comes together, at least long enough for the program to un-toggle it and/or go wonky so that I have to go back in and start all over again.

Until next month, SupportAssist.

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Audiobook Apps And Why They Bring Me Joy

I’m in an enviable position right now. I have too many audiobooks on my phone.

I should back up and say that I have at least two audiobook apps on my phone at all times. Libby is my go-to and my sweet summer darling. I’ve got an eternal fountain of audiobook holds backlisted in OverDrive just so that my Libby cup never runneth dry. And so far, it has not.

Librivox is another one, but I have a tense relationship with the app. LibriVox is a free, nonprofit, public domain book recording and distribution website. I’m not sure if they also created the app. I’m guessing not. The app is free and works well, but it’s ad-supported. All right. OK. We do what we must to keep the lights on, and after all, the books are free.

The ads are for e-cigs.

 

Not sure where BookDesign got their demographic info if any research went into that decision. Maybe they just couldn’t get any other advertisers. I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter. Listening to a random woman gush about e-cigs after every chapter puts my teeth on edge. Call me an elitist if you must, but e-cigs are the filtereds of our generation and I do not at all believe that they help you to quit smoking. Neither does WebMD. However, there’s also no better way to burn through the classics than with the Librivox app. It even has Apple CarPlay compatibility. If I take up e-cigs, you’ll know why.

Finally, I listen to Libro.fm. I discussed this app when I reviewed Bill Bryson’s THE BODY a few posts ago. It’s the only platform I currently use where I’d pay for books, if that were something that I could afford to do on the regular. Luckily, I’m a librarian who writes voluminously about literature, and therefore, I get advance listener copies from Libro.fm for free. This is new and really, really something. I don’t even know that to do with myself, I’m so excited about it. I have Erin Morgenstern’s THE STARLESS SEA ready to go just as soon as I finish DHALGREN. (And oh, my friends, you’d better believe there will be a DHALGREN review.)

Paris Review - Samuel R. Delany, The Art of Fiction No. 210

This man is Samuel R. Delaney, author of DHALGREN. He has taken over my life with his book.

I must have five audiobooks all queued up and ready to inundate my ears. We’re talking solid days of literary wonder. That said, it’s worth mentioning why I listen to so much audio.

I don’t really have time to read.

That’s right! The book woman doesn’t have a minute to crack a cover. This is in part because I spend two-plus hours on the road each weekday driving to and from the library where I work. It also has plenty to do with my secondary job, vis a vis writing, which takes a lot of time. I’d scale back, but we do have this thing we like to do every month called “pay rent.” And, honestly, I love to write. I’d write all day if I could. If I could write about reading all day, I’d do that. And then I’d read too.

yesss baby | Meme Generator

He can’t even read and he’s still psyched.

As things stand, I am but a hardworking librarian with a hefty side hustle, a situation that’s not unusual these days. What I’d really like to know is how many people find themselves in my position. Are we becoming a nation not just of overworked millennials, but of overworked millennial audiobook fans? Are changes in how we work leading to changes in how we read?

It makes you want to sit down with a nice e-cigarette and have a good, long think.


Diary of a Librarian: Continuing Ed

So I just sent a spec in to a librarian magazine in the hopes that I might become a regular review columnist for them. Yay! I’m incredibly happy to have gotten the opportunity, and even if they decide to go with someone else, it was nice to be asked. It was also nice to know that I haven’t been reading professional literature for all this time to no purpose.

We’ve got a tricky job as librarians. We need to be steady ships on rough seas, people who know stuff in a world where stuff is always changing. Our job has recently become far more challenging because of this, but I suspect that’s just a matter of degree. Public libraries really became a thing in the teeth of the Industrial Revolution, when a new invention was popping up to supplant a human worker every other year. Melvil Dewey, an utter bastard who you can read about in my Book Riot piece, noticed that people were unhappy with that and invented the library to pacify them with Christian values. No joke, dude was a tool. Dewey’s attempt to reify class structure through Bible stories lasted about as long as a snowball in Tahiti, but it still indicates a basic awareness that the needs of the public were changing and growing. Librarians after him did somewhat of a better job interpreting this omen. Hence, literacy programs and children’s story times.

The wheel of so-called progress has only revolved faster since then. I left library school ten years ago and I’m amazed at how out-of-date my education is already. For example, patrons are now interested in searching Instagram. That is something I most definitely did not learn about in school. When I graduated, we all thought that we were going to be uploaded into Second Life any day.

My point is this: it is incumbent upon us librarians to keep educating ourselves. If we fall behind, our patrons lose a critical resource. Whether about searching social media or pronoun use, we absolutely have to crack those ALA editions texts. We have to collection-develop them and assign ourselves reading.

And, when possible, we really ought to take classes. It almost doesn’t matter in what, although in my perfect world, all librarians could get complementary continuing-ed badges to that no library is without someone who’s familiar with the most common topics. I’ve found MOOCs to be difficult to follow through upon, but that’s me. Maybe if I were doing it in a group – and if it were my job – I’d be better able to stick to it. Meanwhile, a better strategy for me has been traditional school. I’m currently taking tech classes at a community college, ideally for an IT certificate but absolutely to improve my ability to work with computers, since that’s the role I seem to be falling into.

The idea that all librarians can just pick up and take a class is, of course, unfair. My library has a fund that’s paying for my classes, and Lord knows what’s going to happen to these lofty ideals when I pop out a kid. Even one class is a big ask. But burning through a Libraries Unlimited text twice a year? Reading American Libraries at the desk? Taking a MOOC as a group? Maybe doable.

So in summary, I have run out of things to say. I now have to go do my CPS 130 homework. It is due on Monday and at this rate I’ll still be hashing out the differences between a serial and a parallel port by then.


Diary of a Librarian: The Gmail Password Crucible

Today was a heavy one for tech reference questions. There are stretches of days when I don’t field a single request for some kind of computer help beyond printer tutorials, but most of the time there’s someone out there who’s lost their Gmail password.

As long as the person in question has their phone with them, this isn’t much of an issue. Gmail just pings their app or texts them and they get to think up a whole new password for them to forget afresh the next time they come in. However, if the phone in question is not apparent, we have problems.

There’s a related issue that I came across recently that involved someone with a Droid phone. This person had no idea that they were in possession of an email account. As some of you may know, Droids require users to have Google identities and iPhones require iCloud accounts. If you don’t have one of these before you buy a smartphone, you’ll have one afterward. The only way to escape is to cling to certain kinds of prepaid and flip models.

flip phone with spectators and fire eater

A simpler way.

Anyway, this person was utterly bemused to find out that they had a Gmail address. We looked it up on their phone and wondered at its complexity: it was the name of the store where they’d purchased the phone followed by an apparently random number. The sales staff had set them up with a Gmail that they’d never wanted, had failed to explain that it existed or how it worked, and sent this individual on their way with a high five and a clear conscience.

What did we learn?

The lesson here is that we are lint in the howling gale of corporate whim and its banality will be our ruin. I can’t very well steer people away from Gmail or smartphones – Gmail is consistently the best free email you can get, and it’s damn hard to get by without a smartphone under the best of circumstances. But I can be ready to mitigate, train, and explain, and if that password proves particularly recalcitrant, track down the number for Google’s corporate headquarters. I have a Master’s and the patience of a chunk of granite. You are a taxpaying citizen whom the capitalist overlords have crassly used and abandoned. If you have a problem with your account, you’d better believe I’ll get someone on the phone.

Bonus: What Am I Reading Right Now?

Inland by Téa Obrecht

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth by Isabel Greenberg

Bibliotech by John Palfrey

Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller


On Disasters

This past week has been an alarming one for my library. In the dead of the night, in the midst of one of the worse heat waves we’ve recently seen, an AC unit experienced a catastrophic failure and dumped a ton of water all over the nonfiction. Which is situated above the fiction. This represents half the library, which is now piled on tables and shelved on mobile plywood emergency stacks.

Now we do the delicate librarian dance of unshelving and reshelving, determining where all the little lost souls of nonfiction have ended up and putting them back in order. Right now, St. Augustine sits uncomfortably next to Neil deGrasse Tyson. Wayne Dyer and Snookie are snuggly.

The rest of the building exists in the throes of disaster remediation. Half of the place is currently wrapped in plastic while fans blow full bore. The noise is driving people crazy. (Not me. I can’t hear over the damn AC at the best of times, so as far as I’m concerned we’re all on the same page now.)

But at least we can remediate paper books. I worry more about our ability to maintain, curate, and manage digital content, which is subject to disasters of the corporate type. For my part, I can’t believe that publishers are still so dense as to think this won’t hurt them. If nothing else, embargoing and hiking the price on Overdrive titles is both an opportunity missed and myopia typical of the publishing dinosaurs. There are tons of opportunities for monetization of a low-cost or free ebook borrowing or sale model. It just takes some creativity and (gasp) risk. In case Macmillan leadership happens to be reading my blog, hello Macmillan. Here are some ideas for you, and you can have them for free.

  • Library book borrowers get a coupon for 50% off the author’s next event.
  • Embrace transmedia storytelling. You can put banner ads on websites, you know. That’s what made Google so rich.
  • Run events. Live readings could be hugely popular with established fans and represent an opportunity for direct revenue, merchandising, and advertising.
  • Merch merch merch. Team up with popular recording artists to sell your swag.
  • Use big names to record audiobooks. People might shell out for the deluxe edition of Walden as narrated by Lady Gaga, even though you can get a generic version for free on Librivox.

E-book lending is one of the only niches in library service that’s growing right now. Hamstringing it is not just an attack on libraries, but a hostile act against patrons who are not in a position to pony up $25 for a license for a digital book that they’ll read once and not end up owning anyway. I could easily frame this as an attack on libraries – because it is – but it’s also another poverty tax. If you’re poor, you don’t get new e-books, or all e-books, or e-books forever, or e-books when you want them.

That’s why the paper books remain very important. I don’t know how libraries are going to win the e-book war. Boycotts could prove counterproductive because after all our whole thing is books, and anyway all libraries would have to be on board at once and good luck getting that herd of cats headed in the right direction. Going to the press seems like a good move, one that might have more impact with the aforementioned possibly ill-advised boycotts and/or picketing.

But first and foremost, we need to save the books. Even when they’re a hassle and even when people don’t borrow them as frequently as we’d like, they’re the analog hole in an increasingly digital world. If I have to spend my career arguing that libraries are important for that reason alone, it’ll be a good use of my time.


Between A Surveillance Nightmare And The Digital Divide

Librarians are in an odd position, technologically. This is especially true of those lucky/unlucky folks who join me as the motley crew of the Good Ship Tech Librarian. We’re well informed enough to be afraid of the decline of net neutrality, “free” services, social engineering, and the weaponization of personal data. At the same time, being capable with Google Drive, WordPress, LinkedIn, and Instagram is allowing us to bring services to our patrons that we’d otherwise be unable to provide. Concurrent document sharing alone is a powerful tool that we’d have to pay hundreds, even thousands for if we weren’t paying with our data already.

At the same time, it is scary. Worst of all, we see patrons suffer when they don’t have access to these services. Kids without computers at home come to the library to log on to Google Drive to do their homework. Mom still working? Nobody to drive? That homework isn’t getting done. The looming threat of the digital divide isn’t going to hurt librarians. It’s going to hurt our most vulnerable patrons: the poorest, newest, most stressed Americans who are least capable of affording wifi or a new laptop.

Providing IT services to these populations has got to be a critical part of our mission now. Yes, we should keep the darn books – I hate it when people think of print and digital collections as some kind of zero-sum format war – but we need to recognize that it’s no longer possible to pull yourself up by your bootstraps by reading a lot. Even if it were, who has time for that nowadays? I’ve got a masters degree and I still work two jobs.

Warning vulnerable folks about how the Internet really works seems like part of our mission too, but what happens if those patrons’ outcomes are harmed thanks to our love/hate relationship with technology? Scaring a new tech user isn’t going to help them – they still need to know how to use the Internet, scary or not. At the same time, if your trustworthy local librarian doesn’t explain about how viruses work, you’re likely to be misinformed by the news anyway, while at the same time getting beguiled by safe-looking situations like the Facebook dumpster fire. Which, by the way, I check every morning and evening.

Education is the key. Not only do we need to start teaching our patrons about how to use tech and most importantly how to get it for free, but we need to do so in a coordinated and organized way. The profession also needs to agree on some guidelines and (brace yourselves) standards. We need to show people the back doors into the world of technology and how to avoid some of the pitfalls.

To that end, I have made a conceptual toolkit for vulnerable new tech users. These are skills and resources that I think we need to teach in public libraries, which means that librarians need to get good at them first.

THE TOOLKIT

Open Source Software

Oh my God the tyranny of Microsoft. Not only is their software expensive and vulnerable to exploitation, but it stops working at the weirdest moments. Recently, Microsoft has also started pushing people into 365 subscriptions, but my experience with that (expensive!) service has been poor. Why pay real money for a scheme that doesn’t even share well? Nevermind the concurrency problems.

There are open source alternatives to browsers, word processors, and even operating systems. Some are easy entry – LibreOffice, for example – and others require more technical fluency. Consider Ubuntu Linux the apex of a program series about open source. Not that your patrons can’t learn how to use it, but you’ll need to bone up on command line yourself and be prepared to help patrons with their first baby steps into managing an OS.

That said, if your patron is just using Ubuntu to do some word processing and use the Internet, they might never have to get into the thorniness that is installing new programs. Even that is easier than it used to be when Ubuntu was a twinkle in the eye of Debian Linux, from which it sprang like Athena from the head of Zeus. There’s now a handy dandy software install tool that makes a lot of getting new software – most of it free and open – fairly easy. I’m writing this on a refurbished Ubuntu laptop right now. It may be a particularly ideal solution for young students who are flexible enough to absorb new skills. The real problem is finding librarians who are comfortable teaching it.

I’ve also had a great deal of luck introducing OpenOffice and LibreOffice to older computer users. If you’re patient, you can teach anyone how to use these. The controls are analogous to their brand counterparts, but they cost 100% less. The same goes for Gimp, Firefox, VLC Player, and other alternatives. When it comes to our patrons, being able to access technology in the first place is often a more urgent issue than protecting their privacy. Using open source alternatives can let them accomplish both of these goals in one swell foop. The only needful thing is a librarian who can introduce it all in a comprehensible way.

Brand product

Free/open source alternative

Internet Explorer, Chrome, Safari

Firefox, Tor
Microsoft Office LibreOffice, OpenOffice, Mozilla Thunderbird
Photoshop Gimp
iMovie, Windows Movie Maker HitFilm Express
Adobe Audition Audacity
Windows Media Player, iTunes VLC Player
Kindle services, Google Books Calibre
Windows, iOS Ubuntu Linux
Norton Antivirus, Trend Micro ClamAV

Distributed Freemium Services

Google tracks you. I tell this to everyone I meet. Literally. I just told it to a barista. At the same time, that tracking is payment for a valuable service. You’re never going to find a versatile cloud that doesn’t track you, paid or not, I don’t care what they say. Knowledge is power, data is valuable, and storing stuff in Google’s cloud is safer than keeping it on a home computer. This is especially true in the cases of patrons who don’t own computers or have wifi at home. They can’t keep information on library computers, but they should know that they can work on the same project over multiple library sessions, or even across multiple libraries. That’s why I generally recommend Google Drive to patrons, even as I explain – twice, when necessary – that their data will be aggregated, packaged, and made available to advertisers.

There’s a tightrope we need to walk when it comes to patrons whose lives are being harmed by lack of access to technology and technology education. Whatever their goals are, they often need an online foot locker, at least, to store resumes and letters. They need to practice word processing and data management skills in a place that’s “theirs,” if only in an abstract sense. Using Google for this isn’t awesome, but the next best option is Office 365, which costs money for equivalent service.

It’s bad that this is the choice we need to make, and I will always push for privacy whenever I can. But the bare fact is that most of our patrons couldn’t afford Google-level services if Google charged money for them.

There are alternatives. One is to walk around with a USB drive all the time. I have patrons who do this, and it’s a great solution until the drive fritzes. Portable hard drives are a more durable solution, but they’re bulky and expensive. Plus, if you need to collaborate, your drive will be unwieldy. Then there are the email services that patrons will need to use anyway, services that are “free” in the same way that Google and Facebook services are “free.” Your patrons’ data is already being harvested, whether or not they use an external storage unit. It’s inevitable. Our only power comes from making sure that they at least get some good service for what it’s costing them.

I feel like a Google shill when I say this, but ultimately, they have to pick *something.* It may as well be a robust suite of services that all work well, even if Alphabet’s days of non-evilness are long over the horizon.

Need My recommendation Why
Email Gmail Works well, best complimentary services
Cloud storage Google Drive Most space, best apps
Online search Duck Duck Go Anonymizing
Housing, goods, and services Craigslist Easy to navigate, no fees, local

IRL resources

Here’s where the librarian has to step up. It’s on us to be aware of the tech situation, up on the latest apps, and – yes – to be ready to do some basic repair. I’d die for some association-wide advanced IT training for librarians. I have lost count of the virus-riddled laptops I’ve had to deal with in the last four years. My best advice in cases where you’re in over your head is to locate the best small computer repair shop in your area (NOT BEST BUY) and develop a relationship. I’ve found one that’s run by a competent woman and her family, charges reasonable rates, doesn’t upsell, and isn’t mean to my elderly patrons. They get a lot of business from me. That said, as soon as I get far enough in my IT classes to be confident about fixing a sick laptop, I’m doing that service for free.

We tech librarians need to be proactive about learning command line, beta-testing new software, and providing the education that our patrons need. Sometimes, that will mean asking what patrons need. Sometimes, your programs will fail because nobody will show up. Sometimes, you’ll need to take a MOOC or ten before you feel like you can really help. It’s exhausting, but talk to your boss about setting aside work time for continuing ed and staff trainings. You don’t have to go at this problem alone or in a state of panic.

Likewise, you’re going to need to find a way to bring technology to your patrons. Circulating mobile hot spots can be a great way to do this, but it works best when you conduct a coordinated PR campaign to make sure that the neediest sections of your community are aware that this is an option. Circulating laptops and devices can be powerful, too, but it’s is expensive. You might have to content yourself with setting up shop at a farmer’s market, YMCA, or school for a certain amount of time every day, every few days, every week, etc. At first, anyway. Bring computers, a hot spot, and your bad self. We’ll bridge this digital divide, so help us. If we don’t, nobody else will.

Teach other librarians. Teach your patrons. Make yourself a constant resource. Hold IT repair days. Look around your community for the cracked screens that aren’t getting fixed, the resumes that aren’t getting formatted right, and the passwords that are ever getting lost. These are places where a librarian can provide services. Provide.