Diary of a Librarian: Voices Carry

I have a loud voice. Part of this is because I listened to a lot of obnoxious music in my twenties and now strain to hear a whisper or mumble when I’m standing next to a fan. Another part is that I grew up in a loud Italian family where the volume was permanently at 11, and that still seems normal to me. The final part is that I just have some lung power, man.

And I like to use it! Even when my voice gets unpleasantly dry and creaky, which happens every stupid time the temperature to moisture ratio of the room falls below sauna levels, I love to croak me out some Rage Against The Machine. If I hydrate, my range becomes fierce. I can whistle, too. All of this happens at top volume.

There are many reasons why none of it can happen in the library.

  • It’s loud. While the Nevins isn’t a silent library, patrons don’t want to hear me expound upon the lifespan of the lobster or serve some sick burns to the military-industrial complex. It’s not professional. Incidentally…
  • Even humming a recognizable, expletive-laden song in front of a patron is inappropriate. On the plus side, Hookers by Irontom has been stuck in my noggin for about a year now and resisting it has allowed me to achieve zen-like levels of self-control.
  • Misophonia. There are a lot of people with sensory issues, major and minor, who use the library. It is not fair to subject them to whistling, humming, or the scratchy crow voice I get when it’s both too cold and too dry for my diva of a larynx. In fact, generating pointless noise can make people ornery and hard to handle. Why would I want to rile a patron? (Don’t answer that.)

There’s another problem with using my voice at the desk: the patrons are right there. The patron computers are literally five feet away from my preferred computer station. That means that any conversation I have with a coworker (or another patron) is likely to be overheard, and with it, all of its sensitive personal information.

Secret, Hands Over Mouth, Covered Mouth, Mouth, Young

I’m a Gemini I made meatballs with tofu my hybrid needs new brakesmmmmmmfffffmfmmm

Because I’m a fairly self-conscious person, my initial worry goes along the lines of oh god, what if something I say offends people? This falls into the category of useful paranoias that I like to think has kept me out of a fair amount of trouble. I avoid all political and controversial subjects. When patrons want to talk, I try to steer the dialogue to library services or technology; when colleagues want to talk, we talk about pets, books, and kids. Intellectually, I know that I probably shouldn’t be saying anything to my colleagues when we’re on the desk together, but I feel the need to balance camaraderie and friendliness with circumspection. We only work well together if we’re on good terms, and that means being social, to an extent.

But privacy is still the best reason to watch your mouth in the reference room, and sometimes, the combination of the patrons themselves and the setup of a reference floor makes this difficult. Case in point: I once helped a patron who was looking for housing. They had multiple considerations and I struggled to find a solution that was right for them. We were working at a computer and there were other people around us. When the first patron became upset, another patron volunteered a personal recommendation for a housing counselor in the next town over. While this was very helpful, it also represented a potentially bad situation. Patron 1, who was in housing distress, did not want to talk to Patron 2, but not because they wanted to maintain privacy. Patron 1 had previously told me that they did not consider people of Patron 2’s ethnic group to be true Americans.

Train Wreck, Steam Locomotive, Locomotive, Railway

A bystander’s record of the subsequent conversation.

Luckily, the situation resolved without incident and everybody learned an important lesson about tolerance, prejudice, and how far off the rails things can go when patrons overhear your reference questions. I’d initially assumed that we needed to preserve Patron 1’s privacy over their housing needs, but when that privacy was breached, bigger problems became evident. I now think of privacy as a container that keeps all of a patron’s issues localized for a moment while we figure out how to handle their immediate issue. It’s wonderful that Patron 1 came away from that interaction with a broader mind, and I am still very grateful that Patron 2 was so patient and slow to take offense, but that conversation was a job for a consciousness-raising program, not a reference desk.

The real question is how we can mitigate eavesdropping in an environment where problems must usually be solved with computers and computers are necessarily clumped together. The kind of information that this puts at risk makes that anecdote above sound just delightful. People regularly describe their tax problems to me at the reference desk, and I have had patrons try to tell me their social security numbers. Many people come into the library for personal assistance with online job applications and end up discussing their home addresses, work histories, disabilities, and even conviction histories aloud. I try to seat patrons dealing with sensitive stuff away from others on the reference floor, but there’s no getting around it: when we’re full up, even a whisper is audible by whoever’s at the next computer over.

If I had my druthers, we would have a sensitive services area. It would contain two or three booths that close tight to mitigate or eliminate noise. There would be a computer in each one. You’d sign each booth out for an hour at a time, and once you were in, you could go to town. Scream at your insurance agent on your cell phone. Relay your social security number to whosoever you please. Call in a librarian and talk about researching your extremely personal illness or finding a lawyer to help you with your divorce or immigration.

“Telephone” booths are expensive nowadays, but there are DIY options for sound-dampening areas. (Personally, though, I’d spring for something with see-through windows, regardless of price. Safety first!) There could even be a specific laptop that patrons sign out when they want to use the phone booth so that regulars aren’t tempted to co-opt it for their Facebook-surfing needs.

Screenshot from 2020-01-07 12-54-47.png

Would people misuse a telephone booth? Obviously. Even if it’s in plain sight, couples will go in there, gamers will camp out to play Warcraft, and people suffering from paranoia will insist that it’s the only place they can safely check their email. But every privilege a library provides gets abused eventually. The point isn’t to keep services away from the 2% who will take advantage, but to make them available to the 98% who need them.

After all, as experience proves, I’m not the only one with a voice that carries.

Featured image from Room.com!


Saturday Fast Rec: Python For Kids

It’s Saturday! That means I recommend a book that I think you’ll like. (Yes, you!)

Today, I’m recommending Python for Kids: A Playful Introduction to Programming by Jason Briggs from No Starch Press. And I’m recommending it…for adults!

That’s right! If you (yes, you!) want to learn how to code, Python is a great place to start. It’s versatile, easy to learn (relatively speaking,) and professional coders do use it in actual applications. Kids can absolutely learn to make basic programs using the fun and surprisingly practical projects in this book, but I’m not ashamed to admit that this is where I started my own coding journey…at the age of 30. Remember that Jeopardy! champ who taught himself everything using children’s books? It’s not a bad way to introduce yourself to something new. Personally, I’ve not only learned to love Python thanks to Python for Kids, but found myself well prepared for the infamously difficult Java classes at my college because I’d already learned a similar programming language.

This book is fun, hands-on, and wonderful for all ages. There are some knockoff programming for kids books from other publishing houses, but don’t settle for them. No Starch Press is the best. This book is exactly where to start for kids or adults, and there are follow-up books that will rocket your skills to the upper atmosphere, if not to the moon. I recommend!


Diary Of A Librarian Addendum: When Hardware Strikes and Apology to SupportAssist

If you’re a reader of mine, then you may remember this post about how much I hate SupportAssist. Or this one, about how SupportAssist failed me for the last time.

I would like to apologize to SupportAssist. I slandered its reputation for a problem that it did not cause.

That’s not to say that SA isn’t a ridiculous piece of badly programmed junk. It totally is! This past Wednesday, it merrily failed to update any applicable drivers on our public computers, which is fine because the infinitely superior Dell Command Update does the same thing. But in the particular case of Computer 43, SA’s problematic nature had been compounded by a bad motherboard. I hope. Because 43 hasn’t frozen since receiving a new one yesterday, so maybe, if I don’t tell any lies before Christmas, the real problem won’t end up being the hard drive or the processor.

I’m currently taking a hardware class, so I’m enjoying the intellectual challenge of identifying what exactly went wrong. Was it the BIOS chip? The CMOS? Oh the acronyms that could have gone wrong with the motherboard! It now makes perfect sense that freezing could indicate a motherboard issue – I already knew that BIOS or UEFI can cause that problem if they don’t update correctly. It makes me wonder if I ought to have tried flashing before calling in the warranty, but c’est la vie. The computer works and that’s sufficient.

It’s a little annoying that I can’t House my way to a magic diagnosis based on the evidence, but I’m still a nascent techie in many ways and I’m not going to go too hard on myself. The main thing I’m learning from my experience as a tech librarian is that if something’s only going wrong on just one computer, I should at least consider the possibility that it’s hardware-based. This kind of thing has happened a couple times before, not necessarily with SupportAssist, but in a similar pattern. (Problem on one single computer, fix software, problem persists, switch hardware, problem solved.)

I did think it was funny at the time that none of the other computers were freezing, but I chalked it up to SA being so wonky that it was actually inconsistent across units. Apparently, SA is the red flag to my bullish IT style. A diagnostic startup scan didn’t catch any problems, either, so now I know that can happen. And I need to be aware of my software prejudices, apparently.

I’m not sure I would have done anything differently if I’d guessed that the problem was hardware-based, but I still would have felt better knowing. If nothing else, I could have prepared the staff for the possibility that the computer would continue to freeze even after the apparent software problem had been managed.

If I wanted a secondary lesson, it would be that a library technology professional’s job is mainly to communicate. That means understanding enough about the computers to explain ongoing issues in a way that both makes sense and is not scary as well as developing the ability to interface with customer service in a way that works for everybody. I do think that I’m improving. I’ll say that 50% of the reason for this is that I’m in school and actively learning about computers. Knowing a bit, while remaining humble about the vast sea of knowledge to which you do not yet have access, seems to be key to a good working relationship with tech support. I’m also continuing to grow and mature as a person and a professional, which is causing my communication skills to improve anyway, and librarians as an industry are steadily becoming more tech-savvy, although we’re still way behind where we need to be.

For now,  we have a new motherboard for good old 43 and everything seems ducky. No freezes yet. I’m almost ready to sally forth next week to a long Thanksgiving vacation with full peace of mind that this computer’s got a working motherboard.

Let’s hope it was just the motherboard.


Diary of a Librarian: Windows 10 Is Still Free. Also, more SupportAssist.

It’s true. If you have a Windows 7 machine, you can still get an upgrade for free. It’s legal, too. Go to the Microsoft website at this link and download the media creation tool. Run it. Do it now before the 7pocalypse arrives in January!

And don’t take it from me. Take it from ZDNet.

In bookish news, I’m still working on Part 3 of my DHALGREN review. (Part 1 is here.) I might have it up tomorrow, so grit your teeth and hang onto your harmonicas. For now, join me in the sweet, easy, fun library life, where we skip through fields of aahhhh who am I kidding SupportAssist did another crazy thing today.

This time, I had a computer (One! Single! Computer!) on our staff network freezing at odd times. It started yesterday with freezes that happened closer and closer to startup and did not respond to ctrl+alt+del. I crashed the poor thing and performed a system restore, feeling very technological and cool. That seemed to solve the problem.

AT FIRST!

It didn’t take long for dear little Computer 43 to fritz out again. Today, it froze after a restart, and then during a diagnostic scan. I called uncle, and Dell, too.

I avoid calling Dell because my customer service experience with this company is extraordinarily spotty. Sometimes they’re super-on. Other times, their technicians make little pew-pew noises when they think they’re on hold and then delete networked printers willy-nilly over my strident objections. This time, I was lucky. My dude figured out that SupportAssist had been causing the system to freeze up at a deep fundamental level.

via GIPHY

 

Part of the reason for this was that SA has two versions. One is a Windows app and the other is a Dell app. You can get the Dell app from the Dell website. You can get the Windows app from the Windows App Store. That one appears to be buggy. It may also be either advertising itself very aggressively or chronically reinstalling itself on some machines. This actually explains a lot about how my library’s public-facing machines have been behaving.

So he uninstalled SupportAssist, although it took him a couple of attempts, and suggested that we not use this Dell-origin piece of wrecknology anymore (thanks, Christine, for this situationally perfect word.) I’ll be passing his suggestion along. If I never had to lay eyes upon SupportAssist again, I’d be happy. I’m now 14% sure that this is how God intends to end the world.


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.


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.