Being a librarian in a library building right now has certain challenges, viz people like to come into libraries and sit around, coughing onto the books and rubbing their mandibles all over the circulation desk. Not all of them, obviously, but the patrons who button up with a nice thick face mask aren’t the ones who remain in our minds. Those patrons leave us in every sense when they depart in an orderly fashion; the terrible ones remain with us in our awareness for lo these many long days. Unfortunately, there’s good reason for this at the best of times: a thousand wonderful patrons may arrive and depart without incident, but one terrible patron can ruin everything.
This is a problem because every public library has one to five dreadful patrons, and in our current case, they can cause an outsized amount of harm. Librarians tend to be older – I know a couple who are approaching their eighties with no intention of retiring. It’s a profession that’s easygoing and friendly to disability, too, with a culture that tends to err on the side of understanding that you’ve got a doctor’s appointment. This may be why so many of us seem to have minor chronic conditions or care for vulnerable people outside of work. One of the reasons that I myself entered and persisted in the library field was that the profession is notoriously nurturing, and I, as many already know, am a delicate and dainty blossom.
My point is that, in the context of the current unpleasantness, librarians are kind of a vulnerable group in general. I’m worried that the confluence of the occasional jerk of a patron and the relative age of the profession could cause disaster. That’s not even mentioning the danger of librarians spreading the disease – many of our patrons are older, too, or picking up books for elderly and at-risk family.
There are many ways to be a librarian aside from standing in buildings and handing out books. While the trend right now is, understandably, “get the staff back in before the town cuts our budget,” I hope that anyone who is not receiving pressure to open from their municipalities will consider the alternatives. Lots of libraries are exploring these already, but I thought it might be worthwhile to list them in case someone’s idly Googling “remote librarian” or “how to open library Covid” and needs a few ideas.
Remote reference only
Even if you’ve got to bring staff back, why open your reference floor to the public? Goodness knows you can’t clean the computers and by far most of the questions you’ll get can be answered online or with a quick reference check. Have patrons email you, Zoom you, call you, and contact you telepathically. Who to ask: university libraries
Set up a board game tourney or Minecraft night. Play any group-friendly, remote-friendly video game your administration will approve – just do it together with your patrons. In fact, if you stream it on Twitch, you may get a little famous. I guarantee I’ll watch a librarian play video games with their friends, patrons, families, etc. Who to ask: Cleveland Public Library
Contactless book delivery
Each patron in your town can order a limited number of books from your specific once a week – no transits, orders, ILLs, or nonsense. They can even ask the librarians to choose for them. Otherwise, this service functions just like a Grubhub. Labor-intensive, say you? Says I, if the patrons can’t come into the library, your staff will have time. Have them Insta their adventures to the local paper and nobody will question that the librarians are hard at work. Who to ask: Western Manitoba.
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Hey everyone! Some important information related to our new Contactless Delivery System (please read through before placing a request). We are thrilled by the response so far and look forward to getting library books into your hands in a safe and convenient way 🙌 #wmrl #brandonpubliclibrary #contactlessbookdeliveries
Stream a classic
If music be the soul of love, then people are bored and want to hear stories so make your own library Internet radio station. Stream Librivox chapters, old-time radio, reference question answers, storytimes, news, and whatever the heck else you want. (As long as it’s royalty-free.) You could also start a podcast, I guess, but everybody and their mother has a podcast these days and there’s something magical about knowing that other people are listening at the exact same time as you are. My recommendation: choose compilations of short stories so that people don’t jump into the middle of a long book. Who to ask: Memphis Public Libraries
If your consortium is anything like mine, then you have most of your patrons’ emails. If they haven’t explicitly opted out of getting spam from you, reach out to your heaviest users and ask if they’d like a weekly e-book recommendation. Be sure to send them titles that are available on OverDrive, Hoopla, or whatever other platform your library prefers. Bonus: offer to stock their account for them once every three weeks so that all they have to do is log in to get that good good literature. Or that rancid smut, whatever they prefer. As long as you don’t have to touch it with your bare hands, who says it has to be clean?
Fresh out. Clean out. Well, almost. I’m now a customer support librarian for a public library consortium, and who knows what’s next! I’ve still got that networking certificate humming along – should have that done by next year, actually. (God willing and the creek don’t rise.) After that, I’m probably going to start chipping away at a CS bachelor’s, focusing either on databases or development. What can I say? A girl can get a late start on her secret IT ambitions and still have dreams.
The past month has been something of a blur and rather than drop any balls, I set several balls carefully aside, as one might do with ornamental glass fruit or the skulls of one’s revered ancestors. The writing ball is one that I did set aside, but I’m hoping to pick it right back up. I know, for one thing, that Book Riot languishes without my scintillating listicle-writing presence. I’ve also been uncomfortably absent from the fiction-writing scene, and you know what? I think I’ll publish under my real name from now on. Look out, world!
I’ve got a few other pots on the stove, but I think I’ll let those boil over before I alert you about the terrible danger in which we will all, at that exact moment, find ourselves. This blog is going to continue to be (loosely) about librarianship, and cooking, and gardening, and sustainability, and most especially about computers.
I’ll leave you with this: it is STUPID EASY to accidentally make a new file in Powershell. Yesterday, I managed to make testfile1.txt, testfil1.txt, test1.txt, and all of the above without their file extensions. Then I tried to move a file named Massive Duck Attack.txt and discovered exactly why underscores are so blamed important. Let’s hear it for practice with the Rename-Item cmdlet! (And the humble underscore.)
Also, I’m reading Gideon the Ninth and it’s everything I’ve ever wanted. I also just finished Lives of the Monster Dogs and I think the book about stylish lesbian necromancers in space is less weird. Loved it, may buy it. Finally I’m listening to City of Brass, and so far, it’s fancy but predictable. I guess I could say the same thing about Gideon, but there’s a swordsdyke in that one so it gets extra points.
Until next time, boys and ghouls.
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.
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.
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.
Free/open source alternative
Internet Explorer, Chrome, Safari
|Microsoft Office||LibreOffice, OpenOffice, Mozilla Thunderbird|
|iMovie, Windows Movie Maker||HitFilm Express|
|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.
|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|
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.