Life with Technology

Whether we enjoy it or not, all of us academic librarians work with technology every day — assisting patrons, providing new services, and completing the myriad tech chores that are part of working in libraryland. I’ve starting noticing some technology patterns at my workplace and have summarized them below. Please share other insights and examples.

#1 Technology functions best when it doesn’t feel like a lumbering intermediary between you and a task to be accomplished. Technology is the means of doing something, not the ends. Often when technology really works, it is due to the design. You can have the smartest underlying program in the world and it won’t matter if the user interface is terrible.

Twitter, the Flip camcorder, and google search are examples of technologies that are so intuitively easy to use that you barely feel their presence. For some people it’s a Blackberry, kindle, or ipod. A certain operating system comes to mind when I try and think of examples of technologies that seem to interfere rather than assist, but I won’t name names.

#2 There is a sweet spot of technology-related frustration people will endure before they give up. If a technology seems complicated, if it doesn’t work, fails too often, creates messes etc., people won’t believe in it, and so they won’t buy into it or start depending on it in their everyday lives.

Accessing the library online for course readings can be a real headache, for example, which is why I’m so intent on putting the library in the online classroom more seamlessly, and why I’m taking a class on instructional design right now. As I take this class, I’m noticing that if I can get away with not doing a reading because it involves an aggravating process of tracking down the full text, my impulse is to abandon it rather than raise my blood pressure.

Of course, the amount of frustration a person is willing to endure depends on the individual. There are some people who will stick with a technology just because they’re in love with a gadget or want to look cool. And then there are people who will give up with the slightest provocation, claiming they’re too old, don’t have time, are not good with computers, etc.

The other day I helped a student who was trying to print a document due for a class. It turned out that the network cable was broken on the machine she was using. She did not have a way to save the document. The first floppy disk we tried failed, at which point she stormed out of the library. I tried to catch her when the second floppy worked, but she was gone.

#3 People will persist with a technology even when it’s not working if forced, or if the fact that it’s superior is considered common knowledge. They will also persist if the technology allows them to accomplish the task faster: Speed trumps everything.

I’ve also helped students who have been wrangling with their online course management system for hours. Heck, typing a paper on a computer, printing it, and turning it in is an ordeal for many of the students I see, but they persist because they are required to for their classes.

Another example of this is cell phones: for all their patchy service & fees, nothing beats the convenience of having a phone (and that’s a low-end application of a cell phone) on you at all times.

#4 If you’ve wondered whether there’s a technology out there like the one you’re imagining, there probably is.

If I can think of an application I want, google is often two steps ahead of me. This is both comforting and a little scary. If not google, some smart tech-savvy person generally knows of a solution. At least, I never feel I am alone in my wrangling with technology — Thank goodness for online communities.

This is just a basic round-up of my thinking. Further thoughts are very welcome!

Purgatorio

I have a dilemma.  It is one that puts me in direct conflict with myself, and is remotely related to my post from November about where to draw the line when helping patrons.  We received a new printer/copier for student use back in October.  It has a document server that allows students to select the document they want to print and combines that with a coin-operated printing system.  For the most part, it works exactly the way it should, and should save me having to take printing payments every few minutes.

 

However, even after two months of usage, students still look on it with fear and trembling and ask my help over and over and over again.  I have a large sign with step-by-step instructions, complete with pictures of all the relevant bits.  It’s a four step process.  Put your money in.  Press the “Document Server” button.  Use the touch screen to highlight your document.  Press Start.  I even have instructions at each computer workstation: Print as you would normally.  Walk to the printer.  Follow the instructions printed there.

 

But this is what actually happens: the student prints, then comes to me at the desk.  “Did my syllabus print?”  I point to the large printer four steps to my left, and show them the instructions on the wall above the machine.  I continue my work (or my discussion with the student I am helping) and listen for the sounds of the printer.  As soon as I am free again, I look over.  The student is usually still standing there, staring at the machine.  I walk over, and ask them if they need help.  They have a panicked look, and say “I don’t know what to do!”  I walk them through, step by step.  “Oh – I didn’t see the instructions,” is quickly followed by “That was easy!” 

 

OK, I get that initial reaction.  New technology can be intimidating.  There’s a fear of breaking the machine, or messing it up somehow.  But the same student will come back two hours later and we will repeat the process, almost word for word.  I spent over *four hours* yesterday showing the nursing students – over and over – how to use the printer.  And they used it last semester!

 

However, even after two months of usage, students still look on it with fear and trembling and ask my help over and over and over again.  I have a large sign with step-by-step instructions, complete with pictures of all the relevant bits.  It’s a four step process.  Put your money in.  Press the “Document Server” button.  Use the touch screen to highlight your document.  Press Start.  I even have instructions at each computer workstation: Print as you would normally.  Walk to the printer.  Follow the instructions printed there.

 

So I ask those wiser than myself: how do you teach folks how to use the technology so they become self-sufficient? More importantly, is there some kind of trick to creating printed instructions that actually are useful to a new user?  I really do want to help, but I also can’t afford to spend half of every day just helping people print. 

 

Proselytizing for twitter

Recently I find myself quite absorbed by twitter, and with the zeal of a new convert I’m now going to add to the enthusiastic clamor surrounding it. I’m sure for many readers here I’m preaching to the choir. However if, like me a month ago, you don’t fully understand what twitter is, I recommend an article called “Twittering Libraries” written by an LIS student in the Fall 2008 term.

First, I acknowledge that skepticism is natural (and not helped by the recent headlines about twitter’s phishing snafu). I too used to wonder if it was *really* worth trying to figure out yet another 2.0 buzzword. Believe me, I am not the queen of all things tech, although my youthful appearance often conceals this fact. I’m not trying to claim twitter expertise (I suppose that’s called twexpertise) by any means, but I am starting to feel as affectionate toward it as toward firefox and gmail.

As I’ve already written a few posts (here and here) about twitter and libraries on my personal blog, rather than repeat myself I’m going to report some of the more illuminating and entertaining moments I’ve had on twitter recently:

-Twitter searching. Every so often I search “library” and see what non-librarians are saying about us. A couple of days ago I tried to find mention of my institution and realized there wasn’t much buzz about us in the twitter universe. Maybe it’s time to change that?

-Expanding on that thought, which one is worse: To be distantly at risk of a twitter hack, or to have no input about your twitter identity? Take FakeRodBlago, for example, which is a comedic account of the proceedings against Rod Blagojevich, written by “The Rod.” Taken from a public relations perspective, what happens when you are not representing yourself, and your identity is at the mercy of people making fun of you?

-Bear in mind that Twitter is a fairly basic tool. To designate a subject term, use a # symbol. So for example, if you use twitter as a chat tool and include a unique identifier like ‘#butterfly322’ in your tweets, you can later go back and search for #butterfly322 to review the discussion.

-There is impressive diversity to the tweets coming out of libraryland. I’m glad to see so many of us on twitter, because it means we are in more places more of the time. In this way we can stay relevant and in the consciousness of our patrons. (Never mind staying on top of things with each other and the profession!) Check out these examples: Disobedient Librarian, Infodiva, TextALibrarian, MdLawLib, Bill Drew.

-There are an array of crazy twitter tools that I haven’t even begun to play with, and the list is growing all the time. Who knew about some of these?

-Twitter is evolving. I believe it’s still in its infancy in terms of relevance, but I keep hearing new uses for it every day. People use it for all kinds of things, from the important to the mundane — breaking news stories, personal status updates (of the type “mmm, grilled cheese sandwich” etc.), automated updates, favorite links, technology troubleshooting, marketing new products, and a lot more. There are students, tech folks, religious folks, parents, shameless self-promoters, educators, recruiters, and average joes all using twitter. So pretty much any type of person — just create an account and watch Everyone to see.

In summary, I think this tool is definitely something that academic libraries should pay attention to. Please come find me if you decide to join!

Long Lost Motivation

In the current-day liturgy of teaching, it seems that motivating students is key. Once you have students motivated, supposedly, they will easily absorb what may otherwise seem dry or mundane. So a teacher’s plan should not be to transmit the material, but to motivate the students to learn the material for themselves while acting as a guiding frame. For librarians who teach, then, the challenge is to motivate students to be interested in searching for and critically thinking about information.

I know it’s possible to be interested in searching for and critically thinking about information, because it happened to me. But that was in graduate school, after many years of appreciating libraries and learning. The question I keep returning to is, what’s the formula for librarians to motivate students in a meaningful way during a brief reference transaction, or at best a library instruction session? Particularly in context, where research is only one part of a broader assignment or class?
(And don’t mistake this as a call for credit-bearing IL courses — I agree with Steven Bell’s recent post)

One recent reference desk transaction that I consider particularly successful involved a patron writing an argumentative paper about how x causes y. She wanted to find research supporting her view. So we tracked down some research, looked at some studies, and found that x has not been conclusively shown to cause y, but there are correlations, and many sources have used these correlations to prescribe certain behaviors. This was a wonderful information literacy lesson because it demonstrated how information is generated and then interpreted, and it was directly relevant to the context of her need. It was also representative of most of the reference questions I handle, in that patrons really don’t care about the intricacies of the catalog or databases until they have a specific question. It’s only when learning search tools and finding aids is integrated into answering a question that the search for information becomes interesting. In a class, though, I find this level of customization is not always possible.

I also do want to promote student independence in information-seeking behaviors, but wouldn’t you hate it if you walked up to some computer guru, asked her to show you how to do something, & she said “I’m not going to show you how to do it, but I’ll show you how I figured it out. I read the tutorial and went to a bunch of training classes, and then I played with it a bunch.” Everyone looks for similar shortcuts all the time, but shortcuts are meaningless without context. So context is essential to library instruction — we have to make library tools relevant to a certain class, or assignments, for the lesson to work.

In conclusion (sort of), it is easier but insufficient to simply feed students the shortcuts (i.e. the finding aids) without a context. We have to come up with truly thrilling examples of how information works, but much of the time we are preoccupied with thinking about how the tools work. Obviously it will vary by discipline, but does anyone have any great examples they’d like to share here? Or perhaps there’s a forum for this type of idea-generation that I haven’t found yet?

A Night at the Museum

Suzanne Briet once posed the question, “Can an antelope be a document?” in her article/pamphlet called What is Documentation?. I won’t go into all the gory details, but that argument has stayed with me since I first read it. She is essentially stating that a document is evidence in support of a fact. Paul Otlet, writing slightly before Briet, said that you can have information (documentation) about objects, but the objects themselves also become documents if you are informed by observing them. So… if you have a map, can it be a document? (Yes.) If you have a photograph can it be a document? (Definitely.) If you have a dinosaur bone, is that a document… does that inform us? (Yes, ask any museum curator!) Well, if a dinosaur bone is a document, can an animal in a zoo, say… an antelope.. be one? (If the zoo = the museum, then doesn’t the antelope = the dinosaur bone?) If you’re really interested in this nerdy-cataloger-type stuff, I recommend Michael Buckland’s treatment of the argument here which he calls “information-as-thing.”

I find this incredibly intriguing, and for 1951, it was amazingly farsighted. We catalog things now that don’t even exist in the real “brick and mortar” world – electronic resources and video and all kinds of stuff. And we do that because we are informed by these bits and bytes that flash across our computer screen. So I was deeply reminded of Otlet’s and Briet’s arguments when I saw this story on Wired’s website: Browse the Artifacts of Geek History. There are books, of course, but they’re covered in precious gems. And there’s a Sputnik rocket. Dinosaur skeletons. An Enigma machine. Escher-like woodwork. A hand-painted book on dwarves, embellished with gold and silver. I could spend weeks in this library and never be bored!

But it got me thinking. In the library field, they’re known as “realia.” Which is quite a dry and dusty term for all these amazing objects that you can see and touch and manipulate. For Briet and Otlet, these items speak for themselves. We can have – and should have – books and papers telling us about each one (and many in this collection have just that!) I can read all about the Soviet Sputnik program, and how the Germans used the Enigma machine to send coded messages to their submarines in World War II. I can look at books of anatomy and physiology about dinosaurs and human brains. I can even read a book about rare books (doesn’t that seem like a contradiction?), hand painted and studded with jewels. But all of those bookish resources – although incredibly valuable – pale in comparison to being in a place where you can touch a skeleton. And hold a meteorite. And tap a code into a machine. And feel the rubies and brush strokes of a 16th century book on jousting.

So this is what I’m thinking, though I admit upfront that it’s completely impractical and implausible.  How cool would it be to COMBINE the idea of a museum and the idea of a library?  So for the folks studying WWII, they can go to the Ds and browse a vast array of books about the war.  And they can see an Enigma machine or other WWII artifacts.  For me at least, that would make the things I was studying more real, more physically present.  Sure you can look at images online, but that just can’t compare to a hands-on experience with a part of history.  Or Shakespeare folios and literature.  Or dinosaur bones and science.   Granted, this might work better in a liberal arts venue than my community college, but the idea deeply intrigues me.  (OK, now you know.  I am certifiably nuts!)