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You Know, I Know, Don't Know

Submitted by Kate Sheehan on February 28, 2011 - 9:25am

Field trips in New England often revolve around hardship. And candy. As an elementary school student, I learned to make candles like the colonists did when they weren't busy starving to death or learning about corn. As a high school student, I watched a blacksmith (who would not break character to give us directions) sweat and work on a horseshoe for what felt like an eternity to my 16-year-old self. It's tough to be a settler, which is why historical attractions always sell fantastic anachronistic penny candy - it offsets the depression that would set in on the children who just spent three hours making a misshapen candle that will provide about twenty minutes of iffy light. And all that's before anyone bothered to mention the genocide sparked by the bonneted and buckled people all of our towns are named after.

I am, perhaps, remembering the wrong things from the educational diversions supplied by my parents and teachers. One of my favorite places to go was the Mark Twain House. There wasn't much candy, but the tour guides were funnier. Of course, the one nugget that has stayed with me since middle school is useless and probably not true (I haven't verified it, because I like it and don't want to lose it). Twain had three collies named You Know, I Know, and Don't Know.

I like this not only because I grew up with collies (and live with one still - of the Don't Know variety), but also because it's an apt metaphor for information management. Librarians are inherently interested more in what I think of as "You Know" information - we are less interested in being experts (that would be "I Know") and more interested in knowing where and how to access the expertise of others. We're experts in finding experts.

But what of Don't Know? My friend and colleague Sarah Ludwig recently declared that she is not a computer whiz (though we've worked together and she is definitely being too hard on herself) and zeroed in on the key to being tech savvy - lack of fear. When I was a brand new librarian (I did the math recently and realized I'm not new at all anymore), my coworkers always asked me where I got my "computer training." The assumption was that expertise was required. My standard answer "Oh, I've just always worked with computers" seemed to confirm the "new and young always means good with computers" assumption that I desperately wanted to break through.

My family had a Commodore 64 when I was in elementary school. It had about a billion parts that all had to be turned on and off in a specific order. I could never remember the order and usually got one of my parents to help me. But one day, I just went for it. And I did it wrong. I turned things off in the wrong order and I think I once left the cartridge deck (remember those?) on for an hour after I was done playing Lemonade Stand or Zork. Nothing bad happened. I eventually managed to retain the order of on-and-off for all of the components. The first time I had to reboot a server, I nearly hyperventilated. I learned to manage an Exchange server by googling a lot of my problems and asking for help when I was stuck. I don't think that's terribly unusual, especially in libraries, where sending someone to something as expensive as Exchange training probably isn't going to happen.

Yet librarians get hung up on Don't Know. The people who are willing to try things out, to see what works, to apply everyday problem solving skills to stuff that plugs in to the walls, and to learn on the fly become our computer whizzes. When I started in libraries, I also quickly discovered that fear leads us to assume the worst of the fearless. A coworker who I had a good relationship with asked for help with her computer. I sat down and started troubleshooting, only to get some aggravating Windows error. She assumed that my "ugh" was directed at her and began apologizing and getting a little defensive. I was completely surprised that someone who I regularly chatted with around the water cooler would assume I was annoyed at her because her computer was acting up. Even now, when I'm training librarians, I rarely answer a question without making some attempt to assure the questioner that their question is a good one or that they're not the only person confused by that particular something.

We are a profession devoted to the idea that not knowing something isn't a problem. Technophobia gets in the way and makes Don't Know a huge issue. People who can describe the exact conditions under which their car makes that weird banging noise for their mechanics call their IT folks to report that their email is simply "broken".

Don't Know isn't a terrible monster. It's just another dog, hanging out with I Know and You Know. It doesn't have sharper teeth or rabies and it won't pee on your floor any more than the other two. In my time as a librarian, I have spent a huge amount of my working hours reassuring people and trying to coax them away from focusing on their fear to focusing on learning and experimenting.

Cooper, confused.I called my dog a collie of the Don’t Know variety. He’s sweet and enthusiastic, but fundamentally clueless. For him, Don’t Know is a permanent condition. He’s sitting next to me, hoping I’m going to give him a cookie when I’m done writing this. When his toys get stuck underneath things, he barks at the furniture until I stop laughing and help him. He gets stuck in rooms and ties himself to trees. His problem solving skills are paltry, at best. Librarians are professional problem solvers and those skills don’t stop working when applied to technology. A reference interview isn’t all that different from troubleshooting. 

If you’re a library techie, you are likely familiar with the panic that interferes with your colleagues’ technological lives. If you think of yourself as falling in the nontechie end of the spectrum, take a step back and give that dog another look. Don’t Know just needs a few minutes on Google, some questions, and maybe a cookie to start looking an awful lot like I Know.

Comments (16)

You know they've been to my

You know they've been to my workshops, 'cuz I they leave with just enough knowledge to be dangerous! And I tell them to go ask Kate or Sharon to get them going on the next step. :-)

Oh, Polly, Connecticut is so

Oh, Polly, Connecticut is so much savvier with you nearby. I can always tell when folks have been to your workshops.

I always get a little sad when a librarian apologizes for asking a question. Sometimes, I have to futz for a little bit before I have a good answer, but I wish everyone would demand explanations.

Testing and breaking are crucial to understanding - most people don't have the time or space to let themselves mess things up and then fix them. When you give them that freedom, it makes such a difference in their confidence levels!

Keep fighting the good fight,

Keep fighting the good fight, Sheila. It sounds like you're leading by example and charging ahead into unfamiliar territory. Thanks for joining the conversation!

I don't think you have a

I don't think you have a shill-like bone in your body, Jessamyn! I can't wait to read your book.

In my job, I see a lot of technostress when people feel like they don't know how to do their jobs anymore. I try to emphasize in training that these are new buttons to push, but not a commentary on anyone's competence at their jobs. But the lack of confidence is often a huge stumbling block. A lot of training ends up being cheerleading and finding ways to very gently steer people back on track when they're making mistakes. The software is the easy part.

As usual, I agree with you and I love the idea of benchmarks for things like downtime and vendor response. If nothing else, that would help us know when we need to try to allocate more resources to tech and provide a shared framework for tech, management, and the technostressed.

Your point about forgiving people who are trying to help you really resonated with me. Often, library tech people are a. self-taught and b. trying to know a little bit about everything. My friends and family who have technology jobs are much more specialized than the library techfolk I know (including me). Also, we're often trying to sort out a lot of other people's systems at once - a patron's home network, a vendor's new interface, etc.

I'm heartened that there are folks excited enough about this to comment - we're all trying to make librarianship a more tech-savvy profession, and I'm happy to be on the same team as everyone here.

Great post, as always. :-) I

Great post, as always. :-) I also learned whatever skills I have by trial and error, a bit of training, and by asking tons and tons (and more tons) of questions. I'm sure there were many times the campus computer techs avoided my calls. They knew they couldn't just "fix it", but that they'd have to explain it to me too.

Explaining, empathizing, encouraging, patience and lots of time to play - all crucial to moving people along that confidence curve, whether in a workshop setting or just a casual one-on-one sharing of information.

My favorite type of workshop is one with lots of time built in to play and explore. A roomful of people sharing tips and ideas with each other, testing things, breaking things, fixing things, creating things and hearing "Wow, I made that work" - music to my ears!

I've worked in both libraries

I've worked in both libraries and schools over the past twenty years, and gravitated toward tech-related problem solving in every job. This post is great because it echoes my life experience. I'm not the math whiz, but curiosity, lack of fear (stupidity?), and tenacity as well as a musical, pattern-seeking mind have stood me in good stead. Fear not, fellow librarians and teachers!

I'm a social media junky at present, which also works wonderfully with librarianship. My co-workers sometimes look at me as if I'm a different animal, but no -- it's just that I remain unintimidated, which can sometimes result in me being buried in problems, I mean opportunities. Thanks for the opportunity to have this conversation.

I've worked in both libraries

I've worked in both libraries and schools over the past twenty years, and gravitated toward tech-related problem solving in every job. This post is great because it echoes my life experience. I'm not the math whiz, but curiosity, lack of fear (stupidity?), and tenacity as well as a musical, pattern-seeking mind have stood me in good stead. Fear not, fellow librarians and teachers!

I'm a social media junky at present, which also works wonderfully with librarianship. My co-workers sometimes look at me as if I'm a different animal, but no -- it's just that I remain unintimidated, which can sometimes result in me being buried in problems, I mean opportunities. Thanks for the opportunity to have this conversation.

Hopefully without sounding

Hopefully without sounding too shill-like about this... I have written a book about this, coming out in a few months. I have a special section on troubleshooting which even has some nice reproducible handouts. I also talk a lot about technostress and how people can get into really freaked-out mode when they're stuck between unreasonable demands and their own lack of confidence in their skills. Many people without tech knowledge put other people in the riskier positions so that they personally don't have to take the hit, but this all snowballs until you have a jumpy nervous institution. patrons can sense that, it's no good.

Troubleshooting takes time and it can be somewhat dull but there really are ways to figure out how to fix these problems and/or contact the people who can help you fix it. Part of the problem we have in libraries is lack of time. And if this is the case and we still have to manage large complex systems we need to either find the time or pay someone else who has the time to straighten this stuff out. We need benchmarks [how long is it okay for a PAC to be out of order? how long is too long to wait for a callback from a vendor about a product?] and we need agreements with patrons and vendors and support in terms of how we resolve problems.

What we shouldn't be doing is declaring this problem as Too Hard and just punting or being okay with terrible service and/or only sort of working machines. If you can't keep your computers running and updated [and I'm not always saying I can do this, I know it's tough] you need to find a way to build that in to next year's budget or staffing plan. Management needs to be aware of just how much time it takes to maintain a large system of public and staff computers. Patrons need to have their expectations set reasonably. Staff needs to be aware what sort of problems they are expected to solve on their own and when the big guns need to be called in.

And we need to forgive the people who try when they are out of their element and maybe don't succeed. I've been lucky to be in a situation where a lot of the end users I work with are not paying me and so if something I try doesn't work, they're usually appreciative that I tried. This isn't always true and sometimes it's easier to not try and not fail than try and fail AND catch hell for it. The problem is not easy, but its been our problem for years now, it would be nice to see people getting better at solving it.

Thanks for the nice comments,

Thanks for the nice comments, everyone!

Alex, if you have any techniques you use, please share them! I'd love to hear from all of our readers how they assuage fears while teaching tech skills!

Kate, thanks for sharing your

Kate, thanks for sharing your 'trouble shooting out loud' technique - in my experience the best way to help scared coworkers is to empower them, and making them part of the trouble shooting assessment is definitely part of that.

An excellent post. People

An excellent post. People fear failure, but they don't realize that inaction is failure itself.

Thanks for writing this --

Thanks for writing this -- It's a pleasure to read! You really put your finger on something that happens a lot in this profession.

Thanks, Sarah! And thank you

Thanks, Sarah! And thank you for your fantastic post - gave me the kick in the rear I needed to write this!

I've been thinking about the same issues, too. I don't know that anyone has good answers. My organization offered computer classes and a certification that gave member libraries a discount on the cost of tech support. That's not feasible for everyone and even with those classes, unused skills can get stale.

When I troubleshoot problems with librarians, I always try to think out loud for them - "okay, so we plugged these two computers into this router and one worked, so we know it's not the router or the connection. Let's focus on the machine that's not working. First we should check the connections and maybe try a new cable." But I've found that doesn't do a lick of good if the librarian (or teacher) doesn't understand how the Internet works. That's something that we can teach in workshops. Breaking away from the magical thinking that a lot of tech-fearing folks have ("I clicked and then everything broke!") is the first step. Easier said than done.

"everyday technology skills

"everyday technology skills are not pure magic or black art" - I see a poster market here. Or at least a daily affirmation. Thanks, Bohyun!

This is AWESOME and so

This is AWESOME and so well-written as always.

Substitute "teachers" for "librarians" and you get the same picture. I mentioned on Twitter recently that teachers need to learn basic troubleshooting skills. Someone shot back: "how?" Honestly, I'm not sure, because my own come purely from experience. Workshops aren't going to cut it. So what can we do? Is it about creating a safe environment for people to learn? Does everyone need some 20% time to just play? We are all so overworked - how do we find the time to let ourselves make mistakes? I literally live on a computer, but people who are uncomfortable with technology aren't.

Not questions just for you, but something I've been thinking a lot about.

I completely agree. Among all

I completely agree. Among all the people, librarians as info professionals should know that everyday technology skills are not pure magic or black art. What IT people/tech-savvy librarians do most of the time in order to solve the problems the library staff report is to google and follow instructions. More curiosity and less fear go a long way in technology. :)