Thursday, April 1, 2010

Can We Teach Information Literacy and Not Be Tech Support?

March showers, April flowers

The short answer to this post's title is no. Here are some examples of what I mean:

-If we put our library resources and services into an online course management system (CMS), aren't we responsible for answering questions about that CMS to some degree?

-If we help students with how to cite resources, is it fair to withdraw assistance when there are questions about how to use a word processing program to create a works cited page?

-If we provide instruction in computer classrooms, shouldn't we be capable of troubleshooting when a computer is not working and is preventing a student from following our lesson?

As I've said before, I did not become a librarian to be a tech support person. We librarians do have specialized knowledge and skills, but people should not believe they have to be librarians to successfully use technology for academic work.

And while I'm all for being helpful, I also think it is appropriate to draw some lines. For instance, the last time I found myself on hands and knees at a computer after someone didn't believe a USB port was where I said it was, I realized that students need to be able to figure out how to use their flash drives themselves. When it comes to computer problems, I describe, confirm, encourage, etc., but sometimes I find myself saying, in the end, "Fiddle around a little and you'll get it." This approach is not always popular, particularly if due dates are looming.

I have embraced being a librarian-teacher, but I'm not particularly thrilled about being a librarian-do-this-computer-thing-for-me. And as librarians try to define our roles, I am not convinced that the latter is even something we should even aspire to.

But sometimes we are stuck in roles whether we like them or not, and so I do my best to make tech support a teaching and learning experience. If we are to be the champions of information literacy, a skill unavoidably integrated with technology, this may be the cost.


  1. Today's xkcd seems somehow relevant: :)

    I tend to draw a distinction between the kind of knowledge librarians have about computers--that is, an ability to decipher interfaces, an understanding of where information on the internet is coming from, and other similar content/tool use knowledge--and what I'd really consider "tech support" knowledge like what is really going on inside the computer and why it doesn't work when you want it to. So I don't want to lump it all together as "technology." And I think that information literacy--the ability to know what you want, where it would be reasonable to expect to find it, where it is coming from and how to manipulate it--is different from computer literacy, you know, the ability to operate a machine.

    In any case, I think we can learn a couple of the tech support things and pass that knowledge on to users, but when you get past things that users should be able to learn, you come to things that most reference librarians aren't very good at (maybe some systems librarians understand them, but I don't really understand what they do, hm). So I think we have to be careful about getting too much into tech support, not least because a lot of us aren't really qualified to do that.

    But, as long as it's based in things that users should be able to learn to do and not things that require an intimate understanding of what a computer really is, I feel like I'm teaching at times like that. Then again, a lot of these problems are filtered out before they get to me, so I probably don't encounter it in quite the same ways you do.

  2. (obviously, students can learn anything, but there's a lot about a computer they won't really understand unless they become CS majors and study it pretty intensively. Which they can do, but then they most likely won't be coming to us for help about this, yes?)

  3. I think part of why I wrote this post was because I had a patron threaten to file a complaint about me last week when I wouldn't insert her USB flash drive into the computer for her. I explained how to do it, and I encouraged her, but I stopped short of doing it for her. She was not a happy camper.

    I left to tell my boss, and apparently the patron started crying to the staff at the circ desk. They did it for her. Sigh.

  4. as a reference librarian who has handled over 20 years of inquiries in all kinds of libraries, i find your approach to helping your students not only unpopular, but just plain wrong.

    my rule of thumb regarding customer/patron service is help as much as you can, however you can. the whole notion of "it's not in my job description," is very elitist and unionist at the same time. in other words, it's a terrible show of hypocrisy where simply taking the time to help is always the better approach.

    also, keep in mind, not everybody comes to reference librarian hoping you will teach them something; more often than not, many students will approach your desk with the notion that you will simply help them with whatever it is they need.

    if you don't like helping students, with any and all of their needs, perhaps you should get out of public services.

  5. Thanks for your comment, Anonymous -- always glad to hear from experienced librarians here.

    I think if you knew me (do you know me?), you would realize how much I bend over backwards to help students when they approach me at the reference desk.

  6. ms nellums, no i don't know you at all, but your blog post doesn't indicate that you bent over in any particular direction for this particular customer, which is why this woman felt the need to ask somebody else for help.

    perhaps you were just having a bad day?

    regardless, you should have sat down with this woman, and a) showed her how to engage the jump drive, b) where and how to locate any files on the drive, and c) how to remove the drive when she is finished. very basic stuff, but difficult if you've never seen a jump drive before.

    don't let your level of expertise blind you into thinking everybody is--or should be--as well trained as you.

  7. Hello again Anonymous! I think you are correct, that my day became not so hot when a patron threatened to file a report against me after I tried to help her. That has never, ever happened before or since!

    And I think that particular situation was more complicated than I outlined in a previous comment here, because I had in fact spent some time with her, and it was not clear to me that she was having such trouble -- she presented herself as technically competent and in a hurry, and so I did not go through the hand-holding that I do when a person strikes me as not tech savvy. Upon reflection later, I wondered if she had a medical condition making it difficult for her to use the machine (she didn't tell me!).

    But all this is neither here nor there -- a staff member with a different personality was able to help, and I was glad to find out that the patron left the library happy. ...And then I wrote a blog post about the general ways we librarians teach technology skills, and how we should not shirk those responsibilities.

    I'm very sorry if this has somehow given you a bad taste in your mouth, but I assure you I do my best to be helpful and professional at all times at the reference desk.

  8. no need to apologize, i was just passing through.... but do do keep in mind that personality should rarely be a factor when working the reference desk.