Talking with Non-Techies

It may sound odd to you if you’re the accidental techie in your library or if you’re a newly employed librarian, but sometimes, you actually know a lot more than your colleagues do. When you’re pushing technical innovation in your library, how do you avoid the temptation to speak over everyone’s head? How do you put your colleagues at ease when they’re feeling overwhelmed by all this new hardware and software?

Key Actions to Consider

  • Be patient.
  • Teach your colleagues so they can help themselves.
  • Remember…your less tech-savvy colleagues often know more than you think.

For elaboration on each of these points, see the following “Stories from the Field” section.

Stories from the Field

Good tech support involves lots of training

In the long run, I try to be more of a teacher than a doer. If somebody has a problem doing something, I’ll go downstairs, even if they call me on the phone, to show them how to fix it or show them what happened or why it happened. That way, it won't happen again. That prevents a lot of repeated issues....I have one branch that has connectivity problems periodically, and they're a pretty busy branch, and now they know how to reset their network equipment, and they just do it every morning to deal with the fact that their lines go down all the time. So, you go show them and you give them written instructions, and now they just do it.

Eric Brooks
Placer County Library, Auburn, CA

Develop tools that facilitate communication

A problem I have here is constant, absolutely constant, interruptions with minor computer questions that they won’t put in writing. They just walk into my office and want to take up half an hour of my time. And I don’t have the time. So I developed a form, a simple form. Make it easy for people, make it simple to click, make it as automated as you can, and put it on their desktop. They just have to fill it in and click email and it’s sent to me by email.

Alice Weiss
St. John the Baptist Parish Library, LaPlace, LA

Listen to non-techie librarians and front­line staff; they know the public better than you do

Our non-­tech staff, especially the front desk staff that are working with the patrons, they’re the ones that the patrons come up to tell if a computer’s not working. Because they see the public so often, [through the process of elimination] they sometimes end up with a really good idea of what a problem might be, but they don’t necessarily know how to explain it in tech terms. [However,] their input can solve the problem for the tech if they just have good lines of communication.

Loren McCrory
Yuba County Library, CA

A lot of librarians are amateur techies and they know as much as you do about the latest technology trends

It’s something I found online that was cheap, and it was so funny because they finally came back to me, well, maybe six months to a year later saying, 'Well, I guess we’ll go with this one that you showed us initially. I guess it’ll work.' And that was back when I used to get frustrated by those things. I’m now used to that kind of process. It takes a little getting used to ‘cause they don’t expect librarians to know. That’s part of the problem and why I was saying that you really do have to keep up with stuff in order to talk with the IT staff, because if you’ve got ideas about things, they’re not going to believe you the first time you tell them anyway.

Loren McCrory
Yuba County Library, CA

Have a sense of humor and avoid the blame game

Yeah, and then I think from the geek end, from the technology side of this whole communication process, try to use consistent language and have a sense of humor. And don’t get into the blame game. I think there's nothing that will more quickly shut down an end user than if they start feeling that they're being held accountable for something. For the technology person to start saying, you know, 'This was done wrong and that was done wrong,' well, boy, forget it, all communication is gone at that point. So everybody needs to stay away from the blame game.

Paul Ericsson
Bemidji Public Library, MN

Remember how complex and confusing technology can be

The communication issue is always going to be something that's challenging just because a lot of times you forget, especially after you've been doing this for many, many years, how confusing this can be. So that naturally has to be kept in mind when talking to people who don't use technology on a regular basis.

Robin Hastings
Missouri River Regional Library, MO

IT staff should cultivate a customer service mentality

Do your best to keep open relations with the front­line staff. Let them know that you and systems people are there to serve them. We talk about having internal and external customers. So we serve both the staff and the patrons. When it comes to things like what you need for new computers, where you need them, what your plans are going to be;it’s really the front­line staff who are going to be driving that. I never want to start with technology and then find a use for it afterwards. Because it’s not about the technology; it’s about the people and it’s about the public.

Aimee Fifarek
Scottsdale Public Library, AZ

Keep the library context in mind when deploying and maintaining technology

I think the IT guys have a different attitude toward the computer than we do. We supply the computers for the public, and within reason, we want them to be able to do what they want, including playing games on the computers. Sometimes, what I hear is the IT guys don't want the games on the computers, and they think that the computers should only be used for research which, is silly. And when they give us a newly re­imaged computer, it won't allow anyone to play bridge or anything like that. I do know how to get in so that it will allow games, but every time they re­image a computer, I have to remember to go back in and do it all.

Robyn Holden
Mendocino County Library, CA

Get constant feedback about major projects

To other staff, I’m sure that seeing me working away on a project that springs fully formed from my laptop is [possibly] equally frustrating. I learned at my last library job how to ask for feedback on projects as I worked, to try to get people to feel like they were part of the process while at the same time not just saying 'So, what do you guys think of the new Web site?' Getting responses on the new Web site design that indicated that I should change the colors, add more photographs or rework the layout when we were a few days away from launching made me gnash my teeth thinking 'But I’ve been working with you on this all along, for months...!' and yet their responses indicated that clearly I hadn’t been, not in a way that was genuine to them.

Jessamyn West

Further Resources

To find out more about communicating with non-techies, check out our Further Resources section.