No Laughing Matters

Today at the library I was doing a one-on-one instruction session with a person who is relatively new to using the computer. He has taken my computer classes and scheduled these additional sessions so as to get some individual instruction to be able to get his resume typed and start applying for jobs. It’s been a slow process as he is used to using an electronic typewriter (still own one, in fact) and some of the typewriter-vs-computer aspects have been harder to grasp. But, even in its labored pace, he has been eager to learn more, practice what I’ve taught him, and do additional reading.

The session we had today was focusing on sending email with attachments. We were making progress, but he was asking me a ton of questions as we go. I encourage people to ask questions when they have them so this is about par for the course as we go along. After a slew of questions, he stops for a moment, looks at me, and says, “You are the first person who doesn’t laugh at me when I ask these kinds of questions [about the computer]”.

“It’s what I’m here for,” I replied and smiled.

But in those following moments, there’s a bit of different dialogue in my head. I’ve always prided myself with having patience when it comes to computer instruction. I get compliments on the seemingly infinite time I spend explaining everything when it comes to using the computer. It would seem that the time I spent taking care of an elderly grandmother with dementia and short term memory loss has well prepared me for a litany of sustained, not-always-reasonable, and oft repeated inquiries I have gotten in the past. This is something I know I’m good at and a point in my favor.

However, I got a pang of guilt in the midst of his appreciative statement. As I mentioned earlier, his prior experience exclusively with the electric typewriter has made some of the instruction time…difficult. There are aspects of the typewriter that simply do not translate to the computer and the constant comparison of the two has slowly worn down my nerves. It has made some of the sessions into mental grinds as I simultaneously try to provide him with the answers he is looking for as well as steer him in the right direction within the word processing program. It has left me on more than one occasion with my teeth on edge, crawling back to my office computer so I can recoup my sanity through the viewing of websites full of funny cat pictures.

I know that we are all human and we all have our limits. It’s impossible to be actually nice all the time, so we do have to fake it to make it through sometimes. But his generous statement was a reminder of the importance of what I do in the lives of the people I serve. So much so that I’m starting to wonder if knowledge and information is just a secondary role in the lives of librarians. Yes, answers are important, but as I travel along my career path, I’m not always sure that’s what people are looking for when they come to the library. Empathy, kindness, and acceptance may be the larger underlying factors here.

In asking a question, it can present a vulnerability in which a person acknowledges a intellectual lacuna. In this fleeting moment, they don’t want to be judged, ridiculed, or otherwise embarrassed by a reaction to the content of their inquiry. They want to know they are safe with a person they can trust. The reference transaction isn’t simply about connecting someone to their answer, but how they feel about it along the way and after they leave. I’m sure we (the royal we, me and anyone reading this) can think about times when they got the answer to the question they asked but felt good or bad about how the answer was given. That makes a difference in how people perceive the value of the library in their lives and community.

For myself, his comment is a great reminder about the virtue of patience. I know he will be back, I will be there, and we will take on the next hurdle. And as much as there will be times that will drive me insane with frustration, I will take solace in knowing that there are internet cats ready to catch me and get me back to fighting shape. I just have to keep it together till then because it matters to the person I’m helping.

7 thoughts on “No Laughing Matters

  1. Nice post. I completely agree. Saw a ‘sig’ the other day that made me laugh — “Show me a computer expert that gives a damn, and I’ll show you a librarian.” That’s us!

  2. The next-to-last paragraph of this post reminds me of a book called Drawing Closer to Nature: Making Art in Dialogue with the Natural World by Peter London (Shambhala, 2003). The book is sort of a scrapbook compiling the author’s thoughts on various facets of making art and teaching art, particularly art that is inspired by nature. One of London’s ideas that has stuck with me since I first read the book (though I’m not a teacher) is the idea that it is a teacher’s responsibility to create a safe space for the student to explore and learn. Learning new things can be very scary, and if you can help ease that process for someone, so much the better.

  3. Very nice post. When I’m teaching classes at my library, one of the things I say is that no one wakes up one morning knowing how to do everything with a computer. The thing is, we all start from not knowing something —- so if people feel like they’re not unusual, and we’re all in this together, it seems to help.

  4. I have had the same experience. I lead a technology club at a local senior center. They have told me what they want to learn and how they want the material presented–simply, clearly and in small chunks. I also do one on one instruction for anything–email, cell phones, how to use Google–anything that will help them feel more comfortable finding information or using their computers. They apologize for the silly questions, but no question is silly. They are grateful that I have the patience to help them when no one else does, and they tell me so. It is gratifying and frustrating, and one of the best parts of my job at a public library.

  5. Pingback: Empathy | libraries as dialogue

  6. Pingback: refdesk assistance and all the feels | librarianaut

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