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.