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We’re All Newbies Some of the Time

I woke up this morning before it was even really morning yet, feeling the need to read from The Best of Creative Nonfiction. Annie Dillard’s introduction was thick with encouragement, so much so that I printed off an essay I’ve been planning to submit for publication, wrote a cover letter, found stamps for the SASE, and put it all near my keys so I can’t conveniently forget that I meant to send in a piece. As I was pulling the package together, it hit me that I spent all last summer writing a 40-page essay for my first-semester project, while this summer I don’t think twice about writing close to thirty pages on one subject. With practice and education, the long essay is becoming a genre I can at least write in, if mastery of it is still a bit away. None of it comes easily, and all of it is learned knowledge: first by example, then by grim and lengthy practice. Part of my writing education is understanding just how formal a process it is to learn how to write well.

Then I spent an hour this morning, while it was just getting light, with another, but unanticipated challenge: preparing a small movie I made last Sunday for video-blogging, which included installing QuickTime Pro for Windows. I had trouble figuring out that QuickTime Pro was just the free QuickTime software with the Pro license number I purchased pasted in. Then QuickTime wouldn’t authorize the upgrade to Pro. Finally, poking around the Web, I realized that for registration purposes, Apple had used a form of my name I almost never use–Karen Schneider (versus Karen G. Schneider or my nom de plume, K.G. Schneider). Finally I got Pro working and opened the (one-minute-long) movie file. I spent half an hour trying to insert a title frame at the beginning of the movie before giving up. But the export-to-broadband feature was as easy as advertised, and happily accepted the file, which should be available sometime today.

This all gets back to libraries and technology, because we’re all newbies some of the time, in some contexts. Yesterday I was in a MySQL training class with two other students already quite familiar with MySQL. (I was taking the database portion of a MySQL/PhP class. Most of the students taking this class are there for the PhP; I just wanted the MySQL.) The instructor knew his material and had a good grasp of teaching–except for his impatience with newbieness. The instructor taught to his most expert student in the class, rushed through preliminary information, and made impatient comments, including, “We saw that command two hours ago!” Yes, once, I saw that command flying past me, in an exercise where I madly typed commands onto a screen. (“It’s not a typing class,” fumed the instructor at one point. All right, young man: then slow down and teach.)

All day I felt I was wearing roller blades with loose shoelaces, skidding around a rink as fast as I could go, trying to keep up, feeling simultaneously eager, anxious, annoyed, and determined to prove myself. (I wasn’t helped by the side conversation among the two other students and the instructor about “office girls” in the next room in a basic Excel class.) I learned a lot, but I wonder how much more I would have learned if the other two students had been newbies as well.

I compare that with the gentle, gentle introduction to writing from the MFA program at the University of San Francisco: a huge amount of education, often daunting, but measured out in careful and deliberate doses, with much mentoring and encouragement. Alternatively, I compare it with floundering on my own this morning with the “intuitive” QuickTime software. At least yesterday I was able to complete every example in our MySQL workbook, albeit sometimes by pleading with the instructor to help me understand what I was doing; this morning I flunked Basic QuickTime Editing.

I heard someone say recently that library staff fell into two categories: they either learned all new technology quickly and easily, or they were refuseniks who resisted change. My own experience, as an educator and manager, could not be more different. I find that some people learn some things very quickly, but all of us have topics that are hard for many us (such as MySQL) or that may seem easy but for some mysterious reason we resist learning (such as pasting a picture into QuickTime). In many places there are a very few people who enjoy “stirring the pot,” and without countervailing forces–training, documentation, planned migrations, and an approach to technology that acknowledges its complexities and its frustrations–will tip those who are struggling into the refusenik camp. Then you only have the natural learners to rely on, and they are the worst at appreciating technology adoption processes such as training because they don’t need it.

In introducing new technologies, the key is understanding that most technology will frustrate some of the people all of the time, that nothing is truly intuitive, and that people who are frustrated rarely speak up to say “I am having trouble learning this.” Don’t separate librarians into the quick and the dead: instead, practice triage. Some won’t come along, ever; some are there before you even got started; but your treatment needs to focus on the walking wounded, your foot soldiers who will carry your new technology on their backs for many long miles to come.

Probably the easiest trap to fall into is to listen to the loudest voices. Don’t just listen to the positive statements (“I learned this in twenty minutes!” “It looks really good!” “This is a big improvement!”) or the negative statements (“I hate it.” “The old system was fine.” “This won’t work at all”). More than anything else, listen to the silence. Who isn’t saying anything? Find these people and talk to them. Offer them hands-on training. Tell them their concerns are valid and that you care. From this crowd, the great, struggling middle, you will learn more about what you need to be sharing about the new technology than anything else combined you have learned from the extremes of the technology adoption spectrum. Additionally, you will have preempted the refusenik’s most potent propaganda by showing that yes, you care, and yes, this is everyone’s technology.

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