Helping my friend Carol, who is in her sixties, buy a computer, brought back memories of my boss, another sexagenarian, and assisting her to navigate her PC (this was back in the mid '90s.) What seemed for me then and now to involve quick mouse movements or keyboard macros to accomplish a task (cutting and pasting text, opening and closing an application, switching between windows on the desktop,) caused some degree of bewilderment to both women. Things I take for granted cause others anxiety and frustration. I found it hard to explain what I was doing in simple steps. In my friend's case we opted to buy a mouse since the touchpad on the laptop enervated her. All she wants to do is write verse using a word processor, and perhaps send her literary output to her sister via email, while at the same time she does have some curiosity about the online world, particularly online music. No simple machine, however, presented itself, and most everything we looked at required additional software or hardware to accomplish what she wants.
Then there are many older people who have no problem with technology for a variety of reasons, many having acquired some facility through everyday professional use. My mother, a career reference librarian is a great example, and in her early working years dumb terminals were just beginning to appear. She has a wide knowledge of internet resources and curiosity about social media sites and tools. And from what I see on Twitter and Facebook there are many like her.
But what about the people coming to our libraries to use a computer for the first time to fill out a job application or a government form or set up an email account? Maybe they get some assistance from us or they avail themselves of a class at a particular time, but what they encounter on the computer screen must make no sense at all, never mind small print and unfriendly web design and inexcusable information architecture (let's not get started down that road.) Librarians who navigate internet sites on a daily basis take for granted what mystifies relative newcomers to say, Yahoo, for instance, trying to attach a Word file to an email or verify that something was saved or sent, all new and mysterious to one library user who I helped with his email account to accomplish similar tasks.
You may wonder, if our libraries provide the computers pretty much as is, and due to staffing limitations must ration support to patrons (and a recent survey indicates many rely on libraries for computer access, ) then what? Maybe these technology "newbies" are doing and will continue to do just fine and don't need our help. Maybe they have to do it our way or the way it is now and catch up and get with the program. Granted, among our libraries there is so much variation, from resource-rich to comparatively resource-poor, well-funded to under-funded, busy and less personal to a small staff/patron ratio and more personal service. Maybe we don't want to know what our patrons are doing online, maybe it's a question of privacy and allowing some space, or maybe I will be asked a question about some application I don't have experise with and feel stupid and exposed. And yet I sense that our future may lie in facilitating patron use of technology, in ways we may not have even encountered. This might not sit well with some of my colleagues who prefer to provide a comparatively wholesale rather than a retail service operation, from perhaps the concern that giving too much attention to any one patron will cause others to demand the same and overwhelm the staff. However, if we don't help those in need, where will our advocates be when our funding and space are at stake and through lack of tears the atmosphere is arid and the silence high frequency?