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Willful ignorance

It’s no secret, yet it’s not widely talked about.  There’s a divide in library staff.  It’s not between degreed and the not, and it’s not digital.   It’s not about who uses Twitter and who doesn’t.   This divide may not even be a cultural divide or a generational one.  I think this one is more subtle, yet it affects so many things that happen at our libraries.

One friend referred to it as “Librarian IT Disease.”  When I asked what the symptoms were,  the reply was “Oh, you know…that…attitude they have:  scared of computers, hostile.  In denial.”   A broad generalization, but one I’ve heard many, many times before, almost always born out of frustration with library staff that won’t make an attempt to learn new things.  The new thing doesn’t even always have to be computers, per se.  It could be a new research database, or perhaps a new shelving scheme.  While technology-related changes probably provoke the most symptoms, hostility and denial are hardly limited to information technology in libraries.

One of my favorite quotes is from science fiction author Spider Robinson:  “Fear is the root of all anger.”  So my question is, then, what are these staff members afraid of?  One colleague theorizes that these staff fear and dismiss technology because they know they should know more than they do, and choose not to learn what they should.  This seems odd to me, since librarians are inherently knowledge workers.  We shouldn’t be choosing to be ignorant.  Yet, some of us do.  And that, in turn, may make us fearful when faced with our own ignorance.  Ignorantiaphobia.

You see, I can explain technology all day, yet in many cases I’m preaching to the proverbial choir–staff that already has an interest in acquiring more knowledge to help them do their jobs better.   If you don’t have “the wannas,” you’re not going to read this blog.  Or do anything else you don’t absolutely have to do.  How can we encourage staff to have a greater sense of curiosity about things that affect their work?

What does this mean to me, Laura? (For the frustrated)

  • Stop the labeling. Firstly, let’s be clear that keeping this divide is not helpful for solving the problem.  The “tech savvy vs. tech ignorant” label is convenient, but hardly beneficial.
  • Be patient. These people are not useless.  They are likely just scared and uncomfortable.  We need to think long and hard about how each of us, on a personal level, can reach out.   Start by being patient and explaining something carefully, even when you’re frustrated with the pace of the exchange.  I know, it’s hard when both parties are frustrated.
  • Share! Found an interesting article or blog post on a subject you think is relevant to that person?  Send it.  Find out what interests them.  If they like dogs, maybe they’ll be interested in a tweeting dog collar or a laptop just for dogs.  Yes, they’re funny, but people like to laugh.  The point is to find a point at which that person and the thing(s) that make them fearful, connect.  Help them find that point of contact.
  • Reward for leaving the comfort zone.  (This is mostly for managers.  I also realize that, in many environments, staff are unionized and there are added difficulties in getting staff to learn new things.)   You may have some success in providing additional recognition or incentivesfor those staff that above and beyond or that exhibit a strong desire to learn.
  • Don’t stop the CE. In the current economic environment, continuing education has often been first to the chopping block.  This is unfortunate, as the technology climate is constantly changing and a lack of learning opportunities for staff increasingly puts libraries even further behind.  The good news is that an awful lot of opportunities happen online.  Find the time to “send” people to training as often as you can.

What does this mean to me, Laura? (For the fearful)

  • Technology does NOT bite.  “Honestly, people.  Read the words and attempt to understand them.  And the wires?  If they’re not color-coded, then the shapes tell you something.  Remember that baby toy from Tupperware?  The red and blue sphere with the yellow shapes?  If you’ve got a round plug that says “Video out” on one machine, look for the round plug that says “video in” on the other machine.  And if they’re both yellow, “Hallelujah!” (Don Yarman, Deputy Director, Delaware County Public Library.)  Don’s got it right.  So does Nike:    Just do it.   Believe me, you won’t break it.  (And if *I* can’t break it, you won’t–as my co-workers will almost certainly attest to, I’m a natural for killing technology-related things..and yes, I’m a tech.)    The fear here is not that you’ll break something, but that you don’t know how.  That’s right–you don’t!   Maybe you’ll figure it out.  At least you’ll have given it a go before giving up.
  • Don’t accept less than English. There is no reason for you to know every IT-related acronym, just as there is no reason for techs to know every library-related one (part of me wonders who has more acronyms…).  If you don’t understand what a tech is telling you, nicely insist on something you can understand.  Even if involves tableware (For some reason, my husband delights in explaining  concepts to me using salt and pepper shakers. Sometimes silverware.   As long as I get it, I don’t care.).  Diagrams and visuals and analogies are good tools.  Ask for them.
  • Take pride in being a knowledge worker.  I’ve always heard it said that librarians don’t know everything–just where to find it.  There should be no shame in not knowing something, as long as you know where to go find out when the question gets asked.  It doesn’t matter if the person asking the question is YOU.
  • Be responsible for your own learning. I know, you’ve heard this a hundred times and you’re probably ready to smack me by now.  But there’s a truth in that statement.   Your colleagues know if you’re pulling your weight intellectually or not.
  • Purposeful ignorance is often planned obsolescence. ‘Nuff said.

How else can we eliminate this divide?  Give us your thoughts in the comments.

There are 5 comments

  1. You bring up some good points. I just don’t know if the target audience would actually accept the message. The hard thing is… how do you get people who don’t want to learn, don’t want to know and don’t want to take responsibility, to do exactly those things? Many of these people are very sensitive and will likely react badly to the message. They take suggestions like these as criticism.

    A message like yours, “Taking the time to try and learn something new might be difficult, but it can be rewarding and you’re reap some benefits from it” becomes, “Why are you so stupid and lazy that you don’t bother to learn anything new? You shouldn’t wonder why you don’t make much money and people have no respect for you. You should have died on the vine” in their minds. Of course I’m exaggerating, but only a little.

    I love people in the profession, but before a message like this can spur more success, a method for fixing the problems that plague communication of it should be developed. I could be wrong.

  2. I like the “Don’t accept less than English” bullet point. I think much of the fear is fear of the jargon. I may know everything thing there is no know about MARC records, but have no idea what an MX record is. That’s not an indication of stupidity, that’s an indication that we’re all experts in some area, but nobody’s an expert in every area.

  3. For some, the fear is being obsolete. I am old enough to remember when the Card Catalog was the ONLY way to find a book in the library. I was blessed to have a High School Librarian who stayed on past retirement age so she could push that small town library firmly into, or at least toward, the 21st Century. (I graduated in 1991, and she was working on making computers an integral part of our rural TN High School’s library.) I went to college and saw a similar transition in progress: the card catalog was still by the front doors of the college library, with a sign saying “No longer updated.”

    Sometimes you have to bring things inside their comfort zone first. Rather than shoving the computer at them, have you tried handing them a good book on the subject? The “For Dummies” books are perfect for some (and libraries seem to love to stock them!). For others, the same thing with a different title is best. 🙂

  4. It may not be the fear of technology. It might be the fear that they will no longer be the ‘all knowing’ on that topic or item, or even the source of information, but will be reduced to “newbie” status with the feeling of being lost and helpless. We’ve all heard that “knowledge is power”, and putting something new into the work place could make them feel inadiquate and powerless. However, holding back on advancing through life or business because we fear the unknown is letting our fears control us, rather us controlling our fears.

    It’s normal to have fears, but as another popular saying goes “there is nothing to fear, but fear its self”. One way to get someone motivated and embrace change is to make them think it was their idea. If it is their lack of knowledge that makes them uncomfortable, train and equip them, have them involved in the project. I’m not saying this is the ideal method, I still don’t like programming a VCR. Oh, what’s a VCR? Never mind that, we are talking about new things here, not my fear of programming old, non user friendly devices.

    In summary, don’t let your fears make you look foolish. Embrace new things, take control of change or be the victim of it. Don’t be history, Make History! As for you techie people teaching us, take it slow and easy on us, as we may have battle scars from our dealings with the VCR or other such non user friendly device. 😉

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