things i heard at the library: an occasional series: #31

One of the most frustrating and sad things we encounter at the library are people we can't help, who don't understand why we can't help them -- and who blame us. These are generally people with minimal or no digital literacy (i.e. tech skills).

Here's a typical scenario. A customer cannot access their email account because they have forgotten their password. It's likely they changed the password at some point but don't remember doing that, so they're using the old password, or that they're typing it in wrong. They claim they know their password, but it's not working. The password reset function requires a verification text sent to the phone number on file -- but that phone no longer exists.

There are several ways this plays out.

The customer blames the library computers, claiming that this never happened when they used the computers at [place where they used public computers in the past].

The customer blames library staff for being unwilling to help them.

The customer blames library staff for not having basic computer skills.

The customer insists that library staff is able to retrieve their password but refuses to do so.

And any combination of the above.

Typically the customer is very frustrated and upset. If they happen to speak to library staff who are less adept at handling difficult situations, it can get really ugly.

It helps if there is more than one staff member present. People tend to respond more positively to the second person who confirms what the first person has said -- the old "I'll check with my supervisor" technique.

Explanations must be very clear and concise. But a person who is in a stressed and anxious state often cannot absorb even the clearest information.

And no matter how skilled the library staff, and how perfect their explanation, the result is the same: we can't retrieve their password.

* * * *

We live in a world where basics skills with a device, be it a phone or computer, are needed for daily life. But where and how do you acquire those skills, if you're not in school, don't own a device, and don't work at a job where computer use is the norm? For people who are experiencing homelessness or other social dislocation, it can be a nightmare.

I hope you have all seen the film "I, Daniel Blake". (If you have not, you must!) There's a scene where Daniel uses a computer in a busy public library. He has never used a computer. He doesn't know how to use the mouse, or how to type something into a search engine.

Daniel is an intelligent and knowledgeable person, but in this situation, he is almost helpless. And Daniel needs the computer in order to access benefits, in a system purposely designed to weed out as many people as possible. (Good piece on "I, Daniel Blake" and literacy here.)

And we also live in a world where countless daily interactions are dependent on giant, faceless mega-corporations. Interactions with the corporations that hold and control our data moves only in one direction. The customer asks, Can't you call Hotmail and get my password from them?

Perhaps to us, that's a ridiculous question. Who uses Hotmail anymore? And call Hotmail? But it's actually a perfectly reasonable question. It's the answer that's unreasonable.


Rural said...

Ahhh, Laura there are two sides to this story and I am sure you have experienced the unreasonable side more than the the senior that genuinely has forgotten his passwords and does not know how to retrieve it. But for keeping written record (hidden in a safe place) I would be increasingly in the same boat, many of us old folk are not up on a lot of the 'new' stuff or are gradually loosing our recall ability. Assistance in creating a new password and / or account (which in and of itself could be a challenge for some) is appreciated, but yes the in your face its all your fault from the customer solves nothing.
PS. 'Hotmail' is as you know simply an email server, many folks myself included use email (not necessarily hotmail) for their daily communication needs please do not demean those of us who refuse to use facecrap or twitsplace ….. sorry is that demeaning?

laura k said...

Hi Rural. Do you find my post demeaning? Surely you know that is not my itention! What part do you find demeaning? I didn't mention anything about social media.

As far as passwords, I have as spreadsheet with more than 50 of them, and I couldn't live without that. My coworkers have small memo books in their bags, with all the passwords written down. NO ONE could possibly remember all the passwords we now need. I am almost 60 years old, but my memory has been questionable for a long time.

Perhaps I wrote this wrong. The story is not about forgetting passwords. It's about the lack of understanding of how that can be remedied. It's not the computer you happen to be using. The librarian can't retrieve the password for you. And you can't call the email folks.

I feel tremendous empathy and often sadness for our customers who experience them. If that isn't evident in this post, then I am losing my ability to write clearly.

laura k said...

Also Rural, it should be extremely clear that if I can help someone retrieve a new password, I am happy to do so, and in fact I -- and all library staff -- do so all the time.

In this scenario, there is literally nothing we can do to help the person. We can help them make a new email account, but that won't help him retrieve what's in the old one.

You might want to re-read my post -- the whole thing.

Rural said...

Sorry Laura, perhaps my diminishing understanding and ability for 'basics skills with a device, be it a phone or computer' are showing through, no insult towards your empathy intended.....

laura k said...

Thank you. Except you blog and you comment on blogs. This means you are so much more digitally literate than the customers I'm writing about here. Perhaps you feel unable to keep up, as so many people do, but I'd bet you have the whatever basic skills you need. You can function online. The people I'm referring to cannot.

Amy said...

Having dealt with my very angry, very impatient, and very intelligent father on these issues in the last years of his life, I can totally relate. He could not understand why sites kept asking him to change his password, and then he couldn't remember the passwords. And he couldn't then get into his email to change passwords for other sites because he couldn't remember his email password. And he'd just get more and more angry and call me ranting and raving. I finally had to take over when I was at their house. I opened a new email account for him, signed him up again for the sites he used, and saved all his passwords on MY phone so that I had them.

One account he lost access to was his Microsoft account. There was no way I could retrieve hia password. He was furious. I told him I'd take his laptop home and work on it for him. I took his laptop, bought him a new copy of Microsoft OFfice with my money, and then assigned a new password which I saved. He thought I was a genius and never knew I'd purchased him a new copy. It was worth every penny.

So I can completely imagine the frustration and anger you all must face at the library. It is so hard for someone to learn these new skills. I am just glad this stuff all came around while I was still young enough to adapt!

laura k said...

And imagine trying to learn these new skills when you don't have your own device, and you have access only a few hours each week.

Amy, that was a brilliant solution. Well done.

laura k said...

Further explanation to Rural: for many people, Hotmail is like AOL, a thing of the past. I meant "who uses Hotmail anymore" facetiously. I was not commenting on email vs social media.

Abby said...

I relate to the frustration. I go nuts with this shit. And I am a privileged, highly educated, high-functioning 59-year-old. I cannot fathom how anyone older than I, or who has fewer advantages and resources, can possibly cope in this digitally-controlled world.

allan said...

Perhaps I wrote this wrong.

You were probably simply being polite, but I will confirm that nothing was written wrong.

Your post was extremely clear in: (a) what the problem is, (b) why it exists, (c) what "outside" people like yourself can do about it, (d) how corporations and governments purposefully exclude poor people by putting more and more resources only online (you only hinted at this, though), and (e) how a lack of computer skills has nothing to do with a person's intelligence.

laura k said...

Thank you, Allan. I was counting on you to tell me one way or the other.

laura k said...

I cannot fathom how anyone older than I, or who has fewer advantages and resources, can possibly cope in this digitally-controlled world.

Yes. This.

With God's Help said...

Very accurate depiction of the challenges we face as library workers. We are increasingly expected to fill gaps. Wouldn't it be great if actually could be reached to help customers using their product??!

johngoldfine said...

I can get around okey-doke in computers at age 74, but I am scared shitless that I will live long enough to have to buy and learn to use one of them new-fangled smartphones. Tiny screens for my crap eyes, tiny buttons for my arthritic hands, a zillion apps and hardware stuff to figure out....

FWIW, I thought your catalog of what upset and angry people say and do nailed it--your good writer's good eye and ear still up to the task.

laura k said...

Thank you, my friend. :)

Should you want or need a smartphone, it is possible to set them up for greater accessibility. Of course, you would need someone to do that for you, as the inaccessible little apps and screens would be the starting point.

But if you've lived your first 74 years without a smartphone, chances are you'll get through your next 74 years without one.

impudent strumpet said...

And this is all compounded by the fact that things are evolving in a direction where computers can't do everything (or, rather, tech companies are choosing not to make everything accessible via computer) and things increasingly require people to have their own device.

The password verification texts are an example, and now password verification is moving away from texting and towards apps (which are apparently more secure, but also require to you have an iOS or Android device). Apparently now you can't even open a new gmail account without a phone number to associate with it, and I'm not sure what the repercussions would be if it isn't your phone number (e.g. if it belongs to a friend's or family member's phone)

A useful role for the library would be to have public mobile devices like they have public computers, for when people who don't have their own devices need to do something that's app-only. I'm not sure how that would work in practice though - a lot of security and privacy considerations and I have no idea how it would play out.

It would also be useful if there was an equivalent of webmail for texts - you can sign in to your account from a computer or a mobile device and check your texts, and then you can sign out and someone else can sign in from the same device and check their texts.

laura k said...

Apparently now you can't even open a new gmail account without a phone number to associate with it, and I'm not sure what the repercussions would be if it isn't your phone number (e.g. if it belongs to a friend's or family member's phone)

Or in many cases, to open a new email account, you need another email account.

We've been dealing with this in the library as long as I've been a librarian -- so, at least 2013.

The public mobile devices is a great idea, but so fraught with issues. Many libraries lend laptops and tablets -- but phones are tricky.