This is the second in a series of posts required for my summer session class, Technology for Information Professionals. For the first post see here.
Jessamyn West at librarian.net posted a short reflection on a New York Times blog post, Offer a Digital Helping Hand, about the frustration that many (most?) of the world’s population can feel about “undigital these days. There’s a grating discomfort that comes from being left out of everyone else’s secret language.” The original post, on the New York Times’ GadgetWise blog, was written as a plea to the digitally-savvy to offer a helping hand to those for whom the latest internet tool — such as Twitter — or the task of accessing email, or even as basic a computing function as manipulating a mouse, are foreign territory.
A couple of years ago, just before moving to Boston and starting my library science program at Simmons, I helped my grandmother set up an email account and learn the basics of using a computer. Before my grandfather died rather suddenly of cancer, he was the one in their household who took primary responsibility for using the computer and navigating the internet; after he died, my grandmother was faced with learning how to use the computer literally from the ground up. I put together a how-to guide that gave her step-by-step instructions for turning the computer on and accessing her email and programs like Word. It was a fascinating and humbling exercise for me to sit beside her and watch her learn how make sense of the hand-eye coordination required for operating a computer mouse, and to realize what steps I had inadvertently left out of my instructions. Steps that, to me, seemed so intuitive I had forgotten they were even a step in the process.
I try to keep this experience in mind when I help patrons at the Historical Society, only some of whom are familiar with the internet or have online access to tools such as our online catalog or website. I try to remember both the skills I cannot take for granted, and also the way in which learning basic computing skills has made a genuine difference in my grandmother’s ability to stay connected to her family and friends. As West points out in her post, it is important for those of us who use such technology regularly in our everyday to remember that the terminology, the skills, and the power of these new tools are not self-evident. It is even more important for those of us who work in library and library-like environments, where our core mission is making information available and accessible to all, to be aware of the differing level of technology and computing skills among our user groups.