Secrets of a Tech Therapist

by Rebekah Kati, former Head Editor, INALJ North Carolina
previously published 6/5/14

Secrets of a Tech Therapist

RebekahKatiMy previous job was the Information Technology Librarian for an online university. One of the most difficult aspects of this job was helping patrons troubleshoot technical problems with the online databases. At times, I felt like a therapist as I listened to patrons describe not only a technical issue, but how they felt about technology and computers in general. These discussions could get heated, especially if the patron was extremely frustrated, but I developed the following strategies to calm the patron and fix the problem..

Stop and listen

Oftentimes, the patrons had good reason to be frustrated with the online databases. Many patrons told me that they had been struggling with their technical problem for hours, if not days or weeks, before they asked for help. Experiencing the same problem over and over is frustrating for anyone! Since I acted as tier two technical support, the patrons had already spoken to a reference librarian who was unable to solve the issue, adding to the frustration.

However, I learned that the best way to deal with a frustrated patron is to stop and listen to their problems. Patrons respond better to help when they feel that someone is actively listening to issues which frustrate them, and oftentimes they would be less combative after they had a chance to vent. Although it was difficult, I also learned not to take their frustrations and sharply worded criticisms personally. The complaints may have been about the library’s website and databases, but the bitterness was a culmination of many factors which likely had nothing to do with the library. This process also allowed me to get some valuable feedback about how patrons actually used our website, which helped shape future redesigns.

Have responses ready

Most of the technical issues that patrons reported were fairly common, so it was easy for me to have a response ready. Usually, a problem could be fixed by clearing the browser’s cache, or using a different browser or rebooting the computer and I created a LibGuide which showed how to do these tasks in the most commonly used browsers. More specific tasks were also featured in this LibGuide, which also included screenshots and step-by-step instructions.

Of course, some patrons did not provide any relevant information about their issue, but still expected a response. In these cases, I developed a generic series of questions designed to get the needed information with minimal amount of patron effort. The questionnaire consisted of their name, operating system, browser and a description of their problem. I normally would not get all that information, but it provided a starting point and more importantly, a point of initial contact so that the patron knew that someone at the library cared about their problem.

Talk with your IT staff

It may seem obvious to create an open dialogue with your IT staff, but it does not seem to happen in all libraries. When I brought up communication between librarians and IT in interviews, I often encountered blank looks from library staff. If your library does not currently have a line of communication with your IT staff, it is a good idea to start one, since they can have valuable insight into technical issues and support. Also, it is possible that your IT staff is receiving the same technical support calls as you are, and collaboration can help identify problems which should be addressed.

If you are the IT staff, create some documentation on common issues which might help patron-facing librarians. In addition to my LibGuide for patrons, I also created a companion guide for library staff which gave further detail on common library IT issues in a format geared towards live troubleshooting. It was especially useful for the reference staff.

You may never know if your diagnosis was successful

Despite all this effort, I often never heard back from the patron after the initial contact, especially if that contact was via email. Once an issue was resolved (or overcome), patrons would not bother to contact the library again, so it was difficult for me to learn if the solution I proposed worked. Although this was frustrating, I made peace with not knowing – presumably the patron would contact us again if they needed further help!

Hopefully these suggestions will help if you need to troubleshoot technical problems in the future. If you have additionally suggestions, leave them below in the comments!