Ebooks and the Real Question:

October 22, 2011
Posted in: Board Member Posts

If you have walked patrons through the requisite processes to use library ebooks, you likely dread it: the ereader reference interview.  In this post, part of my series on solutions to current problems related to ebooks in libraries, I will discuss these interactions in detail.

Every type of reference interview presents specific challenges: those related to the ereader reference interview indicate both growing pains as we adapt to a new book format that rapidly has become mainstream, and the problematic nature of libraries’ relationships with ebook providers.

The basic steps of the traditional reference interview are well known to many of us:

  1. Approachability
  2. Interest
  3. Listening/ Inquiring
  4. Searching
  5. Follow up

The ereader reference interview is similar; but for many library staff, it resembles the 5 stages of grief:

  1. Denial –
    • the patron holding the ereader won’t come over to me if I look busy, run into the back, pick up the phone, shelve stuff…
  2. Anger –
    • Crap! She saw me.
    • Curse you, ebook vendor/device manufacturer/Adobe Digital Editions for making this so freakin’ hard!
  3. Bargaining –
    • I’ll wipe out our fines if you take this ereader back and get a Kindle. It’s easier [for me to troubleshoot].
    • I know you just bought this ereader, but we have the book you are looking for in paperback! Come on, don’t let print die!
  4. Depression –
    • For all of my effort, the patron left feeling stupid, rushed and frustrated; and thinking less of me and the library.
  5. Acceptance –
    • Ugh. Now I get to talk another patron through the process over the phone. I’m alone at the desk and it’s about to get busy. Whatever.

As part of the traditional reference interview, we use techniques designed to break apart a request to get at its essence, the so-called “real question.” What does a patron who needs help with an ereader want to do? Read. For many readers, the desire to have an ereader or tablet (or the serendipity of receiving one as a gift) forces them to face new technological concepts and learn new skills. Even if the patron’s question is “How do I work this thing,” the real question is, “How to I become a self-sufficient reader of ebooks?”

In order to help the patron, the real questions from the staff’s perspective are: “How much does this patron need to learn in order to be able to do this on his/her own,” and “Where is he/she stuck?” A related question is: “How much of that requisite knowledge can I satisfy right here, right now, based on my own skills and the resources I have at my disposal?”

Let’s look at the skills required to get established with ebooks. The patron needs to understand:

  1. basic computing
    • using a mouse:
      • understanding how to navigate around the computer screen
      • activate programs
      • select items
    • computer files and folders:
      • how to navigate file structures to find/download ebook files and transfer them from one device to another.
  2. accessing the web –
    • opening a browser, searching for ebooks
    • creating/accessing accounts
  3. how to progress through a process on a computer,
    • checking out an ebook via via the ebook aggregator’s interface
    • installing software related to devices/ebook aggregators
    • installing ebook apps on a mobile device
  4. how to manage her/his individual device –
    • file formats
    • device-specific interfaces
    • direct downloads to the device

Basic computer skills are components of basic literacy when it comes to ebooks, but the ereader reference interview can bog down at any stage in the process. Patrons need to reach a level of confidence with technology in order to be capable of reading ebooks on their own; a single sit-down or telephone call isn’t likely to give them everything they need. Someone who does not possess the skills of level 1 will definitely have trouble with later stages, no matter how easy the ereader/tablet is.

What can you do to help someone who is having trouble with basic computer skills?

  • Refer them to a computer class on basic computing.
  • Offer one-on-one appointments for personal help.
  • Refer them to books in the collection on computers/ereaders.
  • Refer them to video tutorials – if your library doesn’t offer them, Youtube does!

Even patrons who are tech ninjas can still get hung up on the ebook vendor’s system, the device, or on incompatibilities between either of the above and the operating system of the PC on which the downloads are being performed. Arcane error messages can appear that require considerable research to decipher. These higher-order technical issues can go beyond what library staff can be expected to know.

In these cases, provide support phone numbers for the device manufacturer, and the ebook vendor, if they will take support requests directly from patrons: some do, I’m told. More on that, later.

Putting the cart before the horse

I know that you are thinking: By the time the patron shows up with their ereader and notebook, if the library hasn’t prepared a strategy for these situations, isn’t the reference interview pretty much sunk? Yep. The truth is, so much of what we attempt to do to assist patrons in an impromptu session at a public desk or over the phone amounts to meatball surgery. Stopgaps. To be successful with these interviews, the library must set up resources so that staff members are equipped to adequately deal with the various problems.

Are you a manager or administrator who thinks everything with ebooks in libraries must be fine because your usage keeps increasing? And now that we have the Kindle, we have absolutely nothing to worry about? Talk to your staff to find out the amount of time required to troubleshoot patrons’ ebook issues. Learn what specific problems patrons are having. Make decisions about what staff can and—given the constraints of day to day operations in your library—can’t do.

What can libraries do?

  • Most importantly, train staff on ereaders
  • Offer dedicated classes on ereaders
  • Partner with local retailers (Barnes & Noble, Best Buy, etc) to have their staff come and demonstrate devices at “petting zoo” events or classes
  • Document solutions to specific technological issues that staff have addressed and make that information available to staff. Use an Excel spreadsheet. A notebook. Whatever works.

Helping patrons attain basic computer/ereaders skills: that’s on us. The ability to use an ereader is becoming an essential skill for literacy and therefore is part of our mission: this fact that should inform our motivations for teaching these skills.

When patrons’ technological problems exceed our mission, another major problem with ebooks in libraries is patent. When an ebook provider requires library staff to provide front-line tech support for their products, and refuses to make their own customer service agents available directly to patrons, they have in effect outsourced their tech support services to libraries at no cost to them. It is just another facet of ebooks in libraries that is symptomatic of the fact that libraries have no voice in dealing with publishers of vendors of electronic content. Direct tech support may become available as a service, but with à la carte pricing: a pricy side dish added to an already exorbitant entrée.

Without a voice, libraries cannot advocate on behalf our communities. We can’t work for something better when we have no place at the table. At the local level, we may get so mired in the problems associated with providing electronic content that we may not see broader issues at play. If we don’t come together to engage publishers and aggregators as an industry, we can’t effect change that will improve the state of electronic content in libraries.

I mentioned the importance of training staff. An essential problem is that many of our library staff –including many librarians –aren’t ebook-literate. How can we advocate for our patrons with regard to technology if we do not understand it, ourselves?

The next post will focus on staff training.

Matt Weaver

Library Renewal Board Member

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