Friday, December 4, 2015

Illiteracy

Any librarians or social service worker readers have tips for working with library patrons who can't read? One of the two people I helped learn how to grow their own pot earlier today was the third patron in as many weeks who is substantially illiterate.


Googling "illiterate library patrons" gets you articles on the digital divide and digital illiteracy (My favorite article was this one on library 'cyber navigators': http://www.wbez.org/series/front-center/librarys-cyber-navigators-help-digitally-illiterate-patrons-access-social) Googling "patrons who can't read" links you to some interesting text from old books. Searching the Library & Information Science Technology Abstracts database suggests that illiteracy was a way more popular topic in the professional literature 15 or 20 years ago than it is now. Plus, it's mostly pretty specialized--I'm not sure how "Bridging the gap between illiterate older adults and cognitive stimulation technologies through pervasive computing" is going to help me.


Dealing with illiterate patrons is a challenge for a lot of reasons, not just the reason that I am totally untrained and unprepared.


The first problem is that we immediately come up against the issue of what I am and am not supposed to do for people. Also, except when I'm doing a storytime, it's not my job to read to you. People don't ask me to read to them out of books (except people calling for phone numbers, but that we do...), but for some reason it's different with computers. My theory is that it's because we do help people with technology stuff. For instance, I'll show someone how to log on to the computer, how to open Internet Explorer, and how to do a Google search for the website they want to visit. It's no wonder that when they get to the website (which consists of paragraphs of text and a text-based navigation bar along the top) they look at me and say, "Okay, what do I do now?" How am I supposed to communicate to a patron that, if I could teach them to read the website as quickly as I showed them how to navigate to it, I would, but reading doesn't work like that?


Many public libraries offer reading instruction for adults who are illiterate, but ours doesn't. Even if it did, how is a year-long class going to help them when they need to get their form in to social services or they won't be able to pay their rent next week?


I will add this to the long list of things that library school failed to prepare me for, along with helping someone transfer his pornographic videos, dealing with abandoned children, and explaining that a computer doesn't know who you are.



8 comments:

  1. Your coworkers must have run into this before?

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    1. True! If only our offices weren't placed, for some mysterious reason, in the middle of the public floor, without roofs or floor-to-ceiling walls. I'm going to ask, just waiting for an opportunity with a little more privacy.

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  2. Public Libraries and Nontraditional Clienteles: The Politics of Special Services
    Marcia J. Nauratil

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    1. I will (ahem) check it out. Thank you!

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  3. Is there any way to hook them up with screen-reading software like they have for visually-impaired people? Signed, Your Mom

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    1. I've done some experimenting with a program called WindowEyes. It turns out that screen readers for people who are blind actually have a really serious learning curve, especially ones designed for reading web pages. They literally read everything, including formatting and punctuation (to get an idea of waht this is like, consider how much text there is in your menu bars in your browser). Maybe there's something out there specifically designed for people who can see but can't read, though? I'll have to take a look!

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  4. do you usually have patrons waiting while you're trying to help an illiterate patron using a computer? are your managers strict about the rule about not reading to people?

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    1. Good question. We often don't, but the argument is that of course we don't. If no one is at the desk to help people, most people won't go there and wait for help, even if they really need it. Also, I'm sort of worried about reading to people, actually. First, there are a lot of privacy concerns. Second, on the occasions I have read to people, they tend to get pretty upset when I don't follow that up by telling them how they should proceed or answer a question. I anticipate spending a lot of time saying, "I can tell you what it says, but I can't tell you how you should answer and I can't interpret it for you."

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