Computer Troubleshooting for Librarians

Troubleshooting is a specialized domain of problem solving that is mostly concerned with computers, electronics and mechanical systems. As librarians we have to deal with all of these as a part of our job and in our private lives.

The principles of troubleshooting are usually specific to a field, electronics engineers do one type, programmers use another set of tools. There are general principles that apply across all disciplines, and I’ll try to bring out a couple of specific techniques for computers that can help us solveĀ problems on our own.

First, keep it simple, stupid. Most computer problems areĀ solved by restarting the computer. Write down any error code the computer shows. Connection points are the most likely places for any connection to fail, so check the cables by pulling them out and putting them back in carefully.

Second, use your resources. Have any of your co-workers had this problem before? Ask a question on a listserv, or read the manual. If your manuals are electronic, use your search skills. A good desktop search program, like Copernicus or Google Desktop Search, limited to just that set of files, will give you better results than the built-in Adobe or Microsoft search.

Third, just Google it. Operating system errors and program errors will have happened to other people, many of who are more experienced at troubleshooting than you or I. This will not work for your proprietary systems like your ILS, especially if you are using something more than 3 or 4 years old. Use advanced search techniques, you’ll often get better results than the IT department. (Yes, this is what they do.)

Fourth, remember that this computer problem is just a research question. Write down the terminology. Map the concepts, Draw the connection between widget A and widget b. Like any good subject librarian, you need to know a broad overview. Don’t worry about programming unless you’re interested in it. Start with a binder. Move on to a wiki if you have the interest.

Fifth, and finally, only solve the problem once. If you discover a solution, or IT helps you solve it, write your steps. Just like finding aids for students, these pathways will get you thinking when you run into the same or related computer problems.

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Organization & the Digital Collection

I’ve been spending a great deal of time recently harmonizing our database lists between our different online locations. I recently completed a first draft of a unified database list. Tech limitations have been the main driving force behind this exercise in excessive librarian geekiness. While updating our OPAC requires learning web design circa 2002, it is simple HTML. The “easy to use” backends of vendor tools have been causing me significantly more problems.

On our legacy OPAC we have divided the databases up onto general categories to point faculty and students toward general sources and more specialized databases by program. This is the setup most of our patrons are used to. I am working on duplicating and standardizing these categories across all of our services, including our OpenURL resolver and our federated search. It is in these tools where most of my complications have shown up.

With Serial Solutions recent update and merger with WebFeat we gained a lot more control over how our data is displayed. Nonetheless, there are some frustrating gaps in the configuration options.

While I can create the display order for our databases, I can’t actually create categories on the “search by database” page. Where I can create categories, the names of the databases are obscured.

Serials Soloution, in their efforts to make the backend easier to use are determinng policy and practice for our library. We’re engaged in a decades long experiment in throwing Ranganathan’s First Law right out the window. Our libraries are now digitally chaining our items, limiting knowledge to forms, digital locations and uses permitted by the content owners. Some of this is ignorance, but much of this change from physical ownership to digital licensing is being pushed past us because Librarians are not paying attention to the implications of licensing arrangements.

What’s the soloution? I’m not entirely certain, but I have some ideas. If you have a chance to work with a consortium, do so. If your purchasing budget is such that you can effectively bargin with vendors, choose those with more open policies. Work with open access programs at your University to reduce the stranglehold vendors have over some types of content. Complain about poor design decisions, the lack of cutting edge options and the paucity of open API’s to your software vendors.

Our new book chains are not the only option as we transition from physical books to a digital age.