Libraries always have been centers of learning more than they have been repositories of knowledge. More than a place where a community keeps its books, libraries also attract people who want to help others get the most from their library experience. In the last few decades, that has come to include adding cultural and academic programs for child and adult learning. In more recent years the library’s mandate has come to include providing community access to computers and, even more recently, the Internet.
The addition of these programs, though, isn’t so much a sign of libraries changing with the times as it is libraries continuing to serve as a facilitator of community access to learning and culture. The question the library staff regularly asks itself is whether it is using its resources to the fullest. As funding is a constant concern, libraries also look for places where they can find efficiencies. Occasionally these dispositions overlap and a library gets a program like, “Jack’s Tech Talk.”
Jack Hall worked at the Laurel Library in circulation, helping people find books, re-shelving and generally helping execute day-to-day operations. On the side, he worked as a computer repair technician, diagnosing and repairing PCs. Since resources can be scarce at the library, and finding small ways to save money second-nature, Hall also helped run the library’s systems, keeping them up to date and in good repair in addition to his regular job in circulation.
As the libraries computer needs grew, so did their reliance on Hall keeping everything running. Almost every office has a few computers collecting dust somewhere until they can be repaired or replaced. The Laurel Library is not one of them. Hall eventually transitioned to full time tech support for the library, answering people’s questions and rehabilitating computers that otherwise would have had to be discarded.
About three years ago, Wendy Roberts, the library director, hit upon the notion of lugging all the tech Hall worked on out into the library and setting up a kind of public help desk. It was a way of continuing to serve the library’s mission as a center of learning as well as to provide a valuable service to the community. She admits at the time, though, she had only an inkling of how valuable a service it could possibly be.
Free IT support
The initial plan was to provide free technical support for the community. That was the very beginning of Jack’s Tech Talk. Members of the community were invited to come in and learn about the programs on their computers and how to use them. If their machines were running inefficiently, Hall could diagnose them by appointment.
The library established hours for the program and it took off. For the people who knew about it Jack’s Tech Talk wasn’t just a money-saving program at the library, it provided them with a better understanding of their equipment and therefore a fuller experience.
Recently a library patron called to make an appointment because her PC was running weird. Hall doesn’t make diagnoses over the phone but this time, after the patron finished explaining the problem he said: “OK, is that your desktop making that noise?”
It wasn’t a difficult guess, there was something the matter with the PCs fan. Hall went on to make an appointment for the caller to come in and told her what components to bring. Whether he can fix it without replacing it is something he won’t know until he opens it up and takes a look.
With the recent release of Windows 10, Hall has been busy. He helps patrons install the program and then provides a quick tutorial. The new software is a massive improvement over the nearly-universally reviled Windows 8, but it can be tricky for some people to get a handle on. By combining the install service with the quick tutorial, Hall can make the transition simple for everyone.
Welcome to the future
Beyond just technical support, the Jack’s Tech Talk program eventually expanded to include helping people access the library’s newest piece of technical equipment, the 3D printer. A 3D printer is not a printer in the technical sense. Instead, it is a manufacturing tool that takes a drawing and molds it out of plastic. The technology has been used around the world to create things as intricate as artificial limbs and heart valves.
The way this program works is that people come in with either a design in mind or one they’ve found online by searching 3D printing templates.
They make an appointment to sit down and work out whether and how it can be rendered at the library and then they execute it.
Printing can take a very long time, depending upon the size of the piece, so the patron usually arranges to come back after the project is complete.
While Hall has not yet printed a prosthetic (although he could if one was needed) he has had the opportunity to print objects that vastly improved lives. A person who teaches blind children had him render the objects in the story “Goodnight Moon” so the child could hold the pieces as she listened to the story. He also printed the parts of a braille Rubix’s Cube for another blind student with intricate raised dots on a textured square.
But the items that he prints don’t always have to be serious. Last Halloween he printed Wolverine claws for one young man and Batman gauntlets (the armbands that appear to have blades sticking out) for another. Using the 3D printer requires only a little creative thinking and some patience.
Next for tech
Besides the free IT support and one-on-one tutoring Hall provides, in the coming weeks he and some local students will begin the next phase of hands-on learning at the library when they build PCs together.
Hall has selected a few students to learn how to construct a PC. He ordered the components from a wholesaler and will run the program from the afternoon well into the evening. The end result will be two working, low-cost PCs that the library will sell to the public.
Hall’s hope is to purchase more computers with the proceeds so that he can continue the program and eventually have the students comfortable making PCs all on their own.
This story originally appeared in the Sept. 10 edition of The Laurel Star.