The Tech Desk, part of the Innovation and Digital Learning Division, has always been at the forefront of the Evanston Public Library’s service to the community. Located on the third floor of the main library, the team is tasked with assisting users in using the computers, printers, and other technological services available to them.
But beyond this role, the tech desk staff also help customers solve more general problems, connect to key services, or just talk things over if necessary. Last year the pandemic disrupted that important function of teamwork, but now that things are personal again and health guidelines are gradually being relaxed, the tech desk is back and needed more than ever.
There isn’t really a strict definition of what the tech desk should do. Chi Williams, a member of the team, said she and her colleagues play many different roles in their work, depending on what clients need.
“We go between helping people with actual technology problems – with computers and printing and things like that – and listening to people talk,” said Williams. “Just to be there to see what they are talking about in their lives. Because the library is a safe place for so many of these people, they can relax in ways they couldn’t otherwise. “
A story from the desk
A lot more happens at the library’s technology desk than you think – the staff help all sorts of people with all sorts of concerns every day. Here are some of their stories:
Morgan Patten: There was this woman who asked me to proofread her résumé and cover letter. And I thought I have to help her with it. I can’t let her send this, it could be so much better. You could tell that she had a lot of skills, she just did not know how to write such a document, which requires certain knowledge.
And that’s part of what you measure in an interview for some positions: that you have the knowledge to write such documents. That makes it really limiting for people who may have really good skills or who are really teachable, but they have never learned those skills before.
So I just sat down with her and we reheated the whole thing. We revised her résumé and helped her write her cover letter. It was a really good experience and you could just tell she was really, really grateful. After that, she didn’t come back for help so I hope she got the job.
Last year was very difficult. In addition to isolating individual members of the community, the pandemic has also exacerbated the digital divide in Evanston. Another member of the team, Heather Lindahl, said the barriers many of us face to vital digital services and resources are a major concern. Those without the internet, computers, phones, or other devices can be cut off from the rest of society. That is why many of those affected by the digital divide take advantage of the free help at the tech desk. But sometimes it just feels like a temporary fix.
“Your experience with a technical problem is really just the tip of the iceberg of a much bigger problem,” said Lindahl.
Increasingly, however, the library is playing a bigger role in bridging the digital divide. By providing Wi-Fi hotspots, job search kits, laptops, and more for those who need them, the Tech Desk is turning more than ever to empowering the Evanston community and connecting the lives of the people in it.
EPL Executive Director Karen Danczak Lyons said it is vital that we secure broadband connectivity, a must-have resource for those who need it these days, and she says they are working with partners like Evanston City and school districts to do just that has used.
“With 43 million in new funding provided by the federal government, I hope that we can pilot broadband improvements in at least certain areas of the city where they are needed,” said Lyons. “Broadband should be like any other utility. We expect our gas, electricity and water to be there for us. The same goes for broadband. During the pandemic in particular, we saw what happens when people lose touch. “
A story from the desk
Chi Williams: I had a patron whose sister died in the course of the pandemic. They don’t know if it was COVID or if it was something else, but either way she’s died now and he’s been trying to figure out her funeral arrangements and get her wills notarized and all these different specific things. And he tells me about it in small chunks every time he walks in, because every time I help him do what he needs that day – whether it prints something, signs it, scans it and sends it back, or his lawyer just write a laudation for his sister and I can read it. And I see what a beautiful person she was and how much he valued her. I still have a copy of your laudatory speech. The fact that he told me to keep a copy and the fact that he cares so much about telling me about the situation over and over again … it’s nice to be a part of your life, even if it is so is.
Heather Lindahl, who works with Williams, said the job is a lot more than meets the eye, and the human aspect – getting in touch with clients and having an ear when needed – is a big part of the role .
“At the technical desk, we’re a bit like bartenders,” said Lindahl. “There is no alcohol, but people will come and socialize with us.”
And because of this special frontline connection, Lindahl often sees the community at its most vulnerable moments. She has multiple stories of times helping people in difficult situations or people struggling with difficult mental or physical health problems. Now the tech desk is well stocked with juice, snacks, and other resources to ease these situations should they arise.
The tech desk is a very important intermediary between the library and the users it supports. That relationship was difficult to maintain in the final year of the pandemic, however. When the library wasn’t open, technical staff lost the benefit of face-to-face contact due to social distancing measures. They were able to provide the customers with the help they needed, but only remotely. All of that changed when the library opened in the summer of 2020 and returned as a place where Evanstonians could get personal assistance, even though conditions were still abnormal.
After this change, it was very important to the visitors that the library was open to them at all after a difficult year of closed doors. Most of the time, people are just happy to have someone there to help them.
Kenneth McCane, a regular visitor who is very familiar with the tech desk staff, said the service he receives at the library is really special.
“Everyone was very welcoming,” said McCane. “And because of the pandemic, so many people, including me, were isolated at home all the time. To be able to leave the house and come here for business or whatever, and polite people have a nice word to say … you just don’t get that everywhere. “
In the past year in particular, McCane said, the support from the tech desk staff and their presence in the building have been beneficial for many. It is their reliability, stability and quality that make him come back again and again.
A story from the desk
Heide Lindahl: I had a patron who didn’t know how to get one of the stimulus checks. He said he didn’t get any and was sick, immunocompromised, very low on energy and just struggling with the system. So I found someone to help him – Truman College has a free ladder up program. There was exactly one appointment free and I booked it for him.
He went and got all this incentive money and every time he comes (now) – it was like a month ago – he says, ‘My life is so much better now, thank you very much.’ I appreciate his gratitude, but I know he’s the only one I could do this for because they only had one appointment. And so many people just don’t have the capacity to jump through all the hoops.
I see a lot how the systems we are technologically connected to, the places where they intersect, create real barriers for people. It’s an interesting vantage point that I have. I think the people who have these problems often blame themselves for not being tech savvy and for not understanding the places that are causing the problems, how their systems interact with other systems. And so they are not aware that these problems are occurring.
The role of the tech desk could increase in the future. Morgan Patten, who recently joined the desk’s team, said expanding the team’s educational initiatives and nurturing adult digital literacy could be a promising path for the library.
“We’re doing so much more at this desk than just bringing someone to a computer,” said Patten. “And there is definitely so much potential and room to grow for this department.”
Patten said the desk is also experimenting with ways to create programs that engage and support underserved guests, including those affected by homelessness. According to Patten, a particularly powerful function of the desk is to help people in difficult situations connect to resources or job opportunities.
Lindahl said the tech desk’s work is vital. In addition to daily support, overcoming the digital divide can change the lives of many people.
“Life changing things happen for people when they go online and do their jobs and get access to employment or social security benefits or their stimulus or unemployment checks,” said Lindahl. “There are so many doors that need to be opened that you need technology to open them.”