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A Library Story from the Height of the Pandemic

by Bill Peak

She was young, early to mid-twenties, so I was surprised when she approached the Information Desk and, asking for my help with the computers, declared herself “computer-illiterate.” Of course I'd heard people say this countless times, but nowadays pretty much all such pronouncements are made by patrons who are my age or older; it had been a long time since someone so young had begun their interaction with me using the selfsame, self-deprecating phrase.

She told me she'd just gotten married, had taken her husband's name, and wanted now to change her name with Social Security. When I walked with her over to her computer, I noticed that its monitor was displaying the library's Tax Information page. This told me she was indeed a novice, that she had done the same thing so many patrons unfamiliar with computers do when confronted with their first webpage (in those days, the library's webpage was the first to open on our public computers), she had managed to move the little white arrow over the only word—“Information”—that offered even the slimmest chance of taking her where she wished to go, and then, by accident or design, had clicked on it.

All of this, as bad luck would have it, took place at the height of the pandemic, which had made life everywhere, including the library, so much more complicated. Pre-Covid, I would have sat down beside the young patron and, placing my hand on her mouse, shown her how to manipulate it properly, how to use its buttons, and, most important, how to open a new webpage and do a Google search for almost anything in the universe. But in that brave new Covid world, I had to stand behind her, hands resolutely clasped behind my back, and, using the English language alone—with all its ambiguities and none of its (to her) meaningless computer jargon—try to walk her through the steps required of her fingers, hands, eyes, and brain to find the information she sought.

Which, of course, made an already challenging job almost impossible. You can't just say, “Use the mouse to go to the top of the page and open a new tab.” Though she seemed to know what I meant by “mouse,” what would she make of the word “tab”? Wasn't that some sort of diet drink old people used to like? For that matter, what would she think I meant by the word “page” when looking at what to her must have seemed little more than a repurposed television set? So, instead, I said something like, “Do you see the little plus sign at the top of the screen next to the little white rectangle that says 'Talbot County Free Library'? Yes, that thing that looks like the tab on a file folder where you would write the file folder's name!”

Bent forward over her keyboard, squinting at the monitor, concentrating with all her might, the lady nodded at the screen. “Now move the arrow up until it's over the plus sign.” The little white arrow jumped from one side of the monitor's display to the other, hovered momentarily over the target I had designated, and then leapt entirely off the screen.

The young lady looked up at me imploringly. “I can't make it stand still.”

Of course I could have gone on, probably should have gone on, but the poor child looked so frustrated I feared further instruction would only send her screaming from the building. I took a deep breath, sent a silent appeal heavenward, sat down beside her and began to show her—using my hand on her mouse, my fingers on her keyboard—how to operate a computer.

After it was all over, after I had found the proper page for her at socialsecurity.gov and the information she needed to change her name with Social Security, after I turned off her computer for her and watched her walk contentedly out of the library, I hurried back to the Information Desk, carefully scrubbed my hands with sanitizer, and then began to think.

It was one thing when someone fifty or older asked for help with one of the public computers, but someone so young? I couldn't imagine what this poor lady was going to face in her life, how she would manage without the computer skills most of us now take for granted.

Which made me realize I owed former Talbot County Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon an apology. When Dr. Salmon first arranged for every student in Talbot County to have a laptop to work with—a laptop paid for out of county funds—I thought the woman mad. I'm a traditionalist when it comes to education—reading, writing, and arithmetic—what on earth did teenagers need with another distraction from the three R's? Well, this young patron had demonstrated pretty conclusively what they needed with that distraction.

I am so glad the students leaving our schools have a leg-up into the cyber world they must navigate if they are to succeed in life. And now that the Covid pandemic has begun to withdraw, I am equally glad that any young or old person who never received that leg-up can now get the computer assistance they need from the Talbot County Free Library without having to do so through the obscuring veil of safety restrictions once imposed by a dastardly disease.

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