Summer-Fall 2001

Community Networking on the Night Shift, Part Two: in which a Community Organizer Tries to Be a Techie
by Anne McFarland

In Part One I detailed my failed attempts to become a policy wonk. The night shift simply did not leave enough time for the reading and studying that is the province of the policy wonks. So then I decided that I would rather be a techie than a community organizer. That’s the job that impresses people; that’s where the control is. I wanted to sit down at the computer and manage the site. I wanted to learn a skill that would bring me big money in the workplace. Furthermore, I wanted to quit wearing myself out on the organizing. There’s always too much to do and too little time, and it’s really hard to see progress.

We had great techies at ACORN (Akron Community Online Resource Network) and at CH-UH.Net (Cleveland Heights-University Heights Community Network), and I loved to listen to them talk. I would make up little sentences with words that sounded cool. “Anne drove the fast, wide SCSI bus into Hubba Doo’s and ran in for a burger and a gigapop.”

The problem was that I had absolutely no idea what the words meant. I struggled with the age of technology, and if I hadn’t had to function in a modern law library, I wouldn’t have learned anything beyond word processing. In fact, word processing didn’t come easy, except for the typing part of it. Being able to eliminate mistakes without using correction tape was a miracle, but the printer was a typewriter with major attitude. I don’t want to think about how many reams of paper I’ve wasted because I didn’t set something properly, put letterhead in upside down, put envelopes in backwards, couldn’t figure out how to stop a print job, etc.

By now I’ve moved through a number of word processing programs, and I have resented every change. I dread the words, “We don’t support that anymore.” Apparently the idea is for the users to support the manufacturers by buying new software. My first program was Spellbinder, and my husband once asked me if I was ever going to read the manual. “Not while you’re in the house,” I said.

But I did read the manual, and I gained a sense of power. One night at dinner I said, “Today I put text in the buffer; then I got it out and put it exactly where I wanted it.”

“’Way to go, Mom!” said my son, who was born knowing how to do all this stuff. It took me years to realize that the Windows Clipboard was just an ordinary old buffer. I don’t want to admit how much time I spent trying to open the Clipboard.

But of course Spellbinder is long gone, along with a bunch of big floppies that I’ll never be able to read again without resurrecting old technology, which by the way, we have in the attic. Then there was XyWrite III at work, which really wasn’t bad. I could do neat things like snaking columns, and the manual was helpful. But then, of course, came XyWrite IV, with a manual that must have been written by the computer itself, because it bore no human touch.

Then one day I sat down for my stint at the reference desk and came face to face with Windows95, which my techie wannabe boss had decided would be a chuckle for us to learn. I had to go to an all-day training session on a Saturday. The dos shell that I’d used to manage my files was gone, and learning that had been a tour de force. Now there were little folders and icons for “cut” and “paste”—real techie language. But I learned Word, yea even up to Word 2000, which is a miracle for someone who approached this with the mantra “In the beginning was Word, and Anne was sore afraid.”

There were still more packages to learn. For some reason PowerPoint came easily, after I’d gone very slowly through the tutorials that our tech support person had put on the ref desk computer. But Access was something that I didn’t get very far with. I’m not even trying Excel.

There was one big area left, and my chance at it came with early retirement. I would learn how to design web pages! I had the art background, and this time I would prevail. I worked on Composer, I worked on FrontPage, and I even worked on the web wizards. I never understood the architecture. I just couldn’t develop a schematic that worked for me. I’d put up a personal web page with a wizard, and I couldn’t even figure out how to transfer an image to the page. I went back to cheat sheets. I already had a bunch of them for the email programs that my husband and son had installed as well as any other routines that I didn’t understand.

Finally I faced the truth. At a Saturday work session I was trying to teach someone how to use our community calendar, and I saw that she was way ahead of me. I called the techies over and made a public pronouncement that I was a technomoron and wasn’t even going to try to learn more than the pitiful amount I’d accumulated thus far.

So much for the glory. So much for any transferable skill, like web design, that might actually earn money in the workplace. I’d already gotten a part-time job in a law library, and it would be all that I could do to stay current with the legal databases. Legal reference is my job, not technology. Funny how neither reference librarians nor community organizers have high-paying jobs!

Then I remembered that years ago my son had said to me, “Mom, how can you run ACORN when you can’t ftp a file?”

I’d replied, “We’ve got techies; what we need are community organizers.” I should have listened to my own voice. You’ve got to do what you can do. Techie and community organizers are a team, and you play on the side for which you have some ability. Even if you’re tired. Even if the reporter who left you a message never returns your calls. Even if there is too much stuff in the pile on your desk. And even if you wish you’d been born with other abilities.

Anne McFarland is Associate Law Librarian for the University of Akron and works with ACORN, Project Connect, and the Cleveland Heights-University Heights, OH, Community Network.

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