Providing Socially Distanced Computer Help

Curious how other Texas libraries are providing technology assistance these days? Join Henry Stokes and Cindy Fisher for a facilitated interactive discussion on using technology to provide contactless library service in the age of COVID-19? Register here

The urgency of providing computer help in the aftermath of the pandemic has meant that many library staff are finding creative solutions that ensure their own safety while also providing essential connectivity for citizens to do vital activities like filing for unemployment, booking telemedicine appointments, taking online tests, or maintaining social connections with friends or family. 

Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Peter Sime, Library Services Supervisor of People at the City of Grand Prairie Public Libraries in Grand Prairie, Texas. Peter and his team developed a way to provide one-on-one technology assistance to customers using the library’s public computers while also ensuring that library staff are at a safe social distance. And, because we knew other libraries have similar questions, with the help of his communications office, he created a video demonstrating just how this service works. You’ll find that embedded below.

Peter and I also spoke about the realities of offering in-person technology help in the age of Covid-19, and how the pandemic helped them shift some of their pre-existing practices to ensure a more user-centered approach.

Describe how patrons currently access the public computers? How does this differ pre-pandemic life?

The City of Grand Prairie has three libraries and at each location we have regulated computer access by limiting the number of computers that can be used at a time. We’ve done this by taking away existing furniture to ensure six feet of distance. In some cases, we provided more than six feet of distance because there may be multiple people sharing the same computer. We’ve recently added sneeze guards in between the computers and that has actually allowed us to add a few more computers back into the rotation. 

As we were planning to reopen, it was really important to us to make things as normal as possible because the last thing people need right now is more change. We wanted people to know it’s still their library and it still works the same way. They still use the same reservation system to reserve computers. We do have a 45 minute time limit on the computers, as we did before, but there isn’t a big waiting list for computers because most people have been very efficient with their time. 

We also added a way for customers to sign up for a computer using a future reservation one day ahead of time. This is to accommodate customers that need to have access to a computer for taking a test; these reservations are for two hours. The future reservations also ensure that people don’t have to stand around waiting for a computer to become available while in close proximity to others. We have limited the number of future reservations available to ensure that there are still computers available for walk-in customers. We are really busy from 12pm (when we first open) until about 3:00 p.m. A lot of the things we’ve learned and processes we’ve put into place, we want to keep after the pandemic subsides. Sometimes we’ve asked ourselves, “Why didn’t we do this before?”

You all are using specific software to help assist computer users. Tell me a little bit about it. How does this help you keep a safe distance?

One of our biggest challenges upon allowing people back into the library to use the computers was how we help people. Pre-pandemic, our staff had been great with helping people on the computers, talking through what they need and assisting them side-by-side, but that’s obviously not doable now. 

Our IT department uses TeamViewer to work on library staff computers remotely so we asked them if it could be configured on the public computers so library staff could assist customers remotely, and they did. They installed it on one staff computer at the main branch and another one at our Warmack branch, as well as our public computers.

The host computer is the library staff computer and this enables staff to access any of the public computers that the software is also installed on. In order for a customer to get help, they click on the TeamViewer icon on the public computer’s desktop, and it generates a code. In order for the staff member to access their computer, the patron has to give them permission and the code. Once the customer provides the code, we can then log into their computer and basically see the screen the customer is working on. We can move the mouse, we can type things in for them, and we can show them how to do things. 

All of our computers have a sign on top of the monitor advertising a live helpline, so the customer dials the number on their cell phone, and the library staff member is available to help both over the phone and through viewing their computer screen. 

Though the length of time varies, the average time that a customer needs help is between 8-10 minutes though we have helped people for upwards of 30 or 40 minutes.

What is the cost of the software?

The library pays for a specific license for each staff computer about $500 per license for one PC. However, there are set-ups where one license would enable three people to help at the same time. We didn’t go this route at the time because we didn’t have three people at main branch that we could dedicate to doing this at the same time as I needed staff on the floor to monitor and clean. 


Which staff are trained to use the software and how difficult is it to use?
It’s a very intuitive software. We have multiple people trained at our Warmack branch, so the service rotates. At Main, we have one person who mainly provides assistance. They are actually working from home using a laptop to remote into the PC at the library. It’s been a great way to provide work for those at home. 

If the helpline is busy, the calls automatically roll over to the reference desk. We have a floating staff person who helps clean the computers when customers leave, and this person will also provide assistance if they can from six feet away or they will let the customer know that if they can hang on for a few minutes, the helpline will be free again and they can try calling back. We can extend their time on the computer to ensure that person gets the help they need. Additionally, the library staff at Warmack branch could also log in to the main branch and assist customers if we had a large number of people needing help all at the same time.

How have patrons received this service and what kinds of assistance have you been providing?
It has been a really well received service; when people use it, they love it. We’re able to provide direct hands-on instruction, but no one’s in danger of getting sick.

One of the hurdles that we had to overcome early on was convincing folks that there was a real person on the other end of the phone, not an automated robot or a personal assistant like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa. When some of our regular customers figured out that it was a library staff person they recognized, they used it more frequently. 

We’ve been helping customers with so many different things like downloading and uploading resumes; many drivers license renewals and navigating the DMV website to find driving records, and even some job application websites. For those who are not computer familiar, these job application websites can be really daunting. It really helps to have someone walking you through it.

What have you learned throughout the process that would be helpful for other library staff interested in implementing this.

They’re kind of simple things, but we put the number to call on top of the monitor right at eye level. And I did not anticipate that we’d have to sell people on the service and to explain that the help being provided is a real person from the library. If you’re going to implement this, think about ways to address that ahead of time. We phrased the card at the top of the monitor with the following: “For direct library staff assistance, contact this number”. We think it helps customers really understand this is not a machine, it’s a staff person.

Big thanks to Peter Sime and the computer assistance team at City of Grand Prairie Public Libraries for sharing their expertise.

Do you have a technology assistance tip or service that you’d like to share with other Texas libraries? If so, contact Cindy Fisher, Digital Inclusion Consultant, at cfisher@tsl.texas.gov or share your comments below.

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