People Servers vs. Information Providers: The Impact of Service Orientation on Technology Training

Dolores Fidishun

As libraries implement new technology it will become important to understand how employees' views of library service impacts their willingness to learn about the technology. This article posits the existence of two categories of service orientation: People Servers (who believe that they must always be present to assist people, even to the detriment of learning technology), and Information Providers (who view the learning of new technology as a way to assist patrons). Training implications for both types of staff members are discussed and suggestions are made for maximizing the transfer of training for each type of trainee.

Libraries are finding new identities as centers of information dissemination using the latest in technology. New systems and services are implemented daily, placing librarians and library staff in the middle of a rapidly changing world. Perceptions of jobs and methods of service with books and journals need to be updated to take into account the role of computers and the ever-expanding directions taken by the Internet. Hisle has stated that "It is important that issues surrounding the changing nature of librarianship be studied" (1996, 30) while Church and Dolenko (1999) discuss the changing roles of librarians in special libraries.

Part of the challenge in this new world of information is the need for training on computer systems as they are introduced or upgraded. While as early as 1990 Epstein insisted that "the training component of automated system implementation is crucial to the success of any project" (1990, 89), authors such as Krissoff and Konrad still echo the need for training, asking, "How do we go about providing better patron training when we ourselves are being overwhelmed by change?" (1998, 28). Those who manage or teach in training programs are aware of the varying success demonstrated by members of library staffs as they learn new systems. It is, therefore, important for administrators to find the most effective ways to train staff because, as Marmion reminds us, "Now, more than ever before, it just is not possible to work as a librarian or a library staff member without using a computer in some way" (1998, 216).

While searching for the best ways to train staff to use computers and the various software used in libraries, one may question whether various groups learn differently from others: What makes learning most effective for staff or librarians? Do women have different learning styles or feelings about technology than men, even though either gender or members of any job classification may learn technology quickly or resist these advances? The following article is based on a study that sought to examine women library employees' (librarians' and support staff's) attitudes about computer technology and what their issues were when they learned technology. The results that are discussed are not meant to deny that men may have important feelings and learning styles when it comes to technology but simply to examine this concept from a women's point of view.

The Qualitative Study

In an attempt to understand the needs of women that we train in libraries, a qualitative study was conducted involving twelve women in academic libraries. In extensive interviews these women were asked about their life histories, attitudes towards computers, computer training experiences, and current job expectations.

The first group of women were chosen from recommendations of library directors and computer trainers who suggested that these individuals might have interesting perspectives on computers. Directors and trainers were requested not to select women from groups of either successful or resistant trainees, but women who might be interesting to talk to about their experiences. Interviews ranged from one-and-one-half to three hours and followed the path of each woman's experience rather than a set of predetermined questions. The interviews were audiotaped and then transcribed to allow analysis of each woman's statements and to permit the matching of statements indicating the thematic concepts that emerged from the data.

At the end of each interview the interviewer asked each woman who she would recommend to be interviewed for perspective on the subject. The women were very forthcoming and provided important insights into issues that affect a woman's perception of computers and technology and her desire to learn to use such.

The texts of the interviews were evaluated using symbolic interactionism, a qualitative methodology that in this case compared the women's perceptions of computers and technology and the importance of such with the library organization's and profession's views about technology. The evaluation sought to find the symbolic meaning of computers both to the women and to the organization. According to symbolic interactionist theory, a person's perspective, or the meaning that one creates out of one's experience, is what a person interprets as reality. Patton (1990, 76) lists the major themes of symbolic interactionism as proposed by Blumer:

1. Human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings that things have for them.

2. The meaning of things arises out of the social interaction that one has with one's fellows.

3. The meanings of things are handled in and modified through an interpretive process used by the person in dealing with the things he encounters.

Charon (1998, 48) explains that symbols, in this case computers, "are meaningful. That is, the user understands what they represent. Symbols involve understanding rather than a simple response to their presence." According to symbolic interactionism, a computer becomes a symbol of the trainee's attitudes and understandings about the value of computers in her life or on the job.

In addition, Feminist Standpoint Theory was used to value each women's view of technology as it was related in her life as a library staff member and as a woman. Feminist Standpoint Theory values women's experience of society and, in this case, libraries. This experience may be different from a male library employee's view. By using Feminist Standpoint Theory to further evaluate the text of the interviews, value was given to "women's experiences and speech" (Harding 1991, 124). Harding further explains that bringing women's views "into the center of analysis may reveal views of reality obscured by more orthodox approaches" (1991, 124). In this study, it was important to examine women's particular attitudes about technology whether or not they differed from those of their male coworkers.

People Servers and Information Providers

The results of the interviews showed an important connection between a woman's perception of her role as a library employee and her attitudes toward technology. For the women in the study, willingness to learn technology was linked to the technology's symbolic value as an instrument to help her perform her job, particularly to assist patrons. Two groups of women emerged from the study: People Servers and Information Providers.

People Servers were women who felt that they had to be physically present and immediately attentive to patrons' needs at all times. These women felt that they must be available to figuratively "make eye contact" with a patron when the patron arrives at the library. They used terms such as "playing with the computer" and were concerned that taking time to learn computer skills would take up precious time that could be used to serve people. They strongly valued the personal relationship that their interactions with patrons provided. These women echoed Lipow's belief that "the need for human reference service is greater now than ever" (1999, 50).

Women who were defined as People Servers were exemplified by a woman who said:

You've been trained, you're hired for a job, and you've been trained in it and it's hard just to not have that as the priority. . . . I'll find like, at the end of the day when I feel I've done a good day's work, and I'm tired of the stuff on my desk, I'll sit down maybe and play around with the Web. I'm collecting all these things to go into to get information. I find that that is, I will do that at the end of the day if there is time. I have a lot of problems doing that in the middle of the day. We don't know, in this area, we don't know what our workflow will be from one day to the next, and if there's a problem that comes up we can't say we will solve that tomorrow because the student needs the material to complete the work. So it's like you drop everything and you solve whatever problem needs to be solved or you work with the student, or you work with a faculty member so they have the materials to get their assignment done.

A second People Server summed up the feelings of her colleagues, saying:

I sort of feel guilty taking the time to go sit here and really play with this thing and it doesn't seem like you are really doing a whole lot of work. You're pushing buttons and moving the little mouse around and moving the screens around and this really doesn't seem like a lot of work.

These women saw technology as an add-on to the important service of helping patrons.

The second group, the Information Providers, still adhered to the primary goal of assisting patrons but viewed computers as important to their jobs. They felt that if they did not learn to use computers and the Internet, they would not adequately be able to serve patrons. Their perception of the role of library staff was to provide information and their part in this role meant that they should learn as much about technology as possible.

The words of Information Providers reflect their belief in the integration of technology into patron service. As one woman stated:

There is a time when you have to be on the floor and help your students but if you don't play and learn some basic tricks you'll fall so far behind that the world will spin so fast that you won't be able to catch up with it. That is why I say, we do spend, most of us, time at home working. We do have to practice and learn new tricks everyday so that we can better assist them. It is good enough that we are out there helping them but there comes a difficult set or a question out of the ordinary that in the past you could not resolve with the print material but you can do it now with First Search or DIALOG or OCLC or Uncover. So I feel it is equally important. Now how you are going to manage it, it's your own trick. It is very important that one takes the time to practice and play around. It should be balanced. You should give the time to try new things, especially with the Internet.

As one can imagine, a librarian's or staff member's adherence to the philosophy of the group of People Servers or Information Providers went a long way in determining her individual success in technology training. Women who were People Servers did not view the training as important as helping patrons and so while they may have participated in training, they described themselves as not being good at the skills learned or not being comfortable with technology. They did not feel that they retained skills after training and did not practice those skills later, an important follow-up activity mentioned in most training literature (Krissoff and Konrad 1998; Zemke and Zemke 1991). Information Providers were those who actively participated in training and sought to receive more training. They were anxious to use skills learned and made time to practice what they learned. These women described themselves as comfortable with technology and were confident in their skills although they eagerly sought to learn more.

Implications for Libraries

The discovery of these two types of library employees gives us great insight into the training needs of our staffs as we implement new technology or update current systems. Although this study was qualitative in nature and findings cannot be generalized to entire library populations, computer trainers or library administrators may notice traits of People Servers and Information Providers among members of their staffs. The recommendations below attempt to help trainers meet the needs of employees as they learn new computer systems and resources.

Information Providers will most likely see the value of the product they are required to learn, but as with all adults, it is important for them to understand how the new skills will fit into their daily work lives (Cantor 1992). They will still come to training with different needs, abilities, and learning styles that the trainer will need to accommodate, but Information Providers have an attitude that reflects their understanding of computers as an important tool to assist patrons. It will, however, be important to ensure that Information Providers do not become caught up in the glitz of technology to the detriment of patron service. They must balance the time they spend learning the technology with patron exposure. If a library implements ten new databases but patrons are not educated in their use, what good will they serve?

People Servers, on the other hand, will have additional needs. It will be important for the trainer to help them understand how learning a new computer product will allow them to meet their perceived primary function of being there for the patrons. To do this, administrators and trainers should attempt to incorporate the following concepts into training as it is planned and administered.

People Servers will need to relate technology to humanity, and to help learners understand that computers and other technology can be a positive influence in the library. Often we assume that everyone knows this is a good thing and proceed to implement technology at a full tilt without asking for input or questions from those who will use it on a daily basis. We need to create humane situations during computer installation by involving those who may not have technology savvy, but who will be serving patrons on the desk the minute the computer arrives. This may be difficult when technology changes rapidly, but for those who do not assume that computers are the answer to all our prayers, it can be an important step.

People Servers will need to be shown how they can use the computer to assist patrons. Adults want to know how the things they've learned will relate to what they do (Lawler 1991) and for People Servers this means helping patrons. Trainers need to use specific examples of how the system may be used in real-life situations in the library. They may use questions that trainees have already encountered or theoretical situations that can be anticipated with a new system but they must relate the technology to people.

Some People Servers have a negative attitude toward machines. An example of a comment that reflects this was a response to a question asking if the person loved computers. The answer was, "I only love people and animals." Although employees don't have to love computers, they will need to drop animosity toward computers or at least recognize that they have some value. One way that this can be accomplished is by helping learners to see the practical aspects of the system or database.

Sugrue and Hansen (1997, 37) advise, "If performers' perceptions of the value of an existing or new aspect of the job environment are low, then address those perceptions first." Help trainees to understand that learning technology is part of their job. It is not playing with the computer, something that should be done only after all real work is completed. Several people in the study used the term "playing" with the computer and perceived that learning was similar to something like taking time out to call a friend. It did not help them to get their real work completed. It is vital that administrators and trainers reinforce the importance of the computer for completion of assigned tasks. As Lee and Pucel (1998, 60) emphasize, "if one wishes to improve transfer of training, it is important to influence the perceived importance of the training objectives."

Find ways to make their learning successful. Help employees to solve real-life problems on the computer. Use the teachable moment to help them find something they need to do or a process faster or easier.

Finally, let People Servers learn from People Servers. It may be easier for someone who has the same mindset as the trainee to help her understand the value of technology. Use successful trainees as examples and mentors to work with others. It is easy for an Information Provider's enthusiasm to overwhelm a People Server or for the Information Provider not to address the concerns that a People Server may have. After all, this is something that they already know is important to learn. Another People Server may better relate to the human connection of the product and process and while serving as an example to the learner. If a People Server is not available to help train, then the person who is conducting the training needs to be aware of the learners' needs and help them to relate to People Server types of issues.

Service Issues and Preference

Realize that employees of public service departments, given their direct interaction with patrons, may feel more pressure to be People Servers than those in technical services departments. Staff members on a reference, circulation, or other type of desk may be faced with patrons waiting in lines to be served. To them, spending time learning technology has the impact of providing less time in the concrete action of giving someone information or helping him get materials. If these employees are in a position where they are trying to learn technology on the job, they may be faced with rushed patrons who have to wait while the employee figures out how to use a system. It may be simpler and faster for the employees to revert to manual methods to get the patron what is needed.

Public service employees need additional, structured off-desk time to practice their skills or a mentor who can stand by them when working at the desk. A person such as the "troubleshooters" suggested by Epstein (1990) can be present at busy times when employees are first learning a technology skill so they do not feel that their ineptitude with a technology will reflect negatively on their ability to serve patrons.

Job classification may also reflect a tendency toward Information Provider or People Server. Many librarians, particularly those who have graduated in recent years have come out of library school with a mindset that technology is a necessary part and are thus more inclined to lean toward the Information Provider side. In addition, many long-serving librarians have kept up with technology as part of their professional development. There are, however, some librarians who still focus on the People Server emphasis in their understanding of their job.

On the support staff side, employees may not be as immersed in technology and may lean more toward the People Server category. Although the results of the qualitative study cannot be generalized to all library staff, more of the People Servers in the study were support staff members than librarians. One should remember, however, that there are many excellent Information Providers who can be found as members of library support staffs.

Finally, remember that both Information Providers and People Servers will provide support to those within their groups. Women in the study compared notes with other employees who felt the way that they did about the technology implementation and training. People Servers working together lamented the library's focus on technology or their lack of time to practice, as they would have to leave patrons to do so.

Administrators should be aware of the need for input from other perspectives on technology training. Open discussions at staff meetings about how the technology is helping patrons get better service, complete with examples from real library incidents, could convey a positive message. It might also be helpful for People Servers to be paired with Information Providers to help them see the values of technology in the library's main goal of assisting patrons.


It is important that libraries find ways to make technology a positive symbol to both People Servers and Information Providers. Those managing library departments must emphasize that learning to use technology is not "playing with the computer" but something that is an important part of patron service. They must emphasize a balance between learning technology and serving patrons for both People Servers and Information Providers. Hisle emphasizes that "the massive intrusion of technology into our profession will force changes in the way the librarians [and support staff] do their jobs and interact with users and colleagues" (1996, 33). He also states that "As advances in technology development occur, it will be essential for librarians [and support staff] to integrate those advances into their systems of service and to be able to apply those advances to improving user interactions. Technical skills will be important as well, but more essential will be a willingness to openly accept technical change as valuable to user satisfaction" (1996, 33). If these attitudes can become the norm among librarians and library support staff, trainers can anticipate more successful training transfer from their work and patrons will benefit from more knowledgeable library workers.

Works Cited

Cantor, Jeffrey A. 1992. Delivering instruction to adult learners. Dayton, Ohio: Wall and Emerson, Inc.

Charon, Joel M. 1998. Symbolic interactionism: An introduction, an interpretation, an integration. 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall.

Church, Doug, and Michael Dolenko. 1999. "The challenge of change: Risks and opportunities for information professionals." In 20th annual national online meeting proceedings held in New York, May 18­20, 1999, edited by Martha E. Williams. Medford, N.J.: Information Today, Inc., 71­76.

Epstein, Susan Baerg. 1990. "Training for automated aystems." Library Journal 15, no. 6 (Apr. 1): 89, 92.

Harding, Sandra. 1991. Whose science? Whose knowledge? Thinking from women's lives. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Pr.

Hisle, W. Lee. 1996. "Roles for the digital age." In Creating the future: Essays on librarianship in an age of great change, edited by Sally Gardner Reed. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland and Co., 29­41.

Krissoff, Alan, and Lee Konrad. 1998. "Computer training for staff and patrons." Computers in Libraries 18 (Jan.): 28­32.

Lawler, Patricia A. 1991. The keys to adult learning: Theory and practical strategies. Philadelphia: Research for Better Schools.

Lee, Kisung, and David J. Pucel. 1998. "The perceived impacts of supervisor reinforcement and learning objective importance on transfer of training." Performance Improvement Quarterly 11, no. 4: 51­61.

Lipow, Anne Grodzins. 1999. "'In your face' reference service." Library Journal 124 (Aug.): 50­52.

Marmion, Dan. 1998. "Facing the challenge: Technology training in libraries." Information Technology and Libraries 17 (Dec.): 216­18.

Patton, Michael Quinn. 1990. Qualitative evaluation and research methods. 2d ed. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications, Inc.

Sugrue, Brenda, and Sarah Hansen. 1997. "It's in the mind of the performer." Performance Improvement 36 (Sept.): 36­37.

Zemke, Ron, and Susan Zemke. 1991. "Thirty things we know for sure about adult learning." In Adult learning in your classroom, edited by Philip G. Jones. Minneapolis: Lakewood Books.

   Dolores Fidishun ( is Head Librarian at Penn State Great Valley School of Graduate Professional Studies, Malvern, Pennsylvania.