Digital Immigrants

In early 20th century America, youngsters in the new country had an advantage over their immigrant parents:  the kids learned English.  They translated for their parents, some of whom clung to their native tongues and never assimilated.

In the early 21st century, young people again have an edge:  They’ve mastered tech-speak.  This time though, the old folks have no choice.  To live in today’s world, they have to learn the language.

“It’s not like just a few years ago, when you could wait for some 12-year-old to program your VCR,” says Westport Library director Maxine Bleiweis.  “Now, every day, there are technological problems people have to solve.”

And — for more and more people — the library is the place to solve them.

What's on Maxine Bleiweis and Bill Derry's iPads? The library's website, of course.

Libraries have always been a center for learning, Bleiweis says.  But many Westporters don’t realize it’s a hub for not only books, periodicals and author talks, but  technological knowledge too.

The Westport Library offers 3 types of technology education.  One is through regularly scheduled events.

“Tech Tuesdays,” for example, are held from 2-4 p.m. through August 3.  Bring a tablet — or a question, like how to download music.  Staff members are on hand to help.

“Jobseekers” programs — held Wednesdays throughout the summer — highlight topics like using LinkedIn and Twitter.  “If you’re out of a job, you might have missed out on hearing about things like this,” Bleiweis says.  “The workplace changes quickly, and this is a great way to keep up.”

The 2nd type of education takes place every day.  “We’re not a repair shop,” Bleiweis cautions.  “But if you’ve got a new eReader and don’t know the features, or you’re having problems attaching a photo file to send to your grandchildren, we can help.”

Reference librarians — best known for answering questions about obscure Mongolian dynasties, or pointing people to perfect online databases — are a tremendous technological resource.  If you’re searching for printers, say, or software or synching programs, reference librarians are happy to help.

The 3rd type of education involves teaching people things they didn’t know they needed to know.

In case you wondered: These are tags. The library explains how to use them.

“Tags” are an example.  They’re those words of various sizes you see on various websites — the library’s, for instance.  They’re an entree to more information on a particular topic; their size indicates relative popularity — but you have to click them to use them.  If you didn’t know that, you’d likely overlook them.  Mentioning them in the library’s newsletter — a friendly, familiar format — is a good way to teach non-native tech speakers about them.

The same with podcasts.  At every library lecture, someone announces it’s also available as a podcast.  You may have heard the term, but ignored it as just another newfangled word.  By explaining what a podcast is — and how you can download it — the library provides an important, but subtle, education in tech-talk.

The Westport Library also provides hardware.  They’ve got 30 computers, with color printing; scanners; a MacBook Pro; Kindles for a 7-day loan (loaded with titles); an iPad, plus Nook and Sony e-readers for sampling, and wireless printing from laptops.

Library cardholders can also download music from Freegal.  What’s that?  Just ask!

The library’s tech cred got a big boost recently.  Bill Derry – formerly coordinator of info and technology literacy for the Westport school district — joined Bleiweis’ staff as assistant director for innovation and user experience.

Children instinctively know the language of 21st-century technology. The rest of us have to be taught.

He knows what students know — and what adults don’t.  Bleiweis uses the analogy of parents who get frustrated when they can’t help kids with their “new math” homework.

Derry has the skills — and patience, and energy — to teach the older generation the language the younger one instinctively knows.

And the Westport Library is the place to do it.

“It’s intimidating to ask a 20-year-old geek at a store some question you’re embarrassed you don’t know the answer to,” Bleiweis says.

“It’s much easier to do it in the familiar setting of the library.”

A library, she says, is “a place to learn — no matter what you need to know.”

(In the works:  an iPad users group.  Got another idea for a a tech service that will serve and support the Westport community at the library?  Email Bill Derry at, or call him:  203-291-4846.)

2 responses to “Digital Immigrants

  1. I am not sure of your premise that all adults have to learn the language or computer skills to survive. I know many good folks that know neither. Interesting article, however. Now if a computer could tell us what to do about 12 million illegal immigrants, we might start getting somewhere.

  2. How lucky we are to have Bill Derry’s expertise now available to us through the library! And such a great guy!