Know someone who needs computer skills? Send ’em to the library

One of my coworkers asked me a good question this week. He said one of his neighbors just bought a new computer from a big-box consumer electronics store whose name doesn’t really matter all that much (but it’s one I pick on frequently) and didn’t really know a lot about computers.

He asked what someone in that situation can do to avoid being taken advantage of, and what they can do once they get the computer home, to learn how to actually use the thing. For now, they’re asking him, but long-term, that’s not the right answer. At least I don’t think it is.
In some respects, there isn’t a lot you can do about the first thing. It’s kind of like asking how to not get taken advantage of when buying a car when you’re not a mechanic, or at the dentist when you’re not a dentist, and you don’t know the right kind of people who can get you a good, expert second opinion. To some extent, you’re always at the mercy of people who know more than you, and you can’t be an expert on everything.

I’ve never really trusted computer stores. That was the main reason I decided as a teenager to learn how to fix computers in the first place.

And while there’s not a lot that the average person can do to become immune to that, there usually is something you can do to learn how to use the machine.

In St. Louis, for instance, the public library system holds free computer literacy classes. You sign up, come in, and they’ll teach you basic computer skills. The subject of the classes varies, but my library, at the very least, has basic classes on how to use the Internet and how to use Microsoft Office. The latter is especially helpful in landing a job, since so many jobs require at least some use of MS Office.

While taking those classes may not tell you enough to protect you from being talked into buying a $1,500 computer when a $500 computer will do–and if you don’t know what a $1,500 computer would do that a $500 computer won’t, that’s an extremely good sign that the $500 computer is the one you need–it will at least ensure that once you bring that computer home, you’ll be able to do useful and fun things with it.

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