Librarians have always taught patrons how to use the tools that serve their information needs. We had to explain card catalogs, vertical files, microfilm/fiche, photocopiers, and OPACs. The fundamental difference about the tech needs of the 21st century is the ever-changing variety of personal devices that patrons use to access our services.
Some libraries are lucky enough to have dedicated staff with special training to serve these patrons directly, but most of the time it’s a library generalist fielding question after question about something new every day. How do frontline staffers with self-taught or very basic knowledge of technology stay savvy about the latest and hottest gadgets? How do we train nontechnical staff to troubleshoot effectively and train our patrons to use their own gadgets?
In the past, libraries only thought about training when they acquired a new ILS or operating system. Some staff might have been trained on assistive devices or specialized readers such as microfilm or dedicated database computers. These trainings were large-scale, included relevant staff, and were formally presented by library trainers or vendors. Libraries could train everyone at the same time, then instruct new staff as needed until the next major update.
For today’s deluge of devices, this approach is inefficient and unsustainable, because there’s always new stuff to learn. “I think back to how people were freaking out about learning different versions of Windows to support and now looking at all the operating systems and device types, that freak-out makes me shake my head,” says Sarah Houghton, director of the San Rafael Public Library, CA, and a 2009 LJ Mover & Shaker.
Make everyone an expert
How can libraries reorganize their training to support staff in this garden of technological plenty? The answer is a diverse, partly self-directed and partly synchronous program accessible by all staff, at home and at work. Formal workshops should still be part of the plan, but online training and informal, hands-on sessions should constitute the bulk of the instruction.
All staff should be included, if possible, because circulation and even security staff may be asked for help by patrons. Ellen Druda, Internet services librarian at the Half Hollow Hills Community Library, Dix Hills, NY, emphasizes this point. “We used to think the librarians would be the ones ultimately training the library patrons, but in our library everyone is supposed to have a working knowledge of the services,” she says. “Our patrons will often stop at the circ desk to ask about something, and we’d like them to get at least a general answer, then get referred back to the librarians for more help if needed. Also, our clerical staff are great ambassadors out in the community. We need them on board with Internet services.”
David Lee King, digital services director of the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library, KS, and a 2008 LJ Mover & Shaker, concurs. “We even train our facilities staff on some things, because they’re out in the stacks, talking to customers,” he says. The three basic components of this training program are familiar: assessment, instruction, and maintenance. It’s only the tools and format that have changed.
Compiling a list of links for self-directed learning? These will get you going.
T is for Training (tisfortraining.wordpress.com)—a biweekly call-in podcast run by Maurice Coleman of the Harford County Library System, Bel Air, MD, and a 2010 LJ Mover & Shaker
NCompass Live (nlc.nebraska.gov/NCompassLive)—a weekly video series from the Nebraska Library Commission, hosted by Christa Burns with monthly Tech Talks by Michael Sauers
TechSoup for Libraries (www.techsoupforlibraries.org/events)—webinars and articles on libraries & technology
Idealware (www.idealware.org/online-training)—a site that suggests and reviews software and services for nonprofits; also has video tutorials and articles
Former librarians like Crystal Schimph and Kieran Hixon at Kixal (kixal.com/workshops) have branched out into offering webinars and workshops for staff
The American Library Association offers online training on many aspects of library work, including technology (www.alatechsource.org/workshops). Its “Advanced eCourse: Library Technology for the Low-Tech Librarian” is a 12-week course that covers a broad spectrum of library-related technology (www.alastore.ala.org/detail.aspx?ID=11375)
See where you stand
Start by assessing the skills and needs of your staff. Use surveys, self-evaluations, and annual reviews (if they include technology skills) to determine what skills your staff members already have, and where they may need more support. Next—and possibly most important—determine the primary needs of your patrons. Brief surveys, occasional “gadget counting” in library buildings, and informal qualitative data gathering—“Hi, what kind of phone is that? We want to offer better training here at the library”—are all ways to get to know what should be the focus of your program. Finally, stay on top of trends and advances in technology and how your patrons may be using those tools in the near future.
What tools should you use for assessment? Start with whatever you’re already using. Add a few questions about gadgets and training needs to existing user and staff surveys, especially if you offer public tech instruction, and ask for feedback at the end. If you’re using Moodle or another learning management system (LMS) for staff or public training; WordPress, Drupal, or another content management system (CMS) for your website; or LibGuides or another research guide platform, you can use the poll or survey features built into these platforms to host your surveys.
If none of these options are available, it’s easy enough to add an online survey to your website or print out small cards with a URL. Free or low-cost platforms like Google Forms/Google Drive, SurveyMonkey (www.surveymonkey.com), SurveyGizmo (www.surveygizmo.com), PollDaddy (polldaddy.com), and FormSite (www.formsite.com) are simple to set up and offer a wide variety of features at varying prices.
Library training programs used to be—and often still are—composed of in-person, structured workshops. While these are still the best way to learn complex systems like ILSs, reporting tools, and professional software, they aren’t flexible or dynamic enough for personal technology training.
“I used to do formal training sessions, at appointed times. Turnout was not required and always pretty low,” says Druda. “Clearly we needed a better way.”
That better way seems to be self-directed, hands-on sessions and online resources. “We use a combination of online and face-to-face training for our public service staff…both librarians and nonlibrarians,” explains Deann Carpenter, training specialist at Douglas County Libraries, Castle Rock, CO. “We try to offer some commonsense steps for handling eMedia questions from new device users and for tackling troubleshooting issues from patrons who have gotten stuck along the way.”
For hands-on trainings, a library could simply purchase as many different kinds of devices as possible and allow staff to play with them. Just like patrons, staffers learn best by holding a gadget and using it. These lessons can be group drop-in sessions, part of staff meetings or professional development days, or even a collection held in the IT or training department for anyone to visit. “We have a device petting zoo where we buy all the latest versions of all the things and have people check them out to self-train; we also go over them at staff meetings in a ‘go ahead and touch it’ informal way,” says Houghton. “We give them a task and tell them to figure it out, having an experienced staff member on hand to help them if they get stuck.”
For libraries without the budget for gadget-buying, or those that see a very wide variety of devices from their patrons, another option is to send staff in small groups to local Best Buys, Apple stores, Microsoft stores, or similar retailers. Staff can play with the devices, ask questions, and be exposed to the hottest new toys; or they can take the free or low-cost classes some stores offer on the gadgets they sell. In both cases, it’s important that staff are able to do this on library time, to encourage participation and to show that library management is prioritizing both tech training and staff professional development.
Tapping into training
If any of your staff need a more structured approach to training, and you don’t have a library training program or local retailers, there are other options. Where does the library, city, or county IT staff get trained to offer help desk support? Ask if your frontline staff can take those courses and workshops to improve their troubleshooting skills. If your community is home to large companies with IT departments, a strong tech start-up culture, or any Maker spaces or tech collectives, perhaps your staff can participate in training they offer. (This also opens the door to more community partnerships and potential supporters for library technology initiatives.) Finally, companies like New Horizons (www.newhorizons.com) offer both in-person and online courses, though they tend to be priced at corporate, not nonprofit levels.
Once a few folks are trained, they can help others. Douglas County includes a peer training element in its program. “Our district adopted a Tech Squad—each location identified one to two staff members who are good resources in-house. The Tech Squad has been instrumental in helping to train staff and roll out new IT initiatives,” reports Carpenter.
Self-directed training can be as simple as a page of links on the library’s website or staff Intranet, or as robust as multipart online courses. Choose whatever format will suit your staff and will fit best into the time and energy available to maintain the content. Start small with a page of links to the resources listed in the Keeping Up section, or try something bigger such as a Learning 2.0 program.
Nearly ten years ago, the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, NC, developed a 23 Things–style online program (plcmcl2-about.blogspot.com) to support staff learning about “Web 2.0” technologies. This thing-a-week online program is still an excellent structure for self-directed staff learning, featuring posts on different devices and emerging technologies. Again, if you have a CMS, LMS, research guide platform, or staff intranet, use that to host your online program so that updating the content can be a part of existing work flows.
Once you have a home base for your online components, identify good resources and link to or embed them for staff to use wherever they are. Free tutorials on manufacturers’ sites and on YouTube are a good place to start. “Unboxing” videos on YouTube can be incredibly helpful, re-creating what it’s like to open the box for a brand-new device and set it up from scratch. See sidebar for a list of library- and nonprofit-oriented sources for training and tech information.
A page of useful links is just the beginning. At San Rafael, Houghton plans to subscribe to a training platform to benefit more than the patrons. “We’re purchasing Lynda.com for our library users and extending use to all of our city employees as well, including library staff,” she says. Lynda.com is the most comprehensive and well-known tech training platform, but others include Gale Cengage Online Learning; General Assembly, a Boston-based company with online training (generalassemb.ly); Udemy (www.udemy.com); or Grovo (www.grovo.com). Floqq (www.floqq.com/es/curso) stands out for its Spanish- and Portuguese-language content (the company is based in Latin America). Libraries may already subscribe to one or more of these as resources for patrons. For more academic approaches, Coursera and EdX are both excellent choices, and most of their offerings are free to those who don’t require a credential on completion.
Build your own
If you have the staff, technical support, and budget to create and host your own online content, you can tailor it precisely to your needs. The Douglas County system has been offering an eMedia training program since 2012. “Our online video is intended to do three things: let [staff] know they are expected to handle eMedia questions as part of their job, so they shouldn’t automatically pass it along to a coworker; encourage the idea that eMedia questions are just another type of reference question, and they already have the interviewing skills to find out what the patron wants and to start helping them in some way; and help them see that they already have some basic tech knowledge and that there are good resources to use to fill in their own knowledge gaps and get help for their patrons,” says Carpenter.
Online tools for remote, synchronous trainings include free or low-cost options like Skype, Google Hangouts, ooVoo (www.oovoo.com), and the new in-browser video conferencing/chat systems for smaller trainings. Again, for more robust systems and advanced features, it may be worth the extra cost of subscribing to WebEx, GoToMeeting, or another online conferencing system for larger webinars. For a more DIY approach, you can use eLearning authoring software like Articulate (www.articulate.com) or Adobe Captivate (www.adobe.com/products/captivate.html), or any screencasting or podcasting software or tools you may already have on hand.
Do Your Homework
For additional thoughts on technology training for staff (and the public), check out:
This year’s Computers in Libraries conference has an entire track on connecting to your community through technology. Take a look at the session descriptions for ideas and presentations..
The Accidental Technology Trainer: A Guide for Libraries by Stephanie Gerding (Information Today Inc., 2007). The tech has changed dramatically, but this is still an excellent resource for “accidental” tech trainers.
The Tech Set, #1–10 (2010) and #11–20 (2012), ALA TechSource. From Set 1, Technology Training in Libraries by Sarah Houghton and Library Camps and Unconferences by Steve Lawson both offer suggestions for training structures outside the norm. The rest of the Tech Set is about the tech itself and useful, though somewhat dated.
Emerging Technologies: A Primer for Librarians by Jennifer Koerber & Michael P. Sauers (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). In addition to highlighting nine emerging technology trends, this book offers a model for how to look at new technologies and explore their potential uses. The last chapter is an expanded version of the Keeping Up section.
With all the possible topics for training, what should libraries stress? In most cases, the highest demand for instruction is on library services like ebooks and streaming/downloadable media, and general troubleshooting help for patrons’ own devices. As personal data/fitness trackers, 3-D printers, and Maker space and coworking space technologies become widespread, we’ll see more questions about them in libraries. Also, after recent corporate security breaches and online harassment, we’ll need to be able to explain and offer suggestions about privacy and security on the Internet and individual devices (password protection, multifactor authentication, and app permissions).
“While we’ve always been encouraged to get continuing education, I feel that the mandate is stronger than it once was,” says Jessica Steytler, archivist and records manager of the Congregational Library in Boston.
Soft skills and schedules
Don’t forget the nontechnical aspects of being a good technical trainer or troubleshooter. Public speaking, curriculum development, class management, and general troubleshooting/help desk–style skills are all vital components to helping patrons figure out their devices and offering both in-the-moment and formal public training. Again, workplace training in other departments of your city or county may offer workshops on these topics, as do online resources like Lynda.com.
A last consideration is how long, how frequent, and how repetitive should any session be? According to Half Hollow Hills’ Druda, “doing it when we first get a new service, and then doing it again on demand.” Douglas County’s Carpenter agrees. “We encouraged most frontline staff to go through a face-to-face class about a year and a half ago. Since then we’ve offered a few more intermittently, to let others catch up and to talk about what has changed,” she says. “Our goal is to do these quarterly.”
Once staff have had exposure to new gadgets and learned the basics of using them, they need to stay on top of what might come through the door next. Periodic updates and refresher trainings, blog posts, and newsletter articles are a few centralized ways to keep staff informed.
Alternately, staff can be responsible for their own development and empowered to maintain it through the same informal and online resources used for the training itself. By incorporating plenty of links to news sources in online training, and by continuing to approve work time for staff to visit retailers or in-house petting zoos, everyone is given the opportunity and support they need to keep up with the latest trends.
Links to library and industry news, as well as some more mainstream sources, are all excellent starting points. ALA TechSource (www.alatechsource.org) and publications from international, national, state, and local library organizations all feature some tech news, as do journals like LJ/School Library Journal. Mainstream news sources such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and the Atlantic all have sections on current and emerging technologies. In particular, the Economist has a Science & Technology section in each issue, as well as a Tech Quarterly every few months with more in-depth reporting.
However, the best place to get tech news is from the same place that the geeks do. Gizmodo, Engadget, CNET, Slashdot, ZDNet, TechCrunch, ArsTechnica, and Hacker News on yCombinator.com are all primary sources for the computer/technology industry. Many product manufacturers have release events once or more during the year to showcase new products; watch these online or follow the Twitter chatter to see what’s being released in a few months. Trend-watching sites such as MacRumors, academic publications like MIT Technology Review, and reports from tech industry conferences like the Computer Electronics Show (CES) and Macworld are accessible enough to be read by anyone.
Attending conferences often isn’t possible, but many have webcasts of keynotes and public schedules that let you get the gist of what was hot. Just reading the descriptions of the sessions and workshops can give you words and phrases to search on to find out more information.
Finally, the most effective way to teach someone a new technology is to encourage them to keep playing with it. This is where the petting zoos and staff outings to Best Buy can be most useful—they put devices in the hands of the staff often enough to keep them fresh. This is also where supporting staff in offering training or drop-in help to the public can make a difference, because when you teach someone a skill or show them a neat feature, you set it more firmly in your own mind and you might learn something from them in return. There is no one right way to train staff on every device out there. Instead, base your program on your staff’s skills, the technology your patrons have, and the resources available to you. Mix and match from these suggestions to design your own solution to the “too many devices” conundrum.