Edge Benchmarks: Open Lab Assistance

We are taking a close look at models of successful technology training programs and sharing ideas for how to create similar programs in your library. In our last post we looked at ways to provide individual technology instruction to maximize flexibility with one-on-one assistance. In this post we look at how offering assistance in an open lab format can also provide flexibility and focus to your technology training.


The Edge benchmarks for public access technology recommend offering technology instruction in the Community Value section under Benchmark One: Indicator 1.2. This post offers practical advice to help libraries determine if open lab assistance is a good fit for your situation.

Open Lab vs. Open Access

"Open lab" differs from regular "open access" in that there is a dedicated staff person or volunteer acting as a technology trainer during a specific period of time. In an open lab setting, technology learners are able to come into the lab, ask technology related questions, and get individualized assistance. Open lab staff may have to juggle multiple questions, but are dedicated to the open lab session without having to assist at the reference or circulation desk.

The Benefits of Open Lab Assistance

Open lab assistance combines the flexibility of individual instruction with the focus of a computer class environment. It is a hybrid approach, providing learners the benefit of individualized assistance while giving library staff a focused time to provide more direct training. Open lab assistance can take advantage of partitioned computer lab areas, but can also be offered less formally using laptops or a bank of computers. There are many variations for this approach, so it can be adapted for any size library.

Open lab assistance allows technology learners to guide their own instruction with their questions. This means staff do not have to take time to prepare a lesson plan, and can treat each question as they do reference questions. You can opt to focus the open lab sessions on a certain technology application, from basic mouse practice to job seeker assistance. Open lab can also take advantage of printed materials to aid instruction by having technology books and printouts on hand to address frequently asked questions.

The 4 S’s of Success

Each technology training model has several key elements that define it. Here are some tips to ensure success in each aspect of this model.

Service: How can you best provide this training?

  • Focus your technology training time: provide individualized technology training during a regularly designated time with a dedicated technology trainer.
  • Address multiple learners simultaneously: juggle several learners at once while still giving them individualized attention, and allow them to work independently while you help others.
  • Address all ability levels at once: help beginning, intermediate, and advanced technology users during the same session.
  • Use an existing computer lab: put an existing lab to good use when it is not being used for classes.
  • Create a lab space: set up laptops in a meeting room or utilize existing computer banks to designate an open lab area.
  • Share resources: look into sharing laptop labs with other libraries in your region, or through library consortia. You can set up open lab sessions periodically, and get the most out of regional technology resources.
  • Scale to fit: downsize the open lab session to only 1-2 computers in small libraries. You can still designate a certain time when people can bring in their specific questions, when a staff member will be available.

Staff: Who will provide this training?

  • Involve enthusiastic staff: give staff who are excited about technology training an opportunity to help learners. They do not need a special degree in order to help others, just a positive attitude.
  • Recruit volunteers: if your open lab sessions are popular or if you have a large computer lab, consider recruiting volunteers to lighten the load for staff. You can also partner with local organizations that have specialized expertise, such as Job Corps, local businesses or educational institutions. (We will talk more about using volunteers in Model # 6.)
  • Form an open lab team: try to create a core team of staff and volunteers who will work the open lab sessions, so they can build rapport with learners who come back every time.
  • Find the right ratio: be sure to have enough technology trainers for the number of learners, but don’t have so many trainers that they won’t have enough to do. A good goal is one trainer for every 4-6 learners.
  • Train your trainers: just as with individual instruction, give your staff some guidance on how to offer better training.

Schedule: How will you schedule it?

  • Weekly, biweekly, or monthly: keep a regular schedule so learners can easily remember when to come. You don’t have to offer open lab every week, but high demand will justify more frequent sessions.
  • Allow enough time: schedule the open lab sessions for 1-2 hours to allow people time to get answers to their questions.
  • Dedicate staff time: ensure that technology trainers do not have other customer service duties during the open lab, such as answering the phone or attending the circulation desk. They should be able to focus their attention on learners.
  • Find the best time for learners: try to schedule the open lab at a time when learners can be there, which may not be the most convenient time for staff. Think about your target audience before scheduling the first session, and survey them if possible.
  • Allow prep time: give staff 15-30 minutes before the session begins to open the lab, turn on the computers, and gather any print resources needed on hand.
  • Be patient: attendance may be low in the beginning, and it may take time to get the word out. Find interesting ways to let people know about the open lab, and give it time to grow. If attendance is still too low after several months, consider trying a different time.

Subject: What topics will you cover?

  • Target training to the learner: the learner will come to the open lab with questions and projects. Let their questions guide training.
  • Select a specific focus: set a specific focus for your open lab sessions to target training to a specific need. Typing practice, Internet searching skills, hobby related topics, EBay, and gadgets are all examples of ways to focus the subject of open labs.
  • Create topic-related resources: have materials prepared in advance to address commonly asked questions. Refer learners to these resources (such as books, quick guides, and online tutorials) and update them over time.
  • Treat technology training like reference: you don’t have to know every topic related to technology to assist people. If a learner asks a more advanced question, use information resources (like the Internet or technology reference books) to find the answer to the problem.
  • Share what you learn: find a way to share resources and solutions to problems, such as a wiki organized by the most requested topics, or a binder with tip sheets for common programs. Share this information with the open lab technology training team, and also with the rest of the library staff. You could also start a blog and post these tips for all your community members, like the Denver Public Library has done with their Technology Blog.
  • Be prepared to address typical topics such as creating an email account, formatting a resume, registering for an online class, or researching health information. Having information sheets available on these topics can be a time saver and a great help to new technology users.

Examples of Successful Open Labs

There are many variations on how to offer open lab assistance. Here are two examples that have proven to be successful in libraries. The first story showcases a successful weekly open lab at a small suburban library that allows any type of technology question. The second example is from an urban library that offers a regular job seekers lab and demonstrates how an open lab can be focused towards a specific topic.

Success Story: Weekly Open Lab

The Bemis Public Library is a municipal library in Littleton, Colorado, a suburb of Denver with approximately 42,000 residents. The library serves a high number of seniors, immigrants, and economically disadvantaged individuals, many of whom need assistance with technology. Bob Tenny, Adult Services Librarian, wanted to offer a service where people could get more individualized attention since the library staff did not have enough time to answer difficult technology questions.

Bob shared, “I began the Open Lab so people could come in and we could help them with whatever they needed, basic skills, email, word processing, spreadsheets, Internet, etc. We now have something we can refer people to who need more help than can be given from the reference desk. We can tailor our instruction to what people need and want in a way the structured classes can’t, plus one-on-one is by far the most helpful teaching method.” (Photograph of Keith, volunteer at the Bemis Public Library, helping a library user learn to use the computer)

They have recruited several volunteers to help with the Open Lab, which takes place every Thursday morning. Between 4 and 10 people attend each week. The library allows people to ask any technology-related question, and encourages attendees to bring in their personal devices, including gadgets, cameras, and mobile devices (but they won’t go so far as to fix computers). Staff help people with everything from job applications to self-publishing books. They have found that many people come back regularly, and that it has developed a stronger sense of community amongst the technology learners.

Success Story: Career Building Clinic

At the Enoch Pratt Free Library (Baltimore, Maryland), there is a big demand for assistance related to job searching on the computers, since the unemployment rate in Baltimore has averaged over 10% since 2009. Andrea Snyder is the Job and Career Librarian at the Pratt Library (as well as the Assistant Manager of the Business, Science, and Technology Department) and recently began offering an open lab program exclusively for job seekers.

The Career Building Clinic is a biweekly program that complements existing computer classes for job seekers. It allows job seekers a two-hour block of time when they can come into the lab to work on anything related to their job search, and get assistance as needed. Andrea started the program because she had observed many job seekers being held back by technology barriers that weren’t being addressed in job seeker classes. The open lab allows them more individual attention to get their specific questions answered.

They have a team of four technology trainers for this program, made up of some paid staff and some volunteers. There are 30 computers in the lab, and there seems to be just the right ratio of trainers to learners. Many of the questions they answer are quick and easy to answer, so it is fairly easy for trainers to help several people at a time. Also, most of the people who come for assistance are already familiar with computers and do not need as much step-by-step instruction as a beginning computer user.

Andrea calls this “low touch, high impact” because it is so easy to help people and there is such a “huge benefit for the customer.” She says that even something as simple as sharing how to use keyboard shortcuts for common tasks (like cut, copy, and paste) can save a lot of time for job seekers. She says that trainers don’t have to worry about preparing for a class, and they focus their efforts on answering individual questions with as little interruption as possible.

Share Your Experiences

Have you tried offering open lab assistance in your library? What has worked, and what lessons have you learned? Please share your stories in this Benchmark One Survey from the Edge Initiative. If you have more to share about technology in your library, take the full survey that covers all of the benchmarks. Respond to the survey, and you could win a prize!

Interested in more?

Read these TechSoup for Libraries spotlights for great tips on offering open lab assistance and managing technology: