A Tech Lab for All

How one computer training center teaches patrons and staff alike
Norman, OK
Nancy Rimassa

At the Norman Public Library in Norman, Oklahoma, Nancy Rimassa makes Computer Center staff training a priority, prizes her volunteers, and keeps an open mind and an ear to the ground to make sure she is meeting the needs of her community.

The Norman Public Library is the largest of 10 branches in the Pioneer Library System, which serves a three-county area in central Oklahoma. The Norman branch itself serves over 114,000 people, including a university population as well as retired individuals, young families, and professionals.

When Nancy Rimassa arrived at the Norman Public Library six years ago, the branch’s Computer Training Center had a single librarian and 14 computers, which sat unused most of the day. Rimassa, a former Girl Scout, knew a mission when she saw one. Drawing upon her scout training, she created her own Technology Mission to revitalize the lab. By adding staff members, she believed, the Computer Training Center could make better use of the technology the library had already purchased.

Lab volunteers proved vital in building this momentum. Rimassa explained:

We had probably at one time three or four volunteers that came in for a couple hours every day, usually in the evening after their work. Once the lab started to be heavily used with those volunteers, it was easy to prove to the administration that yes, we did need to have more staff members in there in order to use the resources we had already spent money on."

Today, Rimassa and her staff of four part-time employees use the training center’s 22 computers to teach various classes about digital literacy, anything from very basic skills (such as how to use a mouse or a keyboard) to more complex topics (like genealogy, video- and photo-editing), as well as courses on using productivity software like Microsoft Office. The team offers additional classes and programs for specific populations, such as teens, tweens, and senior citizens.

The Norman Public Library has 36 public computers (plus an additional 19 open to the public when classes are not in session), and offers free Wi-Fi access throughout the library, including a Wi-Fi access point in the children’s section so that parents can keep an eye on their children. “We’ve done everything possible to make technology available to our patrons,” Rimassa said.

Edge Benchmark 2: Libraries provide access to relevant digital content and enable community members to create their own digital content. What makes the Norman Public Library such a good example of Benchmark Two? TechSoup for Libraries checked in with Rimassa to learn more.


What made your library successful?

The Norman Public Library achieves nearly all of the indicators under Benchmark 2. Following Indicator 2.1, the library offers office productivity (such as Microsoft Office 2007) and photo editing (such as Paint.net) software on 50 percent or more of its public computers and video-editing software (like Adobe Creative Suite) installed on one of its public computers located in the Training Center. Patrons are able to store data using external drives, and the library offers current versions of licensed software.

Following Indicator 2.2, web analytics are performed regularly; website content is updated weekly (if not daily); the library reviews reports on subscription content (database) use on a monthly basis; and it performs a content inventory of its website on a monthly basis.

Yet Rimassa notes that achieving these indicators "has been a gradual process. We didn’t flip a switch." The first step was to solicit buy-in and support from the community. Thanks to a county vote to increase property taxes that support the library, the library has enough funding for staff and equipment, key elements to its success. "It took recognizing the need and finding ways to meet that need," Rimassa said.

The library also benefits from a supportive tech department that manages digital information for the entire system. "[They are] great advocates for technology," Rimassa said. "They’re very proactive about making sure that [the library has] the most current software."

To ensure that software for staff and public is current, the tech team updates staff software first, then gradually updates the public computers. The Pioneer Library System supports a "wonderful virtual library" explains Rimassa. Staff perform regular website updates and routinely evaluate the library’s many database subscriptions. They also perform web analytics on the library’s site, and provide monthly reports to subject librarians and digital content managers.

The library has also made use of TechSoup to acquire Adobe Creative Suite 6, something it plans to do again in the future.

What did you learn during this process?

Rimassa says her work has taught her that everyone learns about technology at a different pace, with many patrons arriving at the Computer Training Center complete novices. Rimassa and her staff strive to make new learners comfortable, while at the same time instilling the basics.

Whether [patrons] want to learn it or not, this is something that they are going to have to learn how to do," said Rimassa. "Some people must be led gently toward technology."

Where did you run into trouble?

Rimassa acknowledges that, as with its patrons, the library has had to confront staff members’ apprehensions learning new technology as well. "There are always opportunities to help colleagues learn Excel, which is a valuable tool in the workplace," Rimassa said.

How did you overcome those challenges?

Rimassa and her staff have employed various strategies to increase patrons’ familiarity with technology. One approach has been one-on-one appointments. If a patron needs help with a particular project or software program, Rimassa or one of her team members will dedicate time to assist him or her individually.

Rimassa says she also encourages her staff to explore different programs and software and to suggest new classes that will pique patrons’ interest and enhance their comfort level with technology. For example, a staff member recently asked if she could offer a class about travel. Nancy told her, "Give me a date you’d like to offer it, and we’ll work toward it." She added, "And she’ll do it, because she’s engaged and has ownership of that class."

Although the Pioneer Library System offers Excel classes taught by full-time trainers,  Rimassa notes that these may occasionally be inconvenient for staff members, or staff members may require more practice with the programs. In these cases, Rimassa will open the patron classes to staff members who want to attend. She notes that managers appreciate this additional monthly opportunity to help staff members become more proficient and comfortable with Excel, Word, PowerPoint, and Publisher, while staff members enjoy the more casual atmosphere of the public classroom.

What was the key to your success?

Rimassa credits the success of the Computer Training Center to staff who respond to patrons’ unique needs, taking the time to understand what they want before offering direction. She points out that because many patrons seeking assistance with digital content tend to be older, and younger staff must be trained to best meet their needs. Rimassa says she has seen that most people learn best by doing. To this end, the lab has an informal policy when it comes to teaching: "Sit on your hands and let the student do the work."

Rimassa also points out the benefit of trying out new software in the lab first. After installing Paint.net in the Computer Training Center on a trial basis, the staff realized how easy the software was to use and made it available on all computers — public and private — in the system. The library's ability to make such improvements is a testament the library's administration, providing new technology in a culture of autonomy where staff can experiment and implement services for the public.

What advice would you give to a colleague?

Rimassa offers the following:

  1. Understand how to teach adults. Get to know how adults learn, and examine your own teaching methods.
  2. Embrace volunteers. "Don’t assume they are only good for shelving books," Rimassa said, pointing out that volunteers may have years of experience and skills with technology and are eager and willing to help. Find a place for their talents.
  3. When setting up a computer lab, give people enough space. "Just because you can fit four computers on a 4 by 8 table, doesn’t mean four computers should be there," said Rimassa. "People are crowded as it is, and they need space to work."
  4. Explore different funding sources to provide sufficient computers and resources. These may include TechSoup for technology resources, or state library grants for small libraries. One of their branches recently received a new lab, including computers, a projector, a screen, and a whiteboard, thanks to a grant from the Oklahoma Department of Libraries.

What three steps should a colleague take to get started?

  1. Be an advocate for digital literacy. If you have hardware and software, find ways to use it. If you don’t have these resources, get support from your board of directors.
  2. Make hardware and software available without passing judgment on how people are using them. Maintain and encourage an open system that includes everything from productivity software like Microsoft Excel to games like Farmville.
  3. Make sure you understand and support the needs of your community and patrons. If you hear that someone needs photo-editing software, try to find it.

-Jennifer Anthony