Context is Key

Devices and apps are all part of the programming at one small Connecticut library
Darien, CT
Gretchen Caserotti

Just five years ago, the Darien Public Library didn't have a single public access computer in its children’s section. Today, it is nationally recognized as a pioneer in incorporating iPads and apps into its programs and displays. In this interview with (now former) Assistant Director Gretchen Caserotti, we discover why context is key when it comes to using digital tools in a meaningful way.

This case study covers Edge Benchmark 3, specifically 3.3: The library supports use of public technology for patrons pursuing educational opportunities.

The Darien Public Library in Connecticut serves an engaged community of 20,000 residents, 19,000 of them registered active library cardholders. Caserotti served as Assistant Director for Public Services and oversaw the managers of Children and Teen Services, Help Desk, Knowledge the Learning Services, and the Readers’ Advisory departments. "The library’s work is wonderfully all-encompassing," said Caserotti, adding that the library takes on many public and behind-the-scenes roles. "It’s a really busy but exciting place."

Caserotti notes that the population the library serves is an important consideration in this work. "Many families move to Darien because of the town’s school system. It has the highest per capita household of families with children under 18 in the state of Connecticut," she said. To this end, the library is highly focused on early childhood education and literacy, especially for children who don’t attend preschool programs. In recent years, this means an increasing emphasis on devices like iPads and apps, tools Caserotti says have enormously enhanced the library’s programs and learning culture. After all, she notes, a library should be a place not necessarily to master something but to try it out and experiment.

What made your library successful?

"The electronic toys and tablets piece is really where the most exciting work is happening," Caserotti said, adding that the iPad created a valuable opportunity for the library to offer a dynamic, engaging element to early education. "Most libraries were buying e-readers and iPads to circulate through the community, and saying ‘Here’s this new device. You can test it out,'" she recalled. "We first started using them out on the floor and working with patrons, getting feedback and testing things out with kids." The library staff quickly began to identify ways they could incorporate them into library programming.

The library began circulating iPads for preschool-aged children preloaded with early literacy apps selected by the library, along with resources for parents, including a list of suggested apps, tips on how to find and evaluate good apps, and additional support content. Sometimes, just the information was needed. "Some of them already have iPads at home," said Caserotti. "They just really want to know what the librarians recommend as a good app." She points to the library’s App of the Day program that lets children and parents try out new software. "Parents are being exposed to new, educational, high quality interactive books for little kids,” she said. "We are helping to educate the community that technology is a tool that can help support the literacy development in preschool-aged children."

In addition to using iPads as digital and literacy tools, the library also began incorporating them into displays to enhance particular collections. Librarians select a set of apps related to the books and mount the iPads right on the bookshelves.

Caserotti underscores the importance of providing curated digital content in this context. "It’s not just giving young learners a device as a shell, but giving them examples of how they can use it," she said.

Caserotti says that apps have now become part of Darien Public Library’s culture. The library hosts a program called "Appy Hours" where members of the community gather to share and learn. Librarians select a few apps to discuss, with participants offering their own experiences and favorites. She adds that having the devices at the library has been invaluable to the librarians and public alike. "

I think having iPads in-house for programming helps because librarians look for a tool that supports the theme of the program that they’re trying to do," said Caserotti. "If it’s a digital art program for kids, they’re going to be looking for animation apps or collage apps."

What did you learn during this process?

People value staff members’ input, Caserotti says. In the same way the public values a book recommendation from a librarian, they also value the stamp of approval on other content, like websites and electronic resources. "Our reputation has really improved through the transition to technology-based tools which support the services that we provide," she said.

Context is key, she adds. Whether deciding on a program, or a new service or tool, be sure to verify the approach within a meaningful framework. When considering a new program, she says, the librarians first ask: "How does it fit into our mission? Does it tie back to learning, literacy or discovery?" This thoughtful approach, she says, helps the library scope and prioritize its services and programs. It also helps the public to truly learn from the technology. By incorporating iPads and apps into programming, people are able to see they aren’t just gadgets but learning tools. "It’s given them a reason to see the tool differently, more than just an object," Caserotti said.

What was the key to your success?

Darien is an affluent community and the library, though small, is well supported. While the budget is small compared to larger systems, Caserotti says, she attributes its success less to funding and more to a culture of innovation and experimentation, where staff think outside of the box and are willing to be flexible as needed.

"It’s about using the tools more effectively," she said, pointing to the library’s early literacy programs, whereby librarians use email to share with parents what they will learn in the program, what literacy skill the children will be taught, what books they will read, and what parents will do at home. "The parents love it. They go crazy for it. It’s not a new technology and it doesn't cost us anything," she said.

Caserotti also emphasizes the importance of offering the library as a resource for people to learn informally:

One thing we talk a lot about in our community, especially since our library is so well supported, is that the public library, the identity of the public library, is not known for the formal education piece but rather informal learning. Public libraries are more places for people who are interested in sort of tinkering, learning a little bit about all these different things. We are not especially known as places for people who are interested in gaining mastery of the subject and having really formal educational spaces. Public librarians are very often not trained in education — not trained to be teachers. There is often a lack or an absence of that way of thinking in public libraries. I think that the way that [this benchmark] is worded — by only addressing formal educational opportunities —  is missing an opportunity for public libraries to share what we're doing to support informal learning … which I think is happening a lot more than how we are supporting formal education."

[Update: at the time of this interview, the benchmark Caserotti was addressing explicitly stated, "The library supports use of public technology for children, teens, and adults enrolled in or pursuing formal educational opportunities..."  Based on Caserotti's feedback and others who chimed in, Edge benchmark 3 was modified to focus on informal education opportunities.]

What would you do differently?

"We are all really committed to growing and learning from mistakes," she said, adding that mistakes or failures are not considered a setback at her library, but rather as an opportunity to make improvements. Staff are committed to growing, improving, and challenging themselves, she said.

An example of this, Caserotti says, is the children’s library. When she began in 2008, it didn’t have any computers; today, she notes, "we are known nationally as the library that does everything with iPads."

Another example is a new approach to subscriptions. "Like many libraries, we have the problem of people taking the recent issue of a magazine," she said. "What we’re piloting now is a new program that will move some of our magazine subscriptions to digital subscriptions, so people can read those in-house."

Moving forward, Caserotti says she would also like to explore new ways to collect public feedback. "This is a community that loves to tell us what they think, so we’re not worried that people aren't telling us things," she said. "But organizing the means for gathering feedback would be healthy to do every once in a while."

What advice would you give to a colleague?

"You have to be willing to start somewhere," said Caserotti: "I think that's where all of our successful projects, none of them came out of the gate as really strong programs. They all started small. The ones that are meant to be, grow, and you can refine them as you grow, not to be disappointed or setback by funds because again, a lot of our success has been looking at things differently and trying new ways of approaching a problem. I'd say it's just really worth it in the long run, so it's worth the hard work if it's to find grant money, if it's to connect to other libraries."

She added: "I guess the only other piece of advice would be, ask lots of questions. If you see something interesting, find out how they did it, where they did it, and think about how it could fit at your library and modify it."

What three steps would you tell a colleague to start doing now?

  1. Find a way to get your hands on the devices. "We see technology, or the skills needed to use it, like a muscle; no one can know everything about it but the more comfortable you are moving between systems, the stronger that muscle is, the more comfortable you are with it," Caserotti said. A good place to start, therefore, is finding opportunities to try out new devices. “If you don't have money, ask your community to donate first-generation iPads to the library," she said. "They are not that different, and not that old, so it's a great place to start."
  2. Create a technology sandbox. Caserotti suggests bringing in a mix of gadgets and inviting staff and patrons to try them out. These play sessions can provide an opportunity to listen to people’s feedback, hear their concerns, and to learn what they’re interested in, she explains. "It’s an opportunity for you to have a conversation with people in your community." Consider setting up a table in a high-traffic area where you can display a couple of different devices — a Kindle, a Nook, and iPad — maybe a flip camera or some kind of a digital camera, she says, and allow patrons to get their hands on them. For staff, she suggests, consider setting up the sandbox as part of a brown bag lunch, and invite folks to bring their own devices to share and demo. "It’s the principle of a sandbox in a playground," she said. "It's a little space to play around and not a formal learning environment, not a classroom or instructional class."
  3. Take a deep breath and jump. "If you haven't started yet, then don't wait till it's too late — because you’re right on the cusp of it being too late," she said.