Making Technology Training a Priority—And a Job Requirement

One librarian's tale of patience, planning, and persistence
Mitchell, IN
Alexis Caudell

In this case study, we'll be looking at Edge Benchmark 8: Library has sufficient staff with technology expertise to help patrons achieve their goals.

Alexis Caudell, director of the Mitchell Community Public Library in Mitchell, Indiana, describes the challenges in training the entire staff of a small library and requiring them to keep their knowledge current. Happily, we learn about several solutions that work for this busy small-town staff, which has one building to serve a population of 11,943 across three townships.

Keeping up without slowing down

Keeping up with constantly changing technology has got to be one of the most difficult parts of library work today. Getting staff members up to speed and keeping them there requires time, attention, planning, money, and training. All of that is even more difficult when it's piled on top of the everyday work of making a library run. So, how do you find time for the "extra" work on top of the "real" work? Maybe you don't. Maybe you make the technology training a required part of the "real" work and support it with bite-sized training that fits into staffers' schedules.

This is how Alexis Caudell has made it work in the small town of Mitchell, Indiana. Three years ago, when Alexis arrived at the Mitchell Community Public Library (MCPL) as its new director, there was a lot of catching up to do. "We were running computers that had not been updated for 10-15 years," Alexis says. There was an Integrated Library System (ILS) that employees used for only the most basic of functions such as checking items in and out; they didn't know how to pull up reports or use the higher functions. And the collection hadn't been inventoried in about 35 years.

Getting back on track required various activities. This incoming director worked with the board to write a service plan (or Strategic Plan, linked here) that focused heavily on technology because that was the top thing the community was asking for. To make it possible, Alexis made sure that tech competencies were part of every person's job descriptions, found simple training tools, implemented monthly staff classes, had all employees set measureable goals, and made tech skills count as 30% of performance evaluations. This combination of strategies means that everybody knows exactly what's expected of them, and that they're set up for success since the library is providing the training and the time to take it.

What made your library successful?

Alexis Caudell was not afraid to expect a lot of her staff, and she gave them the tools to reach their goals. That required many steps. First, she learned that the community wanted "access to technology and technology education," so she worked with the library board on a service plan to enable that. And she reports back to the board about tech training progress every month, which keeps everyone moving forward.

Ensuring that all staff members have the ability to help patrons use technology is at the core of this benchmark, and this library scored high because that skill is part of everyone's job descriptions (the director, the other two professionals, the library assistants—even the bookkeeper). In fact, the leaders felt so strongly about this competency that, this past June, they changed employee performance evaluations to specify that tech skill counts for 30% of their total score. In order to implement this, they needed benchmarks, so in June, they evaluated every staff member.

Alexis told the tale of how it worked:

Bless their hearts, many of them thought it was the worst day of their lives. I didn’t warn them. They all had a meeting scheduled with me, and they sat down and I was like, 'OK, here you go. Here’s your test. You have 2 hours.' And I explained to them that it wasn’t to penalize them for not knowing, but I needed to know where they were then, so we could figure out a plan to get where they need to be. ... I didn’t really want to be in December saying, 'Oh, look! You failed because you didn’t know how to do these things.'

It was fairly stressful for everybody. Even when I did some of it, I was like, 'Oh my god, I guess I don't know this.' ... You assume you know how to do something and then all of a sudden you're like, 'Oh, maybe I don't know Excel quite as well as I thought I did.'"

After the June testing, each person received a customized plan detailing what they needed to work on before their December performance evaluations. What's more is that the library officially tied the evaluations to pay increases—"when and if we actually get any," Alexis half jokes. That shows how serious the library is about its staffers' tech skills.

But how can you train employees when the staff is small and busy? You find the right tools. The library subscribes to a product called Custom Guide that lets staffers learn Microsoft Office products at their own pace. It works because "the tutorials are maybe 30 to 60 seconds long, so even if they are working the circulation desk, they can do a few, stop, check [items] in, solve a problem," and be able to go back to the tutorials without thinking, "Now, where was I?" These super-short videos demonstrate the very basics such how to open a program to advanced skills such as mail merges and using Access."

MCPL also uses in-house assignments for some topics, and a beta product called Google Smarterer for all of the social media lessons. It relies on webinars too; many of them from WebJunction. Alexis usually chooses one or two webinars that she wants everyone to complete at some point during the year, and they can choose others according to their own needs.

But those four tools only cover the individual work. "On a monthly basis, we have staff training for everybody," Alexis explains. "Because it's incredibly difficult to get everybody together at the same time and run the library," their solution is to have 30-minute sessions in which one staffer teaches three others at a time. The lesson runs about 20 minutes, followed by 10 minutes for questions. Later, three more employees get the same training while the others man the desks. The teaching responsibilities rotate for these mini classes. Typically, whomever is leading the training gives handouts and makes them available on the library's server for later review. It's not perfect, "But it was one solution that we came up with to get everybody through some kind of training. Just recently we learned about MOOCs and provided staff with a Learnist board for further learning on the topic."

Some things do require more-serious work. The recently upgraded ILS was one of them. E-books was another. Last year, MCPL wrote a grant to buy e-readers so staff could check them out, take them home, and practice using them. Since the library planned to add e-books to the collection this year, and none of the staffers owned devices, Alexis made sure they could get comfortable with the hardware and software before they had to help patrons with them.

There's also an all-staff training day once a year, and at least one of the day's sessions is related to technology. This year the tech topic will be Flip cameras and digital cameras. Staffers used these devices and Animoto to create thirty second videos that captured the spirit of the library’s service plan priorities.  The videos were shared via the library’s facebook account, Pinkie Maus.

That's a lot of tech training on different levels, and it's a lot to keep track of. "It's been pretty much my life," Alexis chuckled, "but that's ok."

What did you learn during this process?

Anyone who implements new strategies and tasks goes through some trial and error. The first thing that Alexis had to learn, she admits, was patience. "I have to remember that I am dealing with staff members who—for many of them, they’ve been here their entire work life but they never really had to do as much technology as they’ve had to do in the last 3 years. Not everybody can just pick it up."

Like so many management tasks, it's a balancing act. Alexis strives to give her staff time to process what they're learning, but she doesn't want to let them slide too far, even if they’re having difficulty. "Because of what we went through in June, they were really struggling. We’re also doing other things in the library, too, not technology-related. And it’s all sort of challenging their concept of what the library is." So she realizes that "Finding ways to reward them even for small achievements" is important.

Another lesson that Alexis discussed was not to "jump in and help" the minute she sees one of her staffers struggling with something they're learning. Even though it may be uncomfortable for her to observe when she knows she could easily assist, "It's much better for them to learn how to do it on their own. ... Sometimes I have to just shut my door" and tell myself, "No, they will come get me if they really need me."

Where did you run into trouble?

Alexis admitted that she made a major mistake when she addressed the whole staff at the end of a long day they had spent learning about e-books. She had chosen that time to tell everyone that technology skills were going to be 30% of their performance evaluations. "That was a big miscalculation on my part," she confessed. "OK, now that your brains are fried, guess what? This is why it matters." Whoops. "Yes, maybe I should've said that up front, as opposed to when they were completely drained." Live and learn ...

What was the key to your success?

When asked about her key to success, Alexis Caudell isn't really sure they've reached "success" in technology expertise yet. "We're working on it. Obviously, it's a work in progress because as soon as you learn something, it changes." (Darn technology!) She acknowledges that "it's taken 3 years of hard focus on technology to even get us to where we need to be, let alone get ahead."

However, she can cite several specifics that made it possible for them to get to where they are today. The first is the backing of the library board. "I had a commitment from the board that this is what we needed to do. If I didn't know that they had my back, we would not have been able to do this." The second tactic she names is sharing the reasoning, the "big picture," with her staff. "I try to give everybody an explanation for why we're doing this. ... Because they don't necessarily all read the professional literature." As an example: "I'll share circulation statistics, which are nose-diving, versus our computer statistics, which are increasing." To make her point, she'll explain that "if we just kept doing the things we're doing now, in 5 years we will become irrelevant to our community." She knows this is vital because she is "sort of consumed by that bigger picture all the time" as a director, but, "For them, that's not the case."

The final key to success has been getting grants. Alexis acknowledges that Mitchell Community Public Library would not have been able to do the computer upgrades and training without the grants they've secured from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Library Services and Technologies Act, and a local community foundation.

What advice would you give to a colleague?

One trait that Alexis has found very useful in numerous situations is flexibility. That's one advantage that small libraries have over large ones—there are not as many layers of bureaucracy and less need for endless committees and approvals. So, for instance, "We wanted to get up and running on Facebook. We got up and running on Facebook. We wanted to go ahead and set up a Pinterest account. We set up a Pinterest account. ... And if those things don't work out, we'll adjust." In fact, she can almost avoid worrying about what she "should have done differently" because if something seems to be going poorly or getting off track, "we just go ahead and change it."

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

To help others achieve success in the same way her library did, Alexis spells out three recommendations. The first is to ascertain just what your community wants and needs, because if a certain service is not what they want, "then why spend your limited resources on it?"

The second act involves translating community needs to your staff so they understand your push for change. She's all about "setting that expectation and making it clear," either via personal conversations, job descriptions, performance evaluation, etc., "because until they buy into it, it's not going to happen."

Her third bit of advice is to write as many grants as you can. You need money to jumpstart initiatives that aren't covered in your regular budget.

Alexis knows Benchmark 8

Looking back over everything that Alexis Caudell shared, thinking ahead seems to be a big part of what she does. She goes after grants to get money for new projects that she wants to tackle. She has every single employee write out goals for themselves for the coming year (and share them among staff). She looks at the big picture and explains it to her staff to get the buy-in she'll need down the road. She expects a lot of her employees, and encourages them to aim high, but not without giving them the support and tools they need. Yet she tempers her planning and goals with flexibility so that, if what they're trying isn't working, she can change course mid-stream to ensure that they reach their desired destination.

Kathy Dempsey

Libraries Are Essential