Technology Lessons at the Library

One Small Town Learns Together
Hiawatha, KS
Susan Bryant

When the Morrill Public Library saw the need for more computer classes in their small community, outreach librarian Susan Bryant signed up to become a technology trainer. In this interview, Bryant tells TechSoup for Libraries what she has learned by turning her library into a learning center.

The Morrill Public Library in Hiawatha, Kansas was founded in 1882 from an endowment of $2,000. And while it may serve a town of just over 3,000 people and have only two full-time employees, that hasn’t stopped the library from offering technology classes to its small population. Much of the credit can be attributed to its then-director Cathy Newland and outreach librarian Susan Bryant, who, realizing the need for more lifelong learning classes, became a technology trainer in order to teach the technology classes herself.

In this case study, we check in with Bryant on what she has learned from the process, and how her library serves as an example of Edge Benchmark 1 Libraries provide assistance and training with the goal of increasing the level of digital literacy in the community.

As an outreach librarian, Bryant has long assisted her library director in developing various programs for the community, working hard to promote these programs (and the value of the library), and build relationships with a variety of community organizations. In 2006, recognizing the need for computer classes in the community, Bryant — with the help of memorial funding and community partners — was able to launch a roster of technology classes with only seven laptops and a small staff. Seven years later, the library has added an additional seven laptops, loaning out the original ones to patrons for in-library use.

Having never taught technology classes before, Bryant attended a Train the Trainer course at the Northeast Kansas Library System (NEKLS) and observed technology classes at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library. Back home, the library spearheaded a marketing campaign showcasing the library as a center for lifelong learning — including technology learning. Classes teaching basic computer skills (such as how to use a mouse and email), proved popular, with patrons surprised at how easy it was to cut, copy, and paste. Classes on how to use Facebook and how to blog followed.

What made your library successful?

Bryant credits the Morrill Public Library’s success to its commitment to customer service, an investment that in turn has helped create strong ties with the community.

The community has affection for the library and cares about it due to the fact that [we have] many strong partnerships with community organizations."

The library’s commitment to the community extends beyond the library itself; not satisfied to keep its digital literacy classes within its own four walls, the library packed up its laptops and took its classes to a local retirement center, offering beginning classes for the seniors. These classes proved so popular that Bryant still gets requests for them, with the now more advanced learners preferring one-on-one training for specific questions.

Bryant says that offering a variety of programs is essential to maintaining patrons' interest in technology classes. To this end, the library’s offerings range from setting up a home wireless network to organizing digital photos. The library has even partnered with a guest trainer from a telephone cooperative to teach patrons how to convert VHS to DVDs, as well as how to turn LP records and audiotapes into digital recordings. 

What did you learn during this process?

Bryant says that the teacher training she received at NEKLS has been invaluable. "When I first got started I had never taught anything before," Susan said. Her training classes — combined with time spent observing other library's programs — taught her the key elements of and best practices for facilitating classes. Moreover, she says, the handouts and slides other libraries generously shared with her allowed her to adapt materials to fit her community's needs.

Nevertheless, teaching and implementing tech classes at the library has been a learning process for Bryant and her colleagues. She recalls that they initially struggled with logistics, including when and where classes should be taught. Early ideas to offer classes in the main part of the library using the public access computers had to be scrapped when the staff realized this would be overly disruptive. Holding classes in a private meeting room is quieter, but requires more setup time and entails a lot of extra cords. "I think it would be really cool to at least have more of a tech-ready room," said Bryant, "with dedicated wall sockets for each device and where nothing would have to be moved."

Another learning process was the comprehensive marketing campaign the library undertook to promote its tech programs to the community, To start, Bryant says, the library conducted a two-question offline survey among its patrons: "What kind of programs would you be interested in taking or attending?" and "How do you find out what's going on at the library?" The library used this information to inform its programming and promotional efforts.

Spreading the news was also a group effort, Bryant says. Rainbow Communications (which runs a local public access television channel) helped the library with free ads, while the city offered space on water bills to promote library programs. Nowadays, the library continues to employ a variety of promotional avenues to reach its audience, including the local paper, radio, signs on its bulletin board, email, and Facebook.

Where did you run into trouble?

Bryant recalls that at one point, the library had fewer staff available to teach classes. In response, it focused on scheduling one-on-one classes by appointment. This service became surprisingly popular and the library now encourages patrons to sign up for individual classes.

Another challenge has been dwindling attendance for technology classes, Bryant says, attributing this to a mix of market saturation (those who wanted to learn technology skills in their small community have likely taken a class by now) and more user-friendly technology. "I think technology is easier to figure out now," she said. "If you know one program, you ‘get’ another program and it all kind of looks the same. I think people are just kind of better at teaching themselves than they use to be."  Nonetheless, she notes, there has been an uptake in interest about learning how to use e-readers, to which the staff has responded by teaching patrons one-on-one using their own Kindle and Nooks.

How did you overcome those challenges?

Every new technology Bryant has learned brings her more confidence in teaching new classes, she says, adding that she is glad students are asking more specific and complex questions.

The interesting thing for me was how much I learned along the way about technology," she said.

Bryant also credits good partners with helping her library overcome challenges. The K-State Research and Extension, for example, has offered classes in subjects the library staff was unfamiliar with, including a children’s class on GPS systems. (Complete, Bryant says, with about 20 handheld GPS systems to learn on.) Another partner, the local telephone company, asked volunteers from its computer repair department to come to the library to conduct classes on antivirus software.

What was the key to your success?

Bryant says that catering to community needs has been an important part of both the library’s — and the classes' — success.  "We really try to go an extra step," she said. "Not only with service — answering questions, getting them the books they need — but by going beyond maybe what traditional library programs and services offer."

Outreach and marketing have also been critical to the technology programs’ success; after all, it doesn’t matter how good your programs are if no one attends them.

The other aspect of my job is to get the word out to the community about who we are and what all we are doing and trying to get people to come through the doors," Bryant said. 

What advice would you give to a colleague?

"When you are doing technology training," said Bryant, "you have to be very generous and patient."  She emphasizes the need for trainers to reassure students that there is nothing to fear about technology, even if they might have had a bad experience with it in the past. Showing patience and offering encouragement is key to instilling confidence in learners, she shared. 

Bryant also advises that librarians keep their ears open. As a teacher, it’s difficult to anticipate questions you’ll receive, she says; sometimes you’ll be asked the same questions over and over, but remain patient and flexible. Be confident enough to say you don’t know the answer, but that you are willing to try and help your student find it.

Bryant also encourages fellow librarians to remember that there will be times when only a few people will show up for a class, but to always remember that even helping a few people will increase digital literacy in your community.

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

Bryant offers the following:

  1. Find a space in your library to hold classes. Arrange for laptops or computers to be used for this purpose. 
  2. Take some courses with your local library system or visit with other libraries to get ideas and teaching materials for your classes. 
  3. Conduct a survey to assess your community's needs. Market your classes to the community. 

And a bonus:

  1. Don't forget to dream big! For Bryant, future goals include a "Tech Toy Box" of gadgets patrons can try out, as well as a Smart Board and a mounted projector in a classroom dedicated to technology classes (with plenty of power outlets, no extra cords, and a full kitchen, of course!).

- by Lian Sze

Program Coordinator, Public Library Association