BTOP Projects at Work: Ramping Up Public Computing Access in the Midst of Staff Cuts

Staffing cuts can have devastating consequences for a library, the effects of which can reverberate throughout an entire community. In the face of economic hardships, enterprising ideas can be a key to survival. Three libraries in Arizona, Texas, and Washington are using innovative thinking and funding from NTIA’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant to survive in the midst of budget reductions.

Getting Creative in the Face of Changing Needs

The Parker Public Library (PaPL) in Arizona has struggled with limited resources for some time. The main branch, which serves a community of approximately 3,500 people, operates with two and a half staff. Ruthie Davis, one of these employees, was the Bookmobile and Outlying Services Coordinator for 13 years until the library could no longer afford the bookmobiles. The library has only one Information Technology (IT) staff person who works in the branches three days a week, and serves several other town facilities, such as the police station and the water department, the rest of the time.

Ms. Davis explained that the needs for public computers have both changed and increased in their community. While usage used to be more of a pastime that included such activities as checking email or downloading videos, the urgency has been ramped up as more patrons use the computers for more critical tasks as applying for jobs and paying bills. Many patrons do not have computers at home and have limited technological expertise, and therefore need quite a bit of assistance from overextended staff members.

Despite these changing and increasing needs, as of fall 2010, PaPL had not obtained new computers in seven years. And not all of the 14 computers they had were working. The BTOP grant, awarded in 2010, will allow staff to purchase 56 new public access computers for its three branches. Ms. Davis was excited about the roll out of new computers:

I can’t wait to see [the patrons’] faces. The people are going to be so pleased. They’re going to be able to come in and actually sit down at a computer and…not have to wait 30 minutes or an hour."

Shrinking budgets and limited IT help in the face of increased need has meant that the library has to be creative and resourceful. As such, Ms. Davis has enlisted the help of "computer-savvy volunteers who are not afraid to go in and help." In addition, they applied for funds from E-Rate, which has enabled them to get a T-1 line. As Ms. Davis shared, "Instead of eight minutes for [patrons] to get their email, it’s going to be just seconds."

Community Empowerment

The Ethel J. Whipple Memorial Library (ELWML) is located in southern Texas, along the Rio Grande and the Gulf of Mexico. In 2009, the small library served approximately 5,000 people with its three staff members. But in 2010, a local school district gave the library a stipend. Because the library now serves additional community members from that school district, their patron base has swelled to as many as 30,000 residents. According to Library Director Angie Lugo, the site is “having a lot of growing pains trying to adapt to that [increase]."

Because the funding from the stipend does not cover the additional demands created by the library’s surge in patrons, staff have to be proactive and collaborative. For example, the children’s librarian visits child care and United Way programs in the area, where she reads to the children and provides the families with books. Staff members also partner with accounting students from a nearby college to help residents file income tax returns, both at the library and on the college campus. While this free service helps community members save as much as $400 they would have paid to get their taxes filed, its primary purpose is to educate and foster independence. Finally, staff rely on their system library for resources and advice on how to help patrons.

Like Parker Public Library, the ELWML has faced changing computer needs. As more systems such as job applications and unemployment benefits go online, staff must help patrons who have limited computer skills. And like Parker Public Library, ELWML relies, in part, upon help from volunteers. Ms. Lugo shared an example of a high school work study student who volunteered one summer and helped out with technology issues. According to Ms. Lugo, the student volunteers “really get involved. Whatever they feel capable of doing, we let them explore that. We need to let them spread their wings and try new stuff. I think if you empower somebody, they…do stuff they wouldn’t otherwise do if you hold them back.” Because this arrangement was so successful, the library is currently setting up a work study scholarship for future student volunteers.

And like Parker Public Library, the ELWML will benefit from resources funded by the BTOP grant. One of the main tasks of its BTOP-funded Technology Expertise, Access and Learning (TEAL) project is to establish a computer lab, which will help increase public access. The grant will fund 15 new computer stations and 5 new laptops, which will triple the public access computers. It will also cover new software, printers, and office equipment.

In addition, the computer lab funded by the BTOP grant will provide a venue for training. The grant will also provide for a computer literacy instructor and an ESL teacher. Ms. Lugo is very sensitive to the specific needs of her rural community, in which many residents’ technical expertise is not up to speed or at par with those living in neighboring cities. As she explained, people “want you to show them [how to do] the basic stuff. And then they want to be left alone to do their own thing.” Ms. Lugo’s hope is to provide the training and resources to foster this independence.

Relying on Volunteers

The Puyallup Public Library (PuPL) is one of five libraries in the state of Washington that will benefit from the $4.2 million dollar BTOP grant awarded to The Communities Connect Network (CCN) Project. The CCN will expand the capacity of Washington State public computing centers (PCCs) to improve broadband adoption rates, workforce preparation, digital literacy, access to education, justice resources, and training. According to its website, “the project links rural and urban resources together to serve unemployed, low-income, disabled, immigrants, and youth through over 39 libraries, non-profit organizations, public housing, community centers, and justice centers in Washington State."

According to Mary Jo Torgeson, PuPL’s Library Director, the library planned to use the funds to enhance training and workshops it currently offers on basic computer and job skills such as writing resumes and keyboarding, and to purchase a media creation station to help patrons practice job interview skills. The library funded a nearby college to develop a curriculum that they could own and that would help it meet its anticipated goals.

But since it submitted its grant proposal, the PuPL has faced substantial staff and budget cuts. According to Ms. Torgeson,

The staff are stretched. In a standalone library, the librarians – really all the staff – wear multiple hats."

In the fall of 2010, the library lost three positions, or approximately 11 percent of its total staff. And as of early January 2011, the library’s operating hours decreased from 54 hours to 51 hours per week.

Ms. Torgeson shared several strategies staff will use to offer additional training in the face of staff and budget cuts. The use of laptops will provide one way to increase access to training. The library also offers a product called Learning Express, which patrons can use at their own pace at home.

But the most successful strategy has been and will continue to be the use of community volunteers to help with conducting introductory classes on such topics as Introduction to the Internet and Microsoft Word and Excel. As Ms. Torgeson explained, “We utilize volunteers who either have a background in teaching computer classes, or are pretty computer literate. The [volunteers] we have right now have been with us for at least two to three years, and the public really likes them. They are tried and true volunteers.” Ms. Torgeson added that the library’s philosophy is to not duplicate trainings offered by other local organizations, such as the local community college or the unemployment office. She added, “We feel like each of us has a special match.” Community volunteers also serve as Tech Tutors, who provide thirty minute, one-on-one tutoring sessions on such topics as assistance with resumes, surfing the Internet, and help setting up a free email account.

Shrinking Budgets, Increasing Help

Libraries across the nation are suffering from shrinking budgets and diminishing resources, and the PaPL, ELWML, and PuPL are no exception. But these libraries have learned how to weather a challenging economy by being proactive, thinking and working creatively, using grant funding to purchase additional resources, and soliciting the help of volunteers.


This is a great series of posts. Thanks!

Kate Sigler

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