Tourists, Travelers, and Snowbirds: Empowering Community Leaders to Navigate Broadband

BTOP grants represent a huge opportunity for public libraries and other institutions to redouble the broadband access that they can offer their communities. But of course, with that access means more need for educating and supporting broadband users. For many of the public libraries and community centers I've talked to, how to match that increased access with appropriate staffing remains an open question.

I recently spoke with Ruthie Davis of the Parker Public Library in rural Arizona. The Parker Public Library encompasses three branches in the small towns of Parker, Bouse, and Centenntial, and a bookmobile. The population in and around Parker rises each winter with people who live there seasonally — snowbirds, as Arizonans call them. Many of them retirees, snowbirds make up a large portion of the library's patrons.

This year, Parker Public Library will celebrate the beginning of snowbird season by unveiling 56 new computers, thanks to a BTOP grant. Ruthie told me that while the three branches do have some strong volunteers, she's not sure that they'll be able to match the increased demand:

I don’t know how we’re going to support the patrons using them. We have asked for volunteers. We need computer-savvy volunteers that are not afraid to go in and help somebody set up an email and stuff like that.

Our Centennial Public Library is manned by one person, and she has a good volunteer staff in the winter, November through March. She has ladies that come in and help her do that kind of stuff. Then in Bouse, she’s only 19 hours, and she has a great volunteer staff. It’s down to minimal in the summertime, but when our snowbird season and our winter visitors are here, she has a great amount of people that help her. So they will be there to help people and most of them are all computer-savvy.

In considering Parker Public Library — both the increased need and the increased volunteer energy that snowbird season brings to the library — I got to thinking about the life cycle of the volunteer. In an excellent series of blog posts (part 1, part 2, part 3), Chris Jarvis and Angela Parker lay out three stages in a volunteer's life cycle: tourist, traveler, and guide.

The Tourist: Tourists are excited, enthusiastic, and a little stumbly as they figure out what they're looking for. The space is new and the potential is endless. Tourists want to love their experience, but first impressions are paramount. If it doesn't meet their needs, they'll probably never come back. No problem. This is the group from which you will discover the best and most loyal of your volunteers. Do not expect long-term commitment from this group — they're not ready yet.

The Traveler: Travelers have been here before. They know where to go when they arrive and what they like doing best. At this stage, volunteers begin to invest in the cause. Because the space begins to feel like "theirs," they will ask hard questions and even begin to complain a little (which is a good sign that they're connecting emotionally.) Travelers want to be seen and heard. They want someone to confirm that they belong here. Discover them; give them space to continue to the next stage.

The Guide: Guides know they are home and will show the way for tourists and travelers. This group is as dependable as the executive director, and maybe even more committed. There are only a few of them, but they will lead your organization into the future. Do not treat these volunteers like first-timers; do not give them buttons and trinkets as thank you's. They own the space; treat them as such.

For libraries and community technology centers, it's essential to help volunteers along on the path from tourists to guides. As with Parker's snowbirds, an influx of patrons also means an influx of potential volunteers; volunteers that, if nurtured well, can grow into trusted leaders.

A few days ago, I attended an event celebrating One Economy's BTOP-funded We Are Now Connected program. The program, which began in California through a partnership with Mercy Housing, will bring free Internet access to low-income housing in 31 states over the next 18 months. I met two of One Economy's Community Technology Associates (CTAs), Joshua Farria and Damien Ramos. CTAs train residents in using the Internet, and they're also the first responders when something goes wrong with the network. The three of us talked about our similar backgrounds in technology — how we'd just kept trying things and teaching ourselves until eventually other people started asking us to help them.

In Jason Schroeder's recent blog post, he argues that when hiring trainers, investment in the community should be the top criterion, not tech skills. Talking with Damien and Joshua, I realized that one of the benefits of that approach is that it can yield a much longer return on investment. Damien, who lives in the Mercy Housing building where he works, is now taking network administration classes through the St. Anthony's Tenderloin Technology Lab (which we profiled a few months ago). As Damien's skills increase, his value as a leader in the We Are Now Connected program goes up too. That's the value in hiring trainers who care about the community they're serving.

How do you staff a computer lab or broadband program to keep up with increased demand for support? Perhaps another way to frame the question is, As a community takes more advantage of the services you provide, how do you empower and equip members of that community to grow and develop as guides?

Photos: Bouse Public Library; snowbirds (Christopher Thomas, CC license); Damien Ramos and Joshua Farria