Transition is my friend: maintaining and developing public computer instruction programs

The King County Library System in Washington State is one of the busiest in the country. Our service area encompasses 2,131 miles, including many rural and unincorporated areas.

The ALA 2007-2008 Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study reports that library staffing, space, and bandwidth are being stretched to capacity, and libraries are straining to provide access, assistance, and equipment. The study concludes: “Many library buildings, inadequate in terms of space and infrastructure, can¬not support additional public access computers and technology.”

While our numbers and circulation are impressive, our brick and mortar libraries cannot reach all potential patrons. Even with 44 community libraries, strong community support, and funding for capital upgrades, the growing demand for service in our area is outpacing facility growth and modernization.

In 2000, Techlab began service in the KCLS Outreach Department to expand library services and computer literacy beyond traditional brick and mortar settings, and make library resources available to new audiences. Techlab is a 35-foot Winnebago with a fully equipped mobile classroom offering broadband Internet, Microsoft Office products, a projector, and eight laptop work stations. Until recently, I was the Public Computer Instructor on Techlab. When I started the position in early 2008 (not long ago, but I’ll be back to that), it was my main priority to expand the program’s reach and develop partnerships with other groups and organizations in the community. Techlab already had a dozen or so sites it visited on a regular basis, but they were for fairly homogenous—mostly senior centers and retirement--communities. I wanted to continue to serve seniors, but reach out to other marginalized communities, including new immigrants and low-income adults.

I knew of some agencies that might be a good fit, but I wanted to do more targeted research so I started with Where to Turn, a comprehensive guide to social services in King County. The guide is pretty lengthy, but I was able to get a picture of what kinds of services were available and try to figure out where Techlab might fit. I narrowed it down to some larger agencies, like the King County Housing Authority, Jewish Family Services, and Catholic Community Services. After checking out their websites, I was able to find people to contact (program and activity coordinators mostly), and from there, it was easy to sell the service. The phone conversation went something like this: after introducing myself I would say,

“So, I have this library Winnebago and it’s got a computer classroom inside with 8 desks. I would like to bring it to some of your sites and offer residents/clients free computer classes. Are you interested?” Needless to say, I was able to add several new sites in a few short months.

Amber, on the TechlabThe next challenge was updating the manuals for classes—each session has materials that students can take and use elsewhere so that they could recreate the lesson. The materials that existed were great, just a little lengthy and out of date, so I tried to figure out how to maintain the content but make it even simpler. In collaboration with other staff, I was able to update our manuals and add some new classes to our roster (including Email Basics and some advanced Internet classes). Many of the manuals and corresponding exercises are posted on the KCLS website:

I recently took a new position as the Public Computer Instruction Coordinator, so I’ve passed the Techlab torch but am still doing some programming and teaching on the lab. My new challenge is to recruit and train volunteers, called NetMasters, to offer computer classes in the branches. The program has existed for several years, but now KCLS is hoping that there will be a more cohesive PC Instruction program system wide that encompasses Techlab, NetMasters, and staff who are offering classes to students in the community and in the libraries. Right now, the branches are gearing up for the change to Office 2007 and planning programs to respond to the economic downturn and its effects on the communities we serve. It is my hope to write about this transition on TechSoup and share my ideas, successes, and hurdles. I also look forward to learning more about what other libraries are doing to bridge the digital divide and encourage lifelong computer literacy in patrons, staff and volunteers.

Amber Slaven

Public Computer Instruction Coordinator

King County Library System, WA

--> This post paraphrased a Verso piece for Public Libraries magazine. Check out the rest to learn more about our prized Winnebago:

Amber Slaven. (2009, January). Techlab: Computer Lab on Wheels. Public Libraries, 48(1), 6-7. Retrieved March 12, 2009, from Research Library database. (Document ID: 1654440051).