Knowing how to know

A librarian shares strategies learned from his new role as trainer
Rural Colorado
Kieran Hixon

When we last spoke with Kieran Hixon, he was busy revamping John C. Fremont Public Library District's computers through open source solutions. He recently moved on to a new position as trainer for the Colorado State Library as part of a two-year, $3.3 million Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant project to bring computing centers and training to 76 rural and low-income communities in Colorado.

Hixon's new gig involves setting up public computer centers in 24 rural libraries across the southeast portion of Colorado, which means it involves a lot of travel and telecommuting. In addition to helping set up the computers, Hixon provides training for library staff to support patrons.

"I'm doing a lot of train-the-trainer kind of stuff," Hixon told us. "So that when they're helping a patron, they're not just grabbing the mouse and doing it or answering, 'I don't know, look it up.'

Hixon said one of the biggest challenges is helping librarians get over their fear of technology or adjust to new roles. Some of the librarians he'd worked with were running Windows Millenium before he helped set up their computer labs, while others were uncomfortable with the idea of allowing their brand new laptops to be checked out by patrons.

In his few short months as a trainer, Hixon has already seen several creative (and better yet, successful) ideas from rural librarians for promoting and supporting their new technologies. He's learning just as much from his libraries as he's teaching them, and like any good student, he said he plans on sharing these ideas with other rural libraries he oversees.

Making databases cool

Hixon recently visited Woodruff Memorial Library in La Junta, CO where the librarians came up with a creative way to promote both their public computing centers and their new language database software, Mango. With Mango's help, the library hosted a "How to Speak Pirate" event.

If you say 'we have databases,' the public has no clue what you're talking about, unless they think you're talking about online dating," Hixon told us. "It's easier to teach someone to play solitaire on the computer than to teach them using a how to use a mouse exercise. There's something to making it fun."

Using a special version of the Mango software, patrons learned about the public computer lab and got hands-on experience with the Mango interface. Hixon thinks that something similar to Woodruff's event could be very successful at other rural libraries. We also asked Hixon if he was now fluent in the language of Black Beard, Calico Bart, and their contemporaries.

"I totally sat down and learned pirate. It was awesome," he said.

You can read Hixon's account of the event on the Colorado Public Computing Centers website.

Recognizing the situation

Hixon stressed the importance of libraries taking stock of their unique technology situation and recognizing how new technologies might impact both staff and patrons. On a recent visit to Cañon City Public Library, Hixon heard from the library director that the library didn't offer any technology training at the moment and that library staff were not equipped to answer technical questions. But Hixon got a different story from a circulation desk employee, who said he spent nearly all of his time answering technology questions from patrons.

"That wasn't his job. That's not what his director thought he was doing," Hixon told us.

When the director found this out, he appointed the employee as the new trainer. Hixon said the newly appointed trainer was excited to be able to perform those duties in an official capacity —obviously a better solution than his additional work going unnoticed by his superiors.

Hixon said it can be difficult for librarians who are already very busy to take on the additional tasks associated with a computer lab, but it's important to get over that fear by recognizing that these issues are important, that patrons are going to be asking for help, and that it's actually not that difficult.

People come up to me and they're like, 'How do you use the templates in Word?' I get scared because I don't know the answer," Hixon said. "We suddenly think we have to know. But we don't have to know, we have to know how to know. And that's what librarians do, we know how to know."

Super IT Task Force

Hixon said he's enjoyed his time as a trainer immensely thus far, but he often wishes he could do more for the libraries he works with.

I've had this dream for three or four years of having this very tech-savvy group of library-types being like a group of superheroes and going from library to library in the rural areas, being able to do the stuff that requires more tech-savvy," Hixon said. "Maybe it's the perfect LSTA (Library Services and Technology Act) grant opportunity."

Hixon has already been able to do something similar with the Colorado Library Consortium (CLIC), who sends consultants to libraries to help them assess their technology needs and point them in the right direction.. His dream-team of technologist-librarians would focus more on the nuts and bolts of setting up something like a wireless network or ILS database.

Hixon also hopes that broadband Internet becomes more pervasive throughout communities in Colorado's rural areas. He said he worries about the people in these communities, especially the children, being left behind technologically.

In Colorado, in order to get a hunting license, you have to be able to use the Internet. There are certain business taxes that you can only file online," he told us. "That requires digital literacy and a computer and an Internet connection. Where I live those are really hard to come by, and it can be that the only place you can do that is a library."

Through the BTOP-funded computing project, Hixon hopes the program will be able to equip libraries with the technology they need and teach them how to promote themselves more successfully as digital literacy centers in rural areas.

Check out TechSoup for Libraries' Small and Rural Libraries Cookbook, which includes technology training tips and resources about laptop checkout programs. You can also read about Hixon and his fellow trainers' adventures on the Colorado Public Computer Centers website.