Queuing up learning

A librarian uses creative technologies to provide instruction for patrons and staff
Bellevue, WA
Amber Slaven

Amber Slaven's first job at Bellevue Library did not take place inside the library: "I drove our Techlab, which is a Winnebago that's a mobile computer classroom," she told us. Though she's moved on from her gig as a mobile lab driver and instructor—she's now in Adult Reference after recently finishing library school—she's proven a valuable asset to the library in various roles over the past four years. (To learn more about Amber's time on Techlab, read her earlier guest blog posts.)

The Bellevue Library is part of the King County Library System, a fairly large 46-branch system that serves more than 1 million residents in western Washington and gets more than 10 million visits per year. The Bellevue branch in particular receives about 77,000 visitors per month and provides patrons with valuable computing access through its 75 public computers. King County Library Systems was named Library of the Year on June 7, 2011 by Gale and Library Journal.

After her two-year stint with the Techlab and before making the jump to adult reference, Slaven served as a public instruction specialist. In that position she coordinated computer classes across the library system, working with more than 100 volunteers to teach classes. During her four years at the Bellevue branch, Slaven has taught both patrons and staff how to use library systems through various creative means, including producing instructional and informational videos on the library's most popular topics.

Going mobile with instruction

King County Library System's Techlab has served the county since 2000 with its broadband-equipped mobile lab featuring eight laptop workstations. When Slaven started working as a public computer instructor on the Techlab in 2008, she made it one of her goals to expand the mobile lab's reach, which was limited to mainly retirement communities and senior centers at the time.

Slaven wanted to reach out to marginalized communities, so she contacted several agencies who work with low-income adults or immigrants. It wasn't hard for her to get the agencies to agree to free computer classes for their clients.

The offices of the Refugee Women's Alliance in Washington ended up being one of the most popular Techlab sites Slaven coordinated. The Techlab's computer skills classes meshed nicely with the alliance's programs, which aim to provide services to refugees and immigrants in the community.

There was an influx of Burmese refugees from Myanmar at the Alliance soon after the Techlab program began, and with the help of an interpreter from the Alliance, everything went smoothly. "We would start the class with a library tour with an interpreter, have a computer class, and then do library card sign-ups," Slaven told us. "The interpreter informed students beforehand to bring the appropriate ID and mail verification, if possible."

Coordinating volunteer instructors

In Slaven's next role as public instruction specialist, she coordinated computer classes across about 40 of King County Library System's branches. Classes were taught largely by the 100 or so volunteers who signed up for the library's NetMaster program.

King County's website largely automated the application process for volunteer sign-up. After applying and passing a background check, applicants observed an instructor teaching a class, went to orientation, read training manuals, and finally, taught a class with Slaven's supervision.

During her time in the role, Slaven developed a comprehensive manual for library staff who work with the NetMaster volunteers. She held an in-person meeting with staff where they reviewed the manual, collected feedback, and shared information on how to prepare and schedule classes.

Slaven said libraries that organize volunteer-run instruction should get feedback from the staff who are responsible for the program as well as the volunteers.

With volunteers, it's important to communicate with them as a group through email, social networking, in person, and on the phone as much as possible," Slaven told us. "It's really important to make volunteers feel like they are part of a community. This facilitates ownership and accountability."

Read more about Slaven's work coordinating volunteers in another of Slaven's blog posts at TechSoup for Libraries.

Professor YouTube

During her role as public instruction specialist, Slaven added content to the library's collection of instructional videos that teach patrons how to use the library catalog. To determine topics for the videos, Slaven looked to the reference desk's answer line. Since the library recently switched over to Evergreen, an open source catalog, many of the patron's calls were about how to use the new catalog. Slaven made videos on how to pay fines, modify holds, view checkout history, and create lists of books.

Not surprisingly, the library also received a lot of questions about eBooks. Slaven shared that the most difficult part about teaching patrons how to check out eBooks is that the process can vary drastically depending on which eReader is used.

It's bananas how for each device there's something a little bit different," Slaven told us. "It's such a challenge for staff too: how much do we need to know about all these different devices?"

Luckily, the KCLS website now has a dedicated site with videos that detail how to check out books with each eReader, such as the Nook or iPad. The videos are also helpful for staff to refresh their knowledge.

Tools of the trade

Slaven uses the online screen capture service Jing Pro to create the instructional videos. It's fairly inexpensive and intuitive, and there's also a free version with limited features.

Slaven has had a bit of video editing experience from class projects in school and substantial audio recording experience from her time at a radio station, so she was able to enhance the videos she created to make them look more professionally produced. She imported the Jing videos into Final Cut Pro (Apple's video editing software) for initial editing and re-recorded the audio in Audacity (a free, open-source, audio editing application) because she says the sound quality on Jing recordings isn't always the best. Then, she finished the videos in Final Cut Pro to make give them that slick, polished look.

Slaven recently co-presented at a WebJunction online conference about video production in libraries. You can view the archived webinar on WebJunction.org.

All-access instruction

Though Slaven is at the reference desk now, she hopes to continue her involvement with instruction in other areas of the library. She's especially interested in creating instructional materials that can be used by staff as well as patrons.

Slaven said eBooks continue to be a popular topic in the libraries and at the reference desk, which has changed her view on the availability of these devices among the public. "I was kind of skeptical when I was assigned eBook stuff," Slaven said. "I think I saw it as something that's just for a privileged few, but I don't think that's true."

As eReaders and other new library technologies become more popular, those who promote understanding of these systems, like Slaven, become all the more crucial to our communities and to our libraries.