Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Training the Public

Libraries have always been thought of as repositories for books and this just isn't so.  The library is a living, breathing place of community building.  In the webinar Cultivating the Library as a Site of Participatory Culture and Learning, Buffy Hamilton describes the library as being collaborative.  This idea is revolutionary because it takes the idea of libraries being synonymous with books and makes a much truer statement that libraries are, instead, synonymous with learning.

As technology around us changes and information becomes accessible at the click of a mouse, libraries must reevaluate what their purpose is.  Taking on a new role as a participatory library means not only providing books about computers or job searching but having workshops around the subject as well.  In a world where anyone can edit the online encyclopedia and give their two cents via twitter, it begins to matter that people view the library as a collaborative place, too.  If you'd like to offer more to your community, consider following these simple steps:

Just as I stated in my blog entry, Understanding the Need, regarding the training needs of staff, it is important to know what is currently trending in the community.  A great way to discover what the community needs is by asking your reference staff to write down topics they encounter most frequently.  For example, are staff spending a lot of time instructing customers on how to download eBooks to their device?  If so, this is a prime subject area for training the public.  There are a host of topics that you can cover ranging from computer classes to job searching.  Some libraries even offer yoga instruction!

You would be surprised at the amount of extra curriculars your library staff take up outside of work.  Perhaps one of these staff members are just aching to share their passion with the public - you'll never know if you don't ask.  You can also rely on volunteers to provide the expertise.  The great thing about participatory libraries is that you have the opportunity to get to know your customers as individuals.  Having a personal-professional relationship with customers allows you to ask the question "would you be interested in training the public on [insert topic here.]"  Those who feel vested in their libraries will usually be thrilled to share their talent with others.

Once you've found your topic and expert, you'll want to make sure they are able to present the material in a professional manner.  There are varying degrees of how to handle this step.

If your expert is someone on staff, you may want to ensure their level of comfort with public speaking.  Take, for example, a class on job searching with library resources.  Just because you have a staff member who knows this resource like the back her hand doesn't necessarily mean she can communicate it to others effectively.  As a trainer, you can take this opportunity  to teach your staff member on how to train others.  I recommend letting your staff member do a dry run through of the training with other staff to give her the experience of having an audience.  Doing this will ensure a professional class presented to your library community.

If your expert is a volunteer, you may feel as though you have less control.  While this can be true to an extent, you should not feel guilty about being choosy over your programming.  Seeking out those in your community who you already have a professional relationship is a good start.  You can also try contacting small businesses who might like the free publicity.  For example, if a yoga studio just opened up in the neighborhood they may be interested in giving a free class at your library to generate interest in their business. If you think about all the subject areas, the possibilities are limitless.

It's difficult to keep up the momentum of continuously finding new programming.  Eventually, you should aim for programming that can maintain itself and continually gets people into the library.  Staff led classes for the public are much easier to keep going than volunteer led classes.  Usually, staff are dependable and, once they have led the initial class, can continually repeat the program with little preparation time.  Volunteers span the spectrum of very reliable to not-so-much.  Hopefully your library keeps volunteer information on file and has a no call/no show rule in place.  If it doesn't, I recommend implementing this policy to hold volunteers accountable.  I say this because, in the event your volunteer led program becomes more than a one-time event, you will want to hold those volunteers who constantly cancel, reschedule, or do not show up at all accountable.

I mentioned that the possibilities were limitless.  Check out these programs from library systems around the world:

ESL conversation class; photo by M. Sienkiewicz
Denton Public Library - hosts a knitting class for the public
Skokie Public Library - trains the public on computer basics.
King County Library System - presents many events from do-it-yourself home improvement workshops to job searching programs.
Toronto Public Library - hosts the Human Library Project where you can check out a person
Gwinnett County Public Library - has Doggie Tales where children can read to therapy dogs
London Public Library - hosts a plant exchange for it's library's gardening community.
Monash Public Library Service of Australia -  trains parents of children with learning difficulties

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