The ALA/Information Today, Inc. Library of the Future Award is presented to an organization that plans, develops, and applies a patron-training program that explores IT in a library setting. The 2021 winner is Plano Public Library (PPL) in Plano, Texas, for its program Breaking Down Barriers With Tech Training, which provides one-on-one instruction for community members in need of technology help. This instruction can include basic computer skills, how to download library apps, how to search the internet, and how to use Google Docs.
With five branches serving about 285,000 people, PPL takes its commitment to bridging the digital divide seriously. More than 200 people have attended 23 training classes at partner locations since Breaking Down Barriers With Tech Training began in March 2019. Although library staffers run the classes, partners are a vital component of the program: They offer translation help and share Spanish-language library services with participants. Corporate volunteers from Hispanic interest groups even assisted with a library tour, when more than 60 ESL students visited the Harrington Library branch to learn about library resources—and 2 dozen of them registered for library cards on the spot.
In addition to helping underserved community members feel more confident with using technology, the program helps to prove PPL’s value to the community, especially to potential partners. It raises the library’s profile as a place to go for technology training.
PPL’s Outreach & Engagement (O&E) team is in charge of community partnerships and is always on the lookout for projects that bring together library priorities and partner needs. “Once we had identified basic technology training as the need, we worked with the partner organizations to further define what skills would be most useful to the constituents, and the Breaking Down Barriers project was born,” says Tammy Korns, PPL’s development and outreach manager. Once the O&E team plans out the details of a class, staffers who have received outreach training may sign up to teach. “PPL routinely trains staff for outreach, and staff self-select opportunities that match their own interests, skills, and availability,” says Korns. However, “we specifically requested assistance from our Spanish-speaking staff” when providing tech training to ESL students.
It quickly became apparent that one-on-one instruction is preferable when conducting the classes, so more library staffers were given the opportunity to become teachers, ensuring that there would be enough expertise to go around. Korns says the O&E team gathers all of the resources the staffers will need for a class and facilitates the communication between the library and the partner organization. The partner organization provides the location, students, internet access, and childcare if needed.
“While we are very pleased with the results of these classes, we have really only just begun to identify and reach groups within our community that can benefit from this type of individualized technology training,” says Korns. “We began with partners we were already working with, as well as reaching out to senior living facilities, and we look forward to growing the project.”
So far, the program has held classes at Chase Oaks Family Center, the Brain Injury Network of Dallas, and local senior living facilities. At Chase Oaks Family Center, bilingual PPL staffers teach computer and technology skills classes directly after an ESL class concludes, so that the center’s staffers are available to provide childcare and help with translation when needed. Chase Oaks Family Center caters to community members who need ESL classes, citizenship exam prep, and other services. Korns explains that prior to Breaking Down Barriers With Tech Training, the center had “connected with PPL to help their students sign up for library cards. As we discussed their goals for their students and how we could get more involved, basic technology training stood out as an area where library staff could make an impact. Many of their students lacked access to computers, and thus were unfamiliar with how they work. They wanted assistance so they could better manage communication with their children’s schools, search for information and services they needed, and connect with friends and family.”
A Plano Public Library staff member helps an ESL student at Chase Oaks Family Center.
PPL hosts monthly tech training classes at the Brain Injury Network of Dallas (BIND), continuing their existing partnership—BIND members have volunteered at book sales, visited library branches, and displayed their artwork at PPL. Participants in the classes have survived a brain injury, cancer, or a stroke, and some of them need assistance in mastering the online skills necessary for re-entering the workforce. The classes are taught to groups, with the opportunity for one-on-one help. “We opened a conversation about how they were serving their members and how we could help,” Korns says. “Technology training was identified as a need, and since PPL has a set of outreach laptops, we were able to send staff to their site to provide this training.”
Plano Public Library staff teach a technology class at the Brain Injury Network of Dallas.
PPL staffers visit multiple local senior living facilities to encourage residents to use the ebooks, e-audiobooks, and digital magazines that the library offers, and they provide instruction on how to access this digital content. “The Plano community has a strong and growing senior population, so we actively sought out opportunities to serve this group,” says Korns. “Staff often field questions from seniors in regard to accessing eBooks and other digital resources. We had offered a how-to program called eBooks & More in the library, so it made sense to take that same program out to senior living facilities.”
A senior practices accessing digital content at the library.
Because the groups PPL is catering to are starting at a basic level of tech knowledge, Breaking Down Barriers With Tech Training is designed to build skills over a series of visits. Consistency of visits helps increase confidence for the participants and make them feel at ease with technology, Korns says. They’re able to practice what they’ve learned until they’re able to go digital on their own.
“What makes this project unique is taking library staff and resources into the community,” says Korns. “Through this project we have seen how important it is to provide a customized approach and curriculum for learner groups. Rather than advertising the classes, we work with partner organizations to meet the needs of their constituents/members, and we take the training to them. This improves both the comfort level of participants, and accessibility of the classes.”
Photos courtesy of Beth Morgan, Plano Public Library