Teaching digital literacy in the public library takes on many forms. There is one-on-one technical assistance, which requires familiarity with Internet and software programs available on library computers. Scheduled classes with a particular software topic are also common. Sessions for emerging needs, like e-book lessons, have grown. Tech drop-ins pop up with the assistance of local volunteers or partnerships with small business. Summer student job grants correlate with new social media tutorials.
However, one of the most important roles public libraries can play in teaching digital literacy is through outreach. In Newmarket, the library has partnered with a homeless shelter that offers a comprehensive employment program to teach a six week computer class three times a year.
Going Beyond the Bricks and Mortar
Digital services extend beyond the bricks and mortar of our physical spaces. They exist in the virtual world, reaching people that may not otherwise use library services. When people come into library spaces in need of assistance, via website, email, text, chat, telephone and in-person, digital literacy teaching takes place. Notwithstanding this important role, digital services staff in Newmarket, under the mandate of our new strategic plan, are increasingly seeking ways to meet underserved digital literacy needs by actually leaving the building ourselves as opposed to simply broadcasting e-resources.
Staff have started offering digital help drop-in sessions in retirement residences and have began to teach at Inn From The Cold “a hub for the homeless and at risk.”
Technology and Resources
One of the basic problems encountered in digital literacy outreach is the unpredictability of the technology available off site. In the retirement residences Wi-Fi access has been an issue, and like many non-profits, Inn From The Cold manages to offer services partly through charitable donations. The hardware and software used in the computer class are donated.
Teaching digital literacy is difficult enough in a well equipped library, so facing the unknown is a challenge that shouldn’t be underestimated. Finding solutions to technical issues is required, but we have yet to completely overcome the limits of slow Internet access and laptops that need a good virus scan. It is the human side of the equation, rather than any IT fix, that makes the outreach possible. On some days, you have to fight the urge to throw up your hands and say “all this crap doesn’t work” and persevere.
Resource selection is another key. The employment program, which includes many other classes besides the thrice weekly two hour computer lessons, doesn’t provide any specifics on what to teach. The library co-signed an application for an Ontario Trillium Foundation grant that funded the initiative, and is expected to have the knowledge to run a digital literacy class for the ten students admitted. Initially, the library used Learning Express Library, a computer training service that is tailored for self-study. Translating it to the classroom environment was difficult. Ultimately free resources from DigitalLearn.org and GCFLearnFree were much more appropriate for class use and discussion. They also do not require a library card.
Newmarket Public Library has a number of socially displaced patrons. Dealing with these people is any manager’s responsibility, but actually teaching them digital literacy is mine. In the Inn From The Cold sessions I asked one of my student’s to switch seats. Unexpectedly, this led to a conversation that ended with a decision by the Shelter Manager to ask the student to withdraw from the program.
He was the only student we lost, but the Shelter Manger explained what I thought was normal classroom management didn’t apply here.
Many students’ main challenge was resolving conflict successfully; other’s have different challenges; reading aloud a quiz question demonstrated a student’s hidden struggles with basic literacy. Bringing these lessons back into the library is an invaluable experience for improving service to every patron.
Why Do This Sort of Thing?
Getting out into the world teaches lessons for library instruction, but it also raises awareness of the value of the library to the community. The last lesson was about why everyone needed a library card. The one student I thought I had least inspired, the one who knew everything about software, downloading, email and Excel, who listened to music on headphones through much of the weeks, and dismissed the library as irrelevant, pronounced he needed a library card after all. It was my demo of Mango Languages that hooked him. He wanted to learn Hebrew better for Synagogue.
You just never know.
Michael Russell is Digital Services Librarian at Newmarket Public Library and has taught information literacy in academic, high school and public libraries for ten years. He uses the twitter handle @npldigitallib to update people on digital services available at @Newmarktlibrary.