Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Digital Literacy Challenges and Workforce Recovery

This year's New England Library Association conference was my first as a new member of NELA. I was able to attend this year due to a scholarship from OCLC for librarians in geographic areas deemed particularly economically challenged. I thank OCLC for this opportunity first of all, and the librarians and professionals I have met this week have been astoundingly caring and passionate about library and information services.

This year's theme "Navigating the New Normal" addressed in a series of outstanding sessions the rising tide of need for libraries' technical, digital and professional expertise from increasing patronage at the same time that staff numbers are often skeletal at best, there is often a shortage of available computers and devices, and the staff who are there are stretched to the limits of their own technical knowledge and availability.

Librarians from all around New England reported similar concerns:
1. How do I help a patron use a device to download a book that I am just seeing myself for the first time?
2. How do I help patrons file their taxes when the government is telling them they must do it online and they have little or no computer skills?
3. How do I help a patron apply for a job online when I am also the only staff person who is answering the phones, checking out books, troubleshooting computer problems and answering reference questions?

The librarians of NELA did not gather to mourn their changing industry. Their concerns were very patron-centric. The cry was not "Who is going to help me?" It was "How can I better help my patrons?"

The sessions that I was able to attend on Tuesday the 4th addressed these concerns to the best of anyone's ability by addressing the need to help our patrons who are still on the other shore of the Digital Divide, and how to best help with our often limited time and resources the patron who no longer has a job in any industry - changing or otherwise.

Bright and early at 7 am, several representatives from libraries around the region met for breakfast and with LYRASIS to discuss proposed benchmarks for technology in public libraries.
As stated in a press release from their website:

"The benchmarks will be developed by a coalition of organizations that bring diverse perspectives and expertise to the effort, including:
  • Library support organizations, American Library Association Office for Information Technology Policy and Public Library Association, LYRASIS, Urban Libraries Council, and Web Junction-OCLC;
  • The State Libraries of California, Oklahoma, and Texas;
  • Two university-based research groups from the University of Maryland and University of Washington;
  • Local government support organization, International City/County Management Association,
  • TechSoup Global, an organization that provides technology support throughout the nonprofit sector; and,
  • The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The development of the benchmarks will include three phases. To begin, the coalition will draft prototype benchmarks and will collect feedback from the library field and local government leaders to ensure the benchmarks will be meaningful and useful to libraries and communities across the country."

This last statement (with my own bold emphasis added) was the purpose of the morning meeting, gathering feedback from library professionals on the draft wording for these benchmarks to help libraries talk to their government leaders about technology demand and needs in libraries.

Jessamyn West led a dynamic and highly popular discussion about reaching our patron populations who are not and might never be online in "Checklist for Digital Divide Readiness." Her presentation and delightfully engaging personal delivery covered 10 steps to address novice users or non-users of digital technology in libraries, and her presentation may be found at http://www.librarian.net/talks/nelavt/. (Hint: Jessamyn REALLY likes Mousercise! :D)

(Below: Jessamyn West helping librarians bridge the Digital Divide)

Lunch with author Tom Ryan and Atticus M. Finch was a moving combination of laughter and tears as he described traversing the peaks of the White Mountains in winter with "a miniature schnauzer of some distinction." This talk was warmly received by the large crowd in attendance.

The post-conference session "Libraries on the Front Line of Workforce Recovery" was the ultimate goal for OCLC's generous scholarship. Other librarians from my home state of Maine who also attended on this excellent scholarship opportunity traveled from Pittsfield and Cherryfield. The room was filled with librarians and information professionals learning and sharing ideas about how to address the growing population of job-seekers visiting libraries for resume, job application and job readiness skills. Encouragement ran strong, and several spoke up with excellent ideas about offering Microsoft Word and Excel training for patrons unfamiliar with these in-demand skills. (Goodwill Community Foundation offers some very good ones at no charge at http://www.gcflearnfree.org/) Other suggestions were a reminder about the availability of resources such as Maine's 211 (http://www.211maine.org/), and the challenges and successes of offering classes and one-on-one help with retired professionals or teens as volunteer trainers. Libraries can find peer support and a treasure trove of resources at http://www.webjunction.org/workforce-resources.

(Below: Library and information professionals collaborate on how best to serve their job-seeking patrons)

On a final and personal note, I would like to dedicate this blog entry at the conclusion of NELA Conference 2011 to Dan Gauvin. Dan was a regular patron of Mark & Emily Turner Memorial Library in Presque Isle, Maine, where I am Reference Librarian. Dan started out as one of our "computer regulars," who was often one of the first ones in the door when we opened in the morning, with tousled mop of curly hair, tee shirt and a story about the latest Red Sox trade. Dan was very quiet at first but slowly developed a rapport with library staff, and eventually began to volunteer occasionally by shelving books or helping to tidy up around the library.

Over the past year, due to a most generous private $1 million donation by Mary Smith to expand and renovate our library and add an elevator, matched by additional generous financial input from city leadership and citizens, Dan became a regular volunteer. He helped move books and furnishings, and he learned how to perform circulation duties, joining a growing volunteer corps that helped the library staff and patrons with over 300 hours per month of donated time and effort. Dan was very popular with patrons because of his outstanding knowledge of popular science fiction authors and his gently helpful manner in assisting with computer questions.

On Saturday, October 1, 2011, Dan dressed up in a suit, complete with haircut, and assisted with the library's grand-reopening and unveiling of the new Robert & Hope Akeley Memorial Wing. So handsome and well turned out did he look that I took his picture, despite his laughing protests. The library construction project was officially completed; Presque Isle has a beautiful newly renovated library. The State Librarian spoke as well as the Chair of our City Council and representatives from Senators Snowe and Collins' offices and the head of our local historical society. A large spread of elegant refreshments were laid out, and a show of works from artist Raphael Gribetz opened. In the midst of the bustle and excitement, Dan looked as transformed as the building itself, grinning from ear to ear. He had been most instrumental in bringing this all about.

On Sunday, October 2nd, 2011, after walking home from the grocery store, Dan collapsed on his front door step and passed away.

This - all this, the professional endeavors to do better and better at providing a warm environment and relevant services to the daily "computer regular" patrons who quietly shuffle in every day with their tee shirt and small talk about the latest baseball trade, who find not only a welcome at their public library but a support team and maybe even a second family - this is for you, Dan Gauvin, and the as-yet unknown Dans, from all the librarians who continue to rise to navigating the new normal as you sail into the west.

Thank you.

(Library volunteer Dan Gauvin)

Respectfully and humbly,
Lisa Neal Shaw
Reference Librarian and Friend

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