Supporting new citizens with library technology

Greetings, everyone! In this post for the Engaged Library Collaborative, I wanted to highlight a relatively simple but impactful resource that Madison Public Library developed in close partnership with one of the library’s most committed community partners.

First of all, let me introduce myself – my name is Laura, and I am a Community Engagement Librarian for Madison Public Library (WI), based at the Central Library. I work on a team with four other community engagement librarians, all of whom work part time on the public service desk and part time working with partner organizations and community members on different projects or resources.

The partnership I want to talk about today demonstrates a couple of key items in my, and our team’s, evolving approach to community engagement:

  • a willingness to listen and ask questions
  • a collaborative approach to any new program or resource idea
  • a nimbleness internally to use existing library tools and infrastructure when possible.

Where we started

This particular resource started with a question that came to the public service desk: does the library have tablets available for checkout? The simple, fast answer to that is that we do have tablets that can be checked out for use in the library, but not available for patrons to take home.

I happened to be at the desk and got to chatting with the patron, who ended up telling me that she was a staff member at one of our community partners, the Literacy Network, which facilitates English Language Learning workshops, citizenship education, adult literacy and ELL tutoring, computer skills for adults, and lots of other resources. She was asking about the tablets because as it turns out, the USCIS now requires citizenship exams to be completed entirely with a tablet and stylus–including the essay questions. For learners that are brand-new to the technology, these examination conditions add an extra stresser in an already stressful examination setting.

In that initial conversation, which probably lasted 15-20 minutes, we determined a couple of ideal outcomes: could library staff bring tablets to one of the citizenship classes for people to practice with? Could the library make tablets and styluses available for use in the libraries?

I looped in a couple of my team members, both of whom have different tech-related interests, and we got the go-ahead from our supervisor to pursue the idea alongside Literacy Network staff.

What were the results?

After a bunch of emailing and one in-person meeting, we generated the following resource:

The library would make sets of equipment (iPads, tablet stands, charging cables, and styluses) available for checkout for people who are preparing for a citizenship exam. Equipment is only available for use in the library, with a library card. Working with the Literacy Network, we identified five of the nine library locations that are used most frequently by citizenship learners and their tutors, and deployed the tablet sets out to those locations. We ended up spending about $85.00 on the endeavor (mainly to purchase styluses and tablet stands) since we were able to repurpose several older iPads from Central and neighborhood libraries. The tablet sets were distributed to neighborhood libraries with instructions for staff in late February.

One of the comments we heard from the Literacy Network staff is how much they appreciated us actually listening to them throughout the process and more generally, not pitching partnership ideas that they haven’t asked for. Due to connections we had already made at the Literacy Network, we were on very comfortable footing once the idea was raised, and could move relatively quickly. This was a great opportunity to hear about a very clear community need, and to assess library resources to repurpose older technology in support of that need. And on a very positive note, so far a number of learners have been able to practice with the technology in advance of their citizenship exams.

Plans for the future include library staff traveling to the Literacy Network citizenship courses, bringing tablets so that learners who cannot make it to a library still have the chance to see and practice with the equipment before their exam, and also incorporating tablet/stylus training into the Literacy Network tutor training to help build capacity. Additionally, the Literacy Network is helping to spread the word about this resource to other citizenship education organizations in Dane County, so that as many people are aware as possible.

This is a solid, recent example of what is possible when we listen to a partner’s needs and act as efficiently as possible internally. The result does not need to be a time-consuming program, and can still have a significant and measurable impact on our community.

Meet Bryan Voell, Johnson County Libraries

It’s my pleasure to welcome Bryan Voell to the ELC today. I know Bryan from several years of working together (virtually) on the Library as Incubator Project–he is doing very interesting work at Johnson County Libraries in Kansas. Enjoy! ~Laura

Please introduce yourself! Tell us your name, title, and how you got to your current position.

My name is Bryan Voell and I’m the Local Arts Librarian for the Johnson County (KS) Library. I also answer to Reference Librarian, the public service responsibilities of which are the core of what I do. Before starting in this position about five and a half years ago, I was the Assistant Branch Manager for one of our busier branches. When I was hired for my current position, I was asked by my then-manager what I would choose as a focus area. (Each of our nine Librarians have a focus area: Civic Engagement, Careers and Personal Finance, Incarcerated Services, Local History, Reader’s Advisory and Makerspace.) We had never previously had a Local Arts as a reference focus, so this was new to both me and the organization.

What is your approach to community engagement, or outreach, or partnerships, in your work?

Two of my main roles as Local Arts Librarian are coordinator of our Exhibitions program, which brings visual art and artists to our nine branch art galleries; and Local Music (formerly called Listen Local), our online blog that spotlights Kansas City-area original composers and songwriters. Neither of these programs could exist without community engagement and partnerships.

For Exhibitions, we partnered with two community-based arts organizations to create official branch annexes. Those particular branch galleries were given physical upgrades, complete with signage that reflected the partnership. The partnerships essentially work like this: We provide the space, they curate the art, and work with the artist(s) to get the work installed and removed. We see our partners as the experts in their field, people with deep connections to the local arts communities. We are only happy to share our spaces with them.

Local Music - Bryan Voell

Our Local Music project exists in the same way as other local music projects (digital and otherwise) exist. Reaching out to these artists is absolutely essential. We can no longer “just” order music CDs through a vendor and shelve them in Local Music. We must engage with artists one-on-one. This to me is complete joy.

How does that approach play out in your day-to-day work?

Our Local Music blog is updated weekly. This means a portion of every week is dedicated to corresponding with artists, usually via email, about an interview. Where outreach and partnerships really come into play is with programming. We don’t feel the need replicate what is already being done elsewhere. There are several high quality arts organizations just in the vicinity doing great work, offering creative and educational workshops for artists and other community members, studio space, artist talks, etc. It really doesn’t make sense for our library to offer the same programs these other organizations do; but it does make sense for us to collaborate and compliment each other.

Part of my job is meeting with other arts advocates and discovering ways we can work together. Another part of my job is more desk-focused: sending invitations to be interviewed or to perform, putting the blog together, coordinating with artists over email. Last but not least, another aspect of my work is public service-centered. This means working at one of our four public service stations, helping people use our library, helping people find answers, offering computer help, etc.

What do you think makes librarians in particular suited to this work?

Libraries are all about collections and connections: connecting patrons to materials and experiences that may help inspire and educate. They are great hubs for community activity. People use them for all sorts of reasons. Most of the time we are oblivious to the ways the people we serve use our buildings and digital resources, making the opportunity for connections between seemingly disparate things enormous. As Local Arts Librarian, my role as library advocate intersects with the role of local arts advocate. The library is by its very nature a creative incubator. I’m lucky enough to work in a place where Local Arts Librarian is a real title, reflecting the larger values of the organization.

What are your long-term goals for the work that you do?

The goals are cyclical and always need to be tied to our Strategic Plan. For me, goals usually emanate from questions:  How can we make our local music project more accessible, marketable and scalable? How can we work more closely with our partners to enhance the library experience for our patrons? What is my capacity? How do I define what’s working and what’s not?

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Meet Stephen Harris, Bundaberg Regional Libraries

Greetings! It’s my pleasure to welcome Stephen Harris, writing from Bundaberg Regional Libraries in Queensland, Australia. Enjoy! ~Laura

Please introduce yourself! Tell us your name, title, and how you got to your current position.

My name is Stephen Harris and I am the Information Services Librarian at Bundaberg Regional Libraries. I used to work in Information Management within the health sector in Brisbane when I saw an advertisement for an Information Services Librarian in Bundaberg. Bundaberg is where I did the majority of my childhood education. So I interviewed for the position by Skype; was successful and packed my bags and cat and headed off to regional Queensland.

Stephen Harris with Di Parr and Di Hilliard from the Gracie Dixon Respite Centre

Tell us a bit about your approach to community engagement.

My approach to community engagement is to recognize elements within the community that I would like to see move from a suspended position. One of my first programs was an outreach shared reading experience that engaged dementia patients at the Gracie Dixon Respite Centre. As it has grown and developed I have gained volunteers who are discovering what dementia is and how shared reading can bring about social inclusion and a reduction in symptoms. I am currently working towards a digital health literacy program for seniors.

How does that philosophy play out in your day-to-day work?

The philosophy keeps me focussed on the community and its people. I always listen attentively to members of the public and their interests and concerns. Local history is popular in Bundaberg so I am engaging with the community to see what parts of their history they would like programs to be centred on.

How has the transition from an internal focus to an external one unfolded at your library?

An external focus has unfolded by simply expressing new ideas and seeing where they lead. Our library has a real “let’s see what happens” attitude so ideas are always vibrant and experimental.

What’s a challenge or speed bump you’ve encountered in this work?

One of the biggest challenges is getting the community out of their comfort zone. So getting seniors interested in the benefits of technology is always an interesting effort.

What do you think makes librarians in particular suited to this work?

Librarians are very good listeners and we are active in the community. It’s so important to be involved and keep up with professional development. Sometimes I have achieved more attending an art exhibition or community event and networking than I ever could by writing a proposal.

What are your long-term goals for the work that you do?

My long term goal is to actually make a difference. With an aging population in Bundaberg it’s important to me that they are as informed as they can possibly be. The creation of a sustainable digital health literacy program would be a good place to start. I believe that libraries as information centres have a responsibility to inform the public for the greater good.


Tenille Jacobsen, of the Australian government

Who else is doing interesting work in this area (not necessarily in libraries)? Can be an individual or an institution.

Tennille Jacobsen, the Central Queensland eHealth and Practice Support Officer is doing absolutely brilliant work in health communication and health promotions. She helps build digital engagement as well as education and access to electronic health records. Tennille puts massive effort into ensuring the community has strong literacy and information skills.

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