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.