With the people's network drawing ever nearer, the issue of Internet training for librarians and users looms large for most library managers. In particular, the potential cost of providing such training, in pounds and hours is a real consideration for services. Most libraries with Internet terminals will find that staff are peppered with questions from users on a daily basis, ranging from "Why can't I find this page? to "How do I access this secure site?" Questions can mean five, ten, even fifteen minutes away from an issue desk, and during busy periods, libraries may find themselves wishing they had extra staff to alleviate the load. What's more, not all library staff are necessarily au-fait with the new technology, despite the users preconceptions that they must be.
Libraries are now in a period where their staff and patrons are being encouraged to become connected to the Internet and soon the People’s Network. NOF (the New Opportunities fund) are offering financial backing to those libraries wishing to upskill their staff. It's an opportunity many services have been waiting for. Nonetheless, staff, however confident and skilled, will still in most cases be hard pressed to give sufficient time to user training. With issue desks, enquiry desks and backrooms to be staffed, not many libraries can afford to spare a staff member to patrol learning centres or PC's, however much they may wish to.
Islington libraries are currently experiencing a happy compromise. Working in partnership with the Social and Economic Regeneration department of the council, they have established a training centre in one of the larger libraries in the borough. The futuristically named "CyberSkills Centre" opened in May 1999. The Centre has been designed to provide first step computer and internet training for library users who wish to use the library's free internet access but don't know where to start. Staff can refer these wannabe Internet users to the Centre and be confident that when the users leave, they'll be able to handle surfing the Net without having to ask library staff too many questions. Since its opening the Centre has already trained over 500 people at varying levels.
Of course, training centres in libraries are not a new idea. Input Output is another organisation which has been providing this sort of service. This idea of "franchising" out training and information services is strongly recommended in the report "New library: The people's network", which takes into consideration the importance of training provision in the new library service. More and more libraries are coming round to the idea of having ICT provision on their premises, which is not directly managed by them. Provided such centres have clearly defined objectives and aims that work in tandem with their library "hosts", then the schemes provide a model of good partnerships in practice.
The CyberSkills model is flexible enough to fit in directly with the libraries needs. Originally designed as an element of South Bristol Learning Network, the CyberSkills model has a tradition of working within learning environments and adapting to the needs of the local area. CyberSkills specifically targets people with little or no experience, in particular the socially excluded who otherwise may not attempt to learn new skills. To help in this respect, prices for each of the Islington workshops are kept very low. Those on income support can attend a three hour training session, and receive four hours follow-up time, for as little as £5.00. The Centre does not expect to make a profit from the service. This is unlikely given the low prices and high costs of running the centre, and perhaps where they differ most obviously from other such service providers.
The workshops themselves are kept approachable, small in size, and informal, designed to attract those who would not normally approach a formal educational facility. They are jargon free, and focus on making IT accessible and relevant to the individual. Users do not gain a formal qualifications result but they do gain confidence. The centre acts as a conduit, and passes people onto the libraries lifelong learning centre and surrounding colleges with a new-found confidence. It is hoped that this will minimise dropout rates and feelings of "not being good enough". Attendees' comments have been universally positive, and many go on to utilise the library's resources with a renewed enthusiasm.
The Regeneration department of the Council and head of the Library and Information Services instigated the original partnership. Three librarians with I.T. and training experience were then employed to staff the centre. This similarity of background has helped the centre work in partnership with the Library service to overcome any difficulties. Pricing had to be in line with current library tariffs, and considerable co-operation was needed in establishing the centres role in the lifelong learning remit. There have been benefits to the library: over 100 staff have been trained in Internet use, and the centre is currently collaborating with the library services to provide further training for the NELLIE (North East London Learning initiative), a partnership between Camden, Islington and Hackney boroughs. The staff library experience has also proven useful in other areas, and the centre is currently starting a training project with Camden for children. The support of the library service has proven invaluable to the Centre, The public associates libraries with learning, and it is likely that much of the goodwill toward the centre has come from supportive library users.
As libraries move toward completion of the people's network, the nature of their work will change. We all bemoan the lack of public funding for library initiatives, and many libraries are sick of being told about public/private partnerships. Islington's experience has proven that they don't always have to be a headache, and can provide benefits to both parties.
If you'd like to speak the to centre, please contact them on 0171 7136593,or e-mail at the address below.
Finsbury Library 245 St John St
London EC1V 4NB