The Philadelphia Free Library Techmobile
Overview and background
In today’s ultra-connected world, it’s difficult to comprehend that some communities are left without access to or many of its citizens unable to afford basic internet access. While some might argue that disconnection results in some holistic peacefulness, the truth is that those without opportunity that is afforded to the rest of us in spades are unable to keep up – to remain competitive and marketable in the job market, to stay up to date on important local and global topics that affect them, and to learn and explore at the pace of those in connected communities. Jessamyn West, former American Library Association Councilmember, says that “helping people get online, in whatever fashion that takes, is actually helping them to be citizens, to be interactive, to be part of the information economy, to participating in a democracy.” And this is precisely what a mobile tech lab sets out to do – get people connected so they are afforded every opportunity to learn, explore, and participate in their communities in a meaningful and productive way.
Using repurposed buses, vans, and RVs, libraries are creating mini tech exploration and learning labs on wheels, designed to go wherever they are most needed. By providing internet access, technology instruction and equipment, and the opportunity to explore new technologies and resources, mobile tech labs give underserved and rural communities the same opportunities afforded to urban and connected communities. These types of services quite literally meet patrons where they are, helping to bridge the digital divide that is preventing too many people from reaching their full potential in a hyper-connected, competitive environment.
Mobile tech labs can offer an unlimited variety of programs and services, including free internet access, technology “petting zoos” and demonstrations, basic and advanced software, coding, and other computing instruction, homework help and tutoring, interactive play and gaming, and many, many more. Some mobile tech labs double as makerspaces on-the-go. For example, the San Francisco Public Library’s TechMobile offers 3D Printing and LEGO Robotics kits in addition to its basic computer classes and other instruction.
The idea of the mobile library is not new. Bookmobiles evoke welcomed educational nostalgia and excitement. Updated for the technology age, mobile libraries and tech labs can bring that same excitement and value back to communities where they can do the most good. Many good examples exist of successful library mobile tech labs. Information in this report is gleaned from those and other sources.
San Francisco Public Library TechMobile
Goals/Objectives for Technology or Service
- To help bridge the digital divide by bringing library tech services to underserved communities
- To give the library a greater presence and build partnerships in the community
- To meet patrons “where they are” by providing services at their point of need
- To bring the tradition of the bookmobile into the 21st century
Description of community you wish to engage
The mobile tech lab is primarily designed to provide services to underserved communities. This includes areas with limited or no internet access, and those without nearby library branches. These typically include rural and low-income communities without access to public transportation and without libraries and community centers within a few miles.
Action Brief Statement
Convince library administration that by operating a mobile tech lab they will engage underserved community members which will help to bridge the digital divide because it will meet these patrons at their point of need.
Convince underserved populations that by using the mobile tech lab they will learn about new and exciting tech tools and programs which will help them develop important tech skills because digital literacy is essential to developing an informed community
Mission, Guidelines, and Policy related to Technology or Service
The program mission should reflect the vision and values of the library system in which it is housed. Guidelines and policies should use existing library policies for serving patrons. Additionally, committees and staff setting program-specific policies and guidelines should outreach to target communities to determine what needs aren’t being met and how the mobile tech lab can mitigate this. Community partners such as local businesses should also provide input. Local governments should be an integral part of the planning process to understand any legal limitations, as well as to create strong partnerships with local officials and departments to promote the service. The mobile tech lab could also provide a technology “petting zoo” to give constituents an opportunity to learn about emerging technologies.
Funding Considerations for this Technology or Service
Funding sources for a mobile tech lab are broad and could include grants (such as LSTA grants), individual donations, such as a campaign launched by Friends of the Library, crowdfunding, in-kind donations such as tech equipment or perhaps even a donated vehicle in great condition, and support from local businesses. Another possible funding source could come from an endowment with flexible language to provide staffing for the mobile tech lab while allowing for funding of other emerging tech programs should the needs for the lab become obsolete.
Action Steps & Timeline
There are many successful mobile tech lab programs to study as prototypes, such as the Philadelphia Free Library’s Techmobile in service since 2012. By surveying libraries on the most successful strategies and guidelines, our library can take the best, most applicable advice to build our service.
Timeline to completion should be around 2 years, with the first year reserved for exploratory activities, partnership building, and fundraising, and the second year reserved for marketing, outreach, hiring, training, purchasing, and implementation. The timeline may vary depending on funding resources requiring deliverables at designated intervals.
- Conduct informal information gathering to produce a compelling case to library administration
- Present to library administration and appropriate committees for initial approval
- Develop an exploratory committee made up of library staff, community members, elected officials, and key donors and produce a feasibility study
- Conduct field research to determine interest, needs, logistics, case studies, and funding sources
- Develop detailed program planning
- Implementation, purchasing, and delivery
Alternatives to the mobile tech lab, should it prove unfeasible, could include a hotspot lending program to bring internet access to underserved communities, in-home technology consultations and tutoring, or use of local business or community space for tech classes and demonstrations in areas where libraries are not within reasonable walking distance or along public transportation routes.
Staffing Considerations for this Technology or Service
Staffing considerations will be dependent upon the schedule of the mobile tech lab, which will depend on the amount and regularity of funding. Ideally, the program would initially employ two full-time staff members – one paraprofessional technical assistant and a digital technologies specialist librarian. Fundraising planning and/or grant submissions should allow for competitive salaries for staff over at least the pilot period. Should initial funding not allow for fulltime staff, lab hours could be minimal throughout the pilot program and utilize trained, quality volunteer librarians, or pay for part-time staffing – again, all dependent upon what type of funding is received.
Training for this Technology or Service
Ideally, hired staff will include paraprofessionals and trained librarians specializing in digital technologies and instruction, thereby limiting the need for service training and reducing time and expenses. Major training will come in the form of vehicle maintenance an operation, programming logistics, safety and security, and cultural competencies.
Promotion & Marketing for this Technology or Service
Marketing materials should be displayed and distributed liberally throughout all library branches.
Early marketing efforts could include presentation at street fairs, farmers markets, demonstrations at rural elementary schools and community centers without a nearby library, and local cultural events. Participating in community parades may also draw interest, as would direct mail and canvassing campaigns to reach rural residents. Partnerships with local businesses, schools, and government locations will also prove helpful in outreach efforts.
As Casey and Stephens (2008) note, library 2.0 services require regular evaluation to determine their effectiveness and ongoing usefulness. This can be accomplished “via vertical teams or a mix of internal and external evaluators,”, and is essential in determining whether a program’s initial goals are being met.
The Institute of Museum and Library Services pools some helpful resources on its website to help guide the evaluation process, using literature from the Urban Institute and various government planning offices.
Grant-funded programs may require specific, complex evaluation procedures. Staff can plan for this by examining the Program Manager’s Guide to Evaluation issued by the Office of Planning, Research & Evaluation within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families.
Perhaps the simplest, most effective program measurement would be to survey regular users over a period of several years to measure skills improvement. The Philadelphia Free Library Techmobile requires training participants to complete an evaluation as part of the instruction in order to develop a large survey pool to draw from. Adding assessments to the evaluation process can help evaluators gather improvement information.
Evidence and Resources to support technology or service
Casey, M. and Stephens, M. (2008). Measuring progress [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://tametheweb.com/2008/04/15/measuring-progress/
Institute of Museum and Library Services. (n.d.). Evaluation resources. Retrieved from https://www.imls.gov/research-evaluation/evaluation-resources
League of California Cities (n.d.). Palmdale City Library Techmobile. Retrieved from https://www.cacities.org/Top/Partners/California-City-Solutions/2016/Palmdale-City-Library-Techmobile
Pyatetsky,J. (2015, December 29). From bookmobile to techmobile. In Public Libraries Online. Retrieved from http://publiclibrariesonline.org/2015/12/from-bookmobile-to-techmobile/
San Francisco Public Library. (n.d.). TechMobile. Retrieved from https://sfpl.org/?pg=2000795701
TechSoup for Libraries. (2012). Edge benchmarks: Mobile computer labs. Retrieved from http://techsoupforlibraries.org/blog/edge-benchmarks-mobile-computer-labs
Warburton, B. (2013, September 26). Delivering the library. In Library Journal. Retrieved from http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2013/09/library-services/delivering-the-library/
West, J. (2014). 21st century digital divide [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.librarian.net/talks/rlc14/
Witteveen, A. (2017, April 6). Bookmobiles and beyond: New library services on wheels serve newborns through teens. In School Library Journal. Retrieved from http://www.slj.com/2017/04/programs/bookmobiles-and-beyond-new-library-services-on-wheels-serve-newborns-through-teens/