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Internet Interns - Lessons Learned

If you're interested in setting up your own version of Internet Interns, check out these lessons that e-Vermont learned along the way:

  • Recognize the unique combination of skills that interns need. Being comfortable with computers is only a starting point, interns need to be comfortable communicating with a wide range of learners, be able to match their starting point to the patron’s level of computer understanding (which might be at zero), work past potentially frustrating situations, and commit to keeping very regular weekly hours. The e-Vermont program recognized that the skill and time commitment levels for this work merited a paid position, and provided modest wages for the interns.
  • Begin with a clear understanding between library and intern, preferably written down. The range of projects that can fall under the banner of “help with technology” is vast. For example, Internet Interns are likely not the appropriate people to provide IT help for equipment problems, instruction in non-Internet-related computer skills, or direct assistance with personal information (for example, applying for unemployment benefits online). Interns should not be pressured by patrons to give out their personal contact information to serve as an after-hours help desk. Interns did design special projects, like traveling to senior meal sites. There are plenty of variations on how an interns program can work, as long as library staff, interns, and patrons are clear on the structure so that everybody shares the same expectations.
  • Create opportunities for other community members to contribute. Just because a topic area, service, or project falls outside of the scope of an intern’s work doesn’t mean a library can’t offer it. Some libraries also offer workshops taught by local residents around their own area of interest or simple get-togethers to share knowledge. For example, one e-Vermont town did a post-holiday “gadget night” where everyone brought their new tech-gadgets and worked together to learn how to use them.
  • Keep regular weekly hours with consistent outreach. This service proved very popular, but it took a while for the public to get in the habit of utilizing it. Librarians started with announcements posted in the library, on simple bookmarks tucked into checked out books, through book groups, parent groups and senior centers, in local calendars of events, on the local public access television station, on Front Porch Forum, and (of course) through generating word of mouth. Because it is an ongoing service, successful libraries had ongoing announcements so that everyone knew the service remained available and had a quick reference for the schedule.
  • A related recommendation is to test what hours work best. Some libraries had low turnout in cold weather, others found that seniors didn’t want to travel after dark. Some background work on when is most convenient for the community will help determine the right schedule.
  • Prepare interns for the types of computer questions that come up most frequently. Our interns reported that questions centered on: basic computer literacy, familiarizing themselves with new technology such as iPads or eBook readers, file management, storing data on flash / USB drives, web searching, using e-mail, connecting through social networks like Facebook, eBay, jobseeking, filling out forms and applications. Interns can do research on their own, but need to know the types of topics they'll encounter.
  • Prepare interns as instructors, not only as technical assistance providers. In some ways, technical knowledge is less important than the ability to work with patrons productively and manage different situations that come up as part of those interactions. One example of a program to teach the skills of working with Internet beginners is iConnect, which has materials posted here.
  • Create an environment that’s conducive to learning. Ideally libraries will have up to date equipment and a private area where interns can work with learners, but that's not always possible. There are some adjustments that can be made to most work stations to improve accessibility, particularly for seniors (see facts sheet here). Another thing to consider is providing supporting materials for learning computer basics (see examples from e-Vermont here) that can help interns explain basic concepts.
  • Provide opportunities for patrons to practice. The beginner materials listed in the above bullet point are a good starting point, particularly the recommended online tutorials. Other resources beyond the library may also be available nearby, check these pages on digital literacy classes and finding public Internet access.
  • Track how the service is used. There is a balance to reach between privacy of library patrons and getting the information you need to make sure you're offering the best possible service. Tracking how many people use the intern services and at what times can help with scheduling. Tracking the most common questions will help future interns / volunteers prepare. Knowing what needs aren't being met by the intern program can suggest future workshops or classes. Collecting stories from patrons is a way to communicate the value of the program to the rest of the community.