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Magazines > Information Today > March 2012

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Information Today

Vol. 29 No. 3 — March 2012

FEATURE
NJWorks@Libraries: Going the Extra Mile
by Amanda Mulvihill


A man walks up to a computer, points to the keyboard, and says, “How come the keys aren’t in alphabetical order?”

Well, it may be the punch line of a joke, but it’s the unfortunate reality for many technologically illiterate Americans who find themselves suddenly unemployed during these tough economic times. Frankly, those who have never encountered a keyboard are ill-equipped to start searching and applying for jobs online without a cost-free crash course in computer skills.

New Jersey residents now have the option of turning to their local libraries for assistance thanks to the New Jersey State Library (NJSL), an affiliate of Thomas Edison State College in Trenton. As with hundreds of other organizations around the country, NJSL applied for a grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP); in turn, the library received $5.1 million in grant funding and $1.5 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to provide programs for the unemployed.

The BTOP grant gives New Jersey public libraries valuable resources to offer to job seekers at all levels of computer proficiency, says Peggy Cadigan, associate state librarian and director of the library development bureau at NJSL. “People who have never had to use a computer before are really stymied at the lack of computer skills, and that’s why this grant was so wonderful to position us as the place to come.”

Technology @ Your Library

NJSL’s first step was ensuring that all public libraries were equipped with the basic technology. It rolled out new public computer workstations and upgraded internet connectivity, delivering 845 computers to 124 public libraries in need statewide and upgrading networks and broadband connectivity at 76 libraries. Cathi Finnen, chief librarian at the Toms River headquarters of the Ocean County Library, says the Ocean County Library received 78 desktop and laptop computers for its 21 branches, offering more internet access for job seekers as well as more computer labs, where classes on computer skills could be taught.

Using grant funding, NJSL subscribed to a number of databases and online resources for job seekers and small-business owners, such as LearningExpress, LLC’s Job & Career Accelerator; Career Transitions from Gale, part of Cengage Learning; and Frost & Sullivan market research reports. NJSL also introduced a new regiment of job readiness skills and training classes.

The centerpiece of the BTOP grant is NJWorks@yourlibrary, a public awareness campaign and website (www.njworks.org) that NJSL developed to showcase the job services offered through the grant. The American Library Association adopted the campaign for all libraries nationwide under the slogan USA works @ your library and offers related, downloadable tools.

The NJWorks@yourlibrary site displays a schedule of training opportunities as well as the libraries and community centers that host them; New Jersey library cardholders can access the subscription databases through the site. “A number of these resources are things that a local community library would probably not be able to afford on our own,” says Ruth Lufkin, director at the Bernards Township Library. “It’s a great leveler of opportunity.” Offering updated technology “is a natural extension of our role as information providers,” says Lufkin. “Who [better] but a library to assist you with figuring out how to use those tools and how to make the most of them?”

Job Seeker Libraries

“People turn to libraries in tough times,” says Cadigan, citing a library’s welcoming atmosphere and free public resources as two of the top reasons for the influx of patrons. Librarians such as Julie Senack, head of research and information services at the Atlantic City Free Public Library, have seen plenty of job seekers lately. “With the economy in a tailspin, more and more people were coming to us,” Senack says. She reports that at her library, librarians answered nearly triple the number of questions about jobs and job applications from 2010 to 2011.

Being havens for job seekers is simply part of the libraries’ responsibility to communities, say librarians who are assisting their unemployed and underemployed patrons however they can. “What could be more important than helping our patrons find jobs?” says Senack.

In fact, 92 New Jersey libraries have self-identified as Job Seeker libraries, indicating that they will go the extra mile in assisting job seekers, even if those job seekers are not local library cardholders. Visitors can receive one-on-one attention and guidance to the right tools for writing resumes, searching for jobs, or creating email accounts. Cadigan explains that Job Seeker library staff members receive special training on all of the databases and technology resources to help patrons. (A list of Job Seeker libraries is available on the NJWorks@yourlibrary site.)

In turn, patrons welcome a helping hand. “Most of them, if not all, will come in and just sit down and try to do it themselves,” says Finnen. “And you can see some of them on the verge of giving up, and we have staff just walk over and say, ‘Can we help you?’ and they are just so grateful.”

Basic Training

Many of the public libraries in New Jersey already offer resources, such as access to databases, support groups, and staff-taught workshops, for patrons who are actively looking for jobs, but the BTOP grant resources complement their current programs. “We’ve always had classes to help with setting up email, filling out a job application, [and] how to do a resume, but the BTOP grant really allowed us to increase that,” Senack says.

The BTOP grant funds NJSL’s partnership with New Jersey’s Community College Consortium for Workforce and Economic Development. Local community colleges offer free training courses and job-skills workshops at libraries covering basic internet use, Microsoft Office skills, and writing resumes and cover letters. Library staff members can also take classes to brush up on their skills and then offer the classes to their library patrons. So far, more than 5,000 participants have attended 521-plus training classes through the program.

“Patrons are really just very pleased and delighted to discover that we have these tools that can be of help to them,” says Lufkin, “and on top of that, that we are willing and stand ready to assist in training them and helping them to learn how to make the most of these tools.”

Disseminating Awareness

One of the biggest challenges for libraries is informing communities that these resources exist. “[T]here is an amazing depth and breadth of resources available,” says Norma E. Blake, the New Jersey state librarian who was honored as Library Journal’s librarian of the year in 2008. But, she says, “it sometimes seems that we have to share what we can do and what we have with one person at a time.”

Senack says it’s important for libraries to advertise their services to patrons. “We make sure we’re metaphorically grabbing them by the hand and saying, ‘Hey, listen, this is what’s going to be happening—come!’” she says. “And word-of-mouth is huge around here.”

NJSL provides a variety of NJWorks@yourlibrary marketing materials to libraries, from banners and brochures to decals, to promote the service to as many people as possible. “We don’t want to be the best kept secret,” says Cadigan.

But keeping up with communities’ demands for technology resources and training in addition to other library services is stretching library staff more than ever. “With these times and with technology, it’s a lot more work for staff to keep up with things,” says Finnen. “We have to know what the customers want to know.”

Though the funding from the grant will end in June 2013, Blake and the rest of the NJSL staff are looking for ways to maintain the technology offerings for unemployed patrons and for those who want to enhance their computer skills.

“As the heart of New Jersey communities, libraries have always been there to assist job seekers,” says Blake, “and they will continue to do so.”

Amanda Mulvihill, a former assistant editor at Information Today, Inc., is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. Send your comments about this article to itletters@infotoday.com.
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