Computers in Libraries
Vol. 20, No. 8 • September 2000
Surf’s Up for Seniors!
Introducing Older Patrons to the Web
by Jeanne Holba Puacz and Chris Bradfield

Help your over 65 crowd dive into the world of technology!
The Vigo County Public Library, located in Terre Haute, Indiana, had been getting an increasing number of calls and visits from distressed senior citizens. “My kids bought me this thing for Christmas and now I don’t know what to do with it” and “What is a dot-com?” were becoming all-too-familiar refrains. Our seniors were baffled by the Web addresses popping up in newspapers, magazines, and on television. Many were desperate to e-mail their grandchildren, but were even more desperate to find out what this mysterious e-mail was.

Although our library has long been offering computer training classes, many of the seniors seemed hesitant to sign up for them. It was becoming apparent that we had a real need for senior-oriented computer classes. We, the reference/systems librarian responsible for much of the public training and the associate manager of one of the branches, respectively, decided to put our heads together. It was past the time to develop a series of free classes specifically designed to turn our techno-phobic seniors into “techies.”

Afraid to Get in the Water
During the past year we had been listening to the various reasons our seniors gave us for not attending the regularly scheduled computer classes held in the library computer lab. Some were concerned about being in classes with significantly younger classmates, as if the younger students would be impatient with their basic questions. Others seemed intimidated by the class setting itself; all of the library classes were hands-on and held in the computer lab. Even the most basic classes required the students to work hands-on with computers. Another complaint we heard from many seniors (including one of our grandmothers) was that they had tried taking computer classes elsewhere and had been disappointed: The classes advertised as basic were too advanced, the teacher geared the class toward those that already had experience, most classes were very expensive, etc. Many felt that if they signed up for another class, they would just be disappointed again.

Rather than risk having disappointed patrons, we took their concerns to heart and incorporated them into the structure of a new program with classes that would be tailor-made for senior citizens. When planning our classes, we were torn. We didn’t want to overload our timid seniors, but we did want to give them enough information to make them feel somewhat competent with a computer. We felt the classes needed to include, at the minimum, an introduction to the basic parts and operations of a computer and an overview of using the World Wide Web.

We decided to divide the material into four separate sessions in order to keep the amount of information presented at each class manageable. Instead of having all of the classes be hands-on in the “scary” computer lab, we opted to have a mixture of teaching styles and locations. Classes one and three were to be presentations and discussions in a “non-computer” location, and classes two and four were to be hands-on with computers. The presentation sessions would be to the whole group of students and were designed to be approximately an hour in length. The hands-on sessions would be for small groups, and would be approximately a half-hour in length. We also agreed that the senior students should have an opportunity to come in for extra practice if they lacked confidence in their new computer abilities. In addition to the four classes, we would also make one-on-one appointments, lasting approximately 20 minutes, available to any interested students.

Luring Them to the Edge
We chose to hold the first series of classes in association with the East Branch of the library, which is very popular with seniors. Additionally, the branch is located in a shopping mall where many seniors “mall walk” for exercise. We hoped to attract not only our regular senior patrons who were anxious about computers, but also the “mall walkers” who were not yet regular library users. In an effort to make our topic less intimidating, we created lighthearted posters and fliers, posing the question “Want to know how to surf without water?” and promising that the “Vigo County Public Library Life Guards will teach you to surf!” We placed the posters in front of the library and also at several points around the mall. Fliers were passed out at the branch, and several mall businesses were also kind enough to help distribute the fliers.

The seniors’ response to the proposed classes was incredible. Within 5 days we had 30 seniors signed up for the first series. We ran out of fliers and took down the posters well before the series was scheduled to start. Even though we stopped advertising, word of mouth worked wonders for us; before the first series was over, we had a waiting list of more than 40 seniors anxious to sign up when a new series would be offered.

Come In, the Water’s Fine!
In an effort to make our seniors more comfortable when attending the classes, we decided to have the presentations not only in a “non-computer” location, but also in one that was extremely senior-oriented. Therefore, we chose to have classes one and three (the presentations) at the community center of a local retirement village, which is located approximately one block from the East Branch of the library. In addition to this being a non-threatening location for our somewhat-hesitant students, we hoped that having the presentation in a retirement community would help to advertise the library’s services to the residents who were not yet regular patrons.

This alternative location also enabled us to further change the atmosphere of the class. Since the seniors would not be sitting at computers, we could serve coffee and cookies, which would give the class the more-relaxed feel of a social event.

Getting Their Feet Wet
We focused the first presentation (class one) on the basics of using a Windows-based computer. We chose to focus on Windows PCs since they are the computers used in our library and the computers the seniors would be using during the hands-on classes. Using PowerPoint, we developed the first presentation. It included an overview of hardware, software, mousing, opening and closing programs, and turning the computer on and off. Presentation two (class three) was an introduction to the Web. Again using PowerPoint, we presented the basics of the Internet and the Web, touching on how a computer communicates via a modem through the phone line, what an ISP is, and what a Web browser does. We used slides to show what links look like on a Web page, how to use navigation buttons, how to type in an address to go directly to a Web site, and how to perform simple searches.

Throughout the presentations we attempted to include humor (including several bad “mouse” and “spider web” puns) in hopes of lightening the mood and making the whole concept of computers seem less intimidating. To help the seniors get acquainted with the parts of a computer, we passed around keyboards, mice, and a variety of computer disks. This all helped to demystify the concept of computers for our students.

We made handouts of the PowerPoint presentations and distributed them along with pencils to encourage note taking during the presentations. We also gave handouts defining some of the more intimidating computer jargon. At the end of each presentation, we included a slide “warning” the class of what they would face during the next session. Finally, we had the seniors sign up for their hands-on, small-group sessions in one of the library branches. In order to accommodate their busy schedules, we offered a variety of times and a choice of locations for the hands-on sessions.

We brought a large assortment of books and videotapes on computer topics to each of the two non-computer presentations. At the end of each presentation we encouraged the seniors to browse through the materials and to check out any items of interest. We brought borrower card applications with us in case a senior new to the library was interested in checking out some of the resources. Checking out materials and processing library card applications manually might seem a little cumbersome, but we considered the comfort of our new patrons and the added circulation statistics, so it was well worth the effort.

The first hands-on session (class two) covered basic computing. We opened and closed programs, practiced mousing (by playing computer solitaire), put a floppy disk in and took it out of the disk drive, and shut down the computer. We tried to point out some possible pitfalls before they happened, such as right clicking instead of left clicking and moving the mouse while clicking, so the seniors would not be as flustered when these things happened to them. In the hands-on Web class (class four) we, by default, reviewed mousing and opening programs. Students then opened Internet Explorer and checked the library’s home page for links. After locating some links, the students were encouraged to follow them for practice. We reviewed the location and function of the navigation buttons such as Back, Forward, and Home; demonstrated how to use the scroll bar or the arrow keys to view an entire page; and then had the seniors practice using these items while moving about in the library’s Web site. Next we tackled the address line and had the seniors go directly to a Web site by typing in the URL, and we also had them do a very simple subject search by typing a subject into the address line.

Raising the Comfort Level
Although we did not set a minimum age limit to define who qualified as a senior, we did feel that advertising the classes as “seniors only” was a key to our success. The seniors seemed much more comfortable and willing to ask questions when surrounded by their peers. They weren’t threatened by the other class members but, rather, seemed encouraged to see that they were not the only ones that felt out of the technological loop.

Also, even though the seniors were more comfortable asking questions when surrounded by their peers, we also gave them an added incentive: We bribed them! We informed them at the beginning of the first presentation that any student willing to ask a question would get a piece of candy. Of course many of them didn’t actually want the candy, but they understood the underlying meaning: We really did want them to ask any questions they had, and we were happy to try to answer them. We stressed that they should “ask a librarian,” and reminded them that answering questions is part of our job!

Honing Our Initial Ideas
We feel that the first series of senior classes was quite successful; however, we are continually working to make improvements. We have found that our initial timeline of one class a week for 4 weeks allowed too much time between the presentations and the hands-on sessions. Our revised timeline has all the classes occurring within a 2-week period, with the hands-on session following the presentation by no more than 2 to 3 days. This shorter timeline allows for more immediate reinforcement and practice of the concepts presented, and it seems to be much more effective. We also found that changing locations from the retirement community to the library, plus the sign-up for times for the small-group sessions, confused some patrons. In an effort to eliminate this confusion, we began bringing reminder slips to the classes so the students could immediately write down the time and place of their hands-on sessions.

We originally encouraged the students to take notes during the presentations (classes one and three), and even brought them paper and pencils with which to do so. However, we did not think to do the same during the first set of hands-on sessions (classes two and four). The few patrons who brought pencil and paper to the hands-on classes were taking notes throughout the session. Therefore, during our second senior series, we decided to try providing writing materials for the hands-on sessions as well, and were pleased to see many of the students happily taking notes.

A totally unexpected problem that we encountered involved solitaire. We believed solitaire to be an easy way to practice mouse skills; unfortunately, several of the class members informed us that they did not know how to play the game. So, we have decided to include a set of solitaire rules in our future handouts!

Besides the solitaire rules, there are several other additions we hope to make to future classes. We intend to make “crib sheets” for our seniors to carry when they come to the library to practice with the computers. We would like to provide laminated index cards including such information as how to open and close programs, how to access the Internet at the library, how to use the address line in the browser, and a reminder that one click plus the Enter key will open a program if they have trouble double clicking. We feel this small card would give them added confidence when using the library computers—they could subtly check their cards and get started without having to immediately ask for help. We also hope to be able to include such helpful tips as how to enlarge the size of the icons or change the mouse click speed during future basic hands-on sessions.

Riding a Wave of Excitement
The response of the seniors before, during, and after the classes was very positive and wonderfully enthusiastic. They were very pleased that the library had recognized their needs, and they appreciated our attempts to help them catch up to their grandkids technologically. Most were disappointed when the series came to a close, and some previously intimidated seniors were now brave enough to sign up for the more advanced classes held in the library’s computer lab. We had excited patrons who wanted more, and we thought it would be wrong for us to deny them! So, we have begun taking names of those interested in joining a library-sponsored computer club for seniors that would cover such topics as e-mail, word processing, and how to buy a home computer.

We feel that the benefits of this program are multifaceted. By holding the presentations at local senior centers and retirement communities, the library is reaching out and helping to foster goodwill in the community and thus meeting a goal of its mission statement. This effort at community outreach has been well-received, and we are getting requests from additional community organizations hoping to sponsor a series of classes. Many of our seniors are more comfortable with the new technology available in the library, and many are coming back on a regular basis to practice and to improve their skills. They are happily sharing the news of the classes with their friends. We’re getting an increasing number of calls from excited seniors eager to learn, instead of the calls from wary and intimidated seniors that we were receiving just a short time ago. The library is not only better serving some longtime patrons, but it has also gained some new ones. We are starting to see increased circulation of computer materials, particularly immediately following the presentations, and are thrilled to see an increased use of our electronic resources by this important and loyal group of patrons.

Jeanne Holba Puacz is a systems and reference librarian at the Vigo County (Indiana) Public Library. Additionally, she is the library Webmaster and is responsible for the majority of the public computer training. She received her M.L.S. from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. Her e-mail address is Chris Bradfield has been with the Vigo County Public Library for more than 10 years. She is currently serving as the associate branch manager for the library’s East Branch. She is simultaneously pursuing her M.L.S. at Indiana University–Indianapolis. Her e-mail address is

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