Edge Benchmarks: Gadget Instruction

In this blog series, we are exploring various technology training models in public libraries and sharing tips and real life success stories. In our last post, we looked at how to use volunteers as technology instructors in order to increase the impact of technology training programs. In this post, we look at how to expand technology training to include gadgets and mobile devices. We share best practices for using both library and user devices and for training on a wide range of platforms.

The Edge benchmarks for public access technology recommend offering structured and scheduled technology instruction on patron owned devices in the Community Value section under Benchmark One. This benchmark recommends offering instruction in library resources, including downloadable media and ebooks. We've gathered tips and real library examples to help you offer instruction on the gadgets your community owns.


What is a Gadget?

In the world of technology, the term "gadget" often refers to small handheld devices. Some may perform specific functions, while others may serve as miniature portable computers. In the past, these devices have been considered to be novelty items, but many gadgets are becoming more ubiquitous in today’s society. In September 2012, 45% of American adults owned a smartphone, and 25% owned a tablet (Pew Internet: Mobile).

Benefits of Gadget Instruction

Many libraries offer training on specific gadgets such as e-readers, smartphones, and tablets, in an effort to help patrons access books and information more effectively. In a recent Pew study (Library Services in the Digital Age), 69% of adults said they would be "very likely" or "somewhat likely" to attend a "tech petting zoo" type event at their local library, so that they can test and toy with different devices. Offering gadget instruction can teach patrons how to use their device to download library materials, access library resources online, and improve their ability to find relevant and authoritative information from any location.

Touch screens and an intuitive interface can create an easier learning experience than traditional desktop or laptop computers, and a more inviting platform can boost basic digital literacy skills. Patrons may be more motivated to learn by the promise of communicating with family and friends, the opportunity for entertainment, or the increase in workplace productivity by using gadgets. Gadget instruction provides an opportunity for libraries to meet a growing community demand while also providing basic digital literacy and library resource instruction.

Tips for Success

We've gathered important tips and best practices to remember when offering gadget instruction in your library.


  • Ask the community what type of gadget instruction they want or need. Conduct a survey and track common gadget questions at the reference desk.
  • Encourage library staff to learn more about gadgets, and provide them with opportunities for practice time.
  • Engage community experts and technology enthusiasts to offer gadget instruction and assistance.
  • Partner with local electronics stores (such as Best Buy) to get devices for testing.
  • Hire contract instructors to teach gadget topics that are unfamiliar to library staff.
  • Promote gadget classes using social media, in addition to traditional publicity methods.

Types of Training

  • Offer device-specific workshops to give an introduction to the most popular gadgets.
  • Offer classes to that help promote library resources and downloadable e-media.
  • Hold open lab sessions to answer questions on a variety of devices, and to meet a greater patron need for one-on-one training.
  • Schedule a technology petting zoo to allow many library users to come learn about many devices during a single session.

Instruction Tips

  • Avoid using technical jargon when providing gadget instruction.
  • Use a smartboard, TV, or projector and the appropriate adapter cables to display the instructor’s device for everyone in the class.
  • Have library-owned devices available for practice during classes, or to allow library users to test different types of devices.
  • Download apps appropriate for all ages onto library devices to teach patrons how to use devices in a fun, engaging manner.
  • Before handling patron devices, have patrons sign a waiver releasing liability. Denver Public Library uses this waiver before every gadget appointment.
  • Handle unfamiliar devices like reference questions. Use the Internet to locate instructions on using the device.
  • Create handouts to provide step by step instructions with screenshots for common gadget uses, like downloading e-books. These handouts can be helpful for staff and for patrons.

Success Story: Gadget Classes & Open House Help at Pueblo City-County Library District (Pueblo, CO)

The Pueblo City-County Library District began offering formal gadget instruction in 2011 as a part of their efforts in the Colorado Public Computer Centers project, funded by the federal BTOP grant. They brought on Andrew Bregar (pictured) as Emerging Technologies Librarian, and he developed several programs to address the growing need for technology instruction on gadgets and mobile devices.

The Pueblo City-County Library District provides gadget training across five locations. Andrew has spent most of his time at the main Rawlings Library location, but also has visited four locations to provide training to patrons and staff. In addition to providing iPad classes and tech gadget open house events, they have a device lending program that includes iPads, e-readers, and laptops. They also provide informal one-on-one gadget training at reference desks, and staff are given training resources to support their understanding of different devices. 

Gadget Classes and Open Houses

Formal iPad and e-reader classes are offered monthly, including a basic introduction to the device and popular apps. Classes size is kept small, usually 3-10 people, so everyone has a chance to ask questions and get personalized assistance. Some people who attend already have iPads, but others use library iPads for the class. Although Pueblo has a large electronics store, they are 50 miles away from the nearest Apple store, and are the only place in Pueblo offering iPad classes.

Tech open houses are held to help library patrons on any device they own. These events are typically held 1-2 times each month, and usually bring in 5-20 people to be helped by 2-3 staff. Patrons most commonly bring in questions related to e-readers, and ask for assistance downloading e-media from library databases such as Overdrive and Freading. The library has created handouts with screenshots to assist people with the most commonly used devices. It is also common to get questions about unfamiliar devices during the tech open house events, and staff respond by researching the new device on the spot.

Learning About New Devices

Andrew recommends that the best way to handle unfamiliar devices or challenging gadget questions is to work with the patron to learn more about the device and search for an answer. Once you identify the device and the operating system, there are usually resources available online. In one instance, a patron had a device that none of the staff had heard of. They set up an individual appointment to work with the patron and asked him to bring any documentation he had about the device. Together with the patron, staff were able to learn more about the device and help the patron successfully download an e-book. Andrew has a positive attitude about the challenges of helping people with different devices: "Everything is changing and there’s always something new. It definitely keeps me on my toes."

One of the biggest challenges of helping people with gadgets is using clear terminology. Andrew shared that success comes "when somebody accomplishes something and they feel that they’ve accomplished it. I’ve helped, but because they’re able to do this on their own, it takes away some of the fear that they might have with technology, which is good."

At the Pueblo City-County Library District, gadget instruction is a part of basic information literacy training. As mobile devices become more popular, people are accessing information in a variety of ways. As desktop computers gradually get replaced by mobile devices, people will need to be more comfortable with a variety of devices. By helping patrons become more competent on gadgets the library is helping increase the level of digital literacy in their community.

Success Story: Engaging Community Experts at Princeton Public Library (Princeton, NJ)

The Princeton Public Library offers many types of gadget instruction to meet the needs of their community. They offer staff-run classes on iPads and e-readers, and offer individual assistance at the reference desk or by appointment. They also engage instructors and experts in the community to provide additional services. 

Building a Buzz about Gadgets

The Princeton Mac Users Group (PMUG) is a community based organization that has been established for nearly 20 years, and is made up of local Mac enthusiasts. PMUG hosts an ongoing weekly drop-in help session at the library (see photo) called "Ask the Mac Pros." Library patrons can bring in any Mac-related questions and get individual assistance to solve their problems. The library also hires experts to give seminars and special programs. In October 2012 they hosted a "Smartphone Smackdown" to compare the pros and cons of both Android and Apple phones.

Library staff also frequently incorporate gadget technology into existing programming like "The Buzz," a weekly program (see photo) that features topics of interest to library patrons. 

This program covers books, film, music, and technology. Library staff are encouraged to learn more about gadgets, and to deepen their own understanding by passing those skills on to library patrons. Library staff receive questions at the reference desk, and also by phone, email, and chat. 

The library has also developed handouts they provide to their customers with specific step-by-step instructions. Two of these are available for download at the bottom of this post. 

Value to the Community

Janet Hauge, Technology Initiatives Librarian (pictured on left), sees the value gadget instruction provides for the community. "Many customers leave the library with confidence to use their device in new ways, whether it’s an e-reader or an iPad. If we can encourage customers to repeat the steps we have shown them with their digital downloads, whether while still at the library or once they get home, I feel that the library has succeeded in encouraging digital literacy for our customers."

The Princeton Public Library strives to build its reputation in the community as a place to learn about new technology. Erica Bess, Adult Services Team Leader (pictured on right), shared that "In addition to assisting customers with their questions, we also try to proactively expose customers to new devices, software, apps, and websites through seminars, blog posts, tech classes, and interactions on the desk. This approach helps us to remain relevant in a community that is always on the forefront of innovation."

Success Story: Tech Petting Zoos in Capital Area District Libraries (Ingham County, MI)

The Capital Area District Libraries (CADL) serve most of Ingham County, Michigan with 13 branches and a bookmobile. The majority of this 561 square mile county is rural, except for the area surrounding Lansing, the Michigan state capital. The total county population was 280,895 in the 2010 census.

CADL began offering tech petting zoo events several years ago. These learning events provide an opportunity for people to try out gadgets, or to get assistance on gadgets which they own. Many of the questions they receive are about downloading books to e-readers. At tech petting zoo events they also make appointments for people to get more individualized assistance on their devices at a later date.

Serving Seniors

Sherri McConnell, a Library Assistant with the distric, expanded these events to locations outside of the library at the local senior center. Initially, she wanted to offer classes for seniors on basic online health information literacy, but realized that they were not comfortable using computers. To meet this need, the library began offering basic computer and Internet classes at the senior center, along with the tech petting zoo.

To this date, the library offers regular e-reader classes at the senior center. This has led to an ongoing "Computer Club." The Club includes presentations on topics requested by the seniors, often relating to the Internet or computer hardware and software. The seniors have asked that new topics be presented slowly and with printed step-by-step instructions. Sherri has observed that the questions seniors ask are "not complicated, but the answers make their computer experience much better."

Sherri is offering this type of programming at the senior center "to give people the opportunity to try out the gadgets they see their children and grandchildren using but are uncertain of using themselves."

Share Your Experiences

Do you offer gadget instruction in your library? Have you offered training workshops for e-readers or other mobile devices? Please share your stories in this Benchmark One Survey from the Edge Initiative. If you have more to share about technology in your library, take the full survey that covers all of the benchmarks. Respond to the survey, and you could win a prize!

More about Gadget Instruction

Read these blog posts from TechSoup for Libraries for some great ideas: