Library Services for the Unemployed and the Institute for Information Literacy
by Otis D. Alexander
Since it opened in November 1910, the Danville Public Library has remained true to its primary mission to provide the materials necessary to meet the intellectual, cultural, social, and recreational needs of the Danville area community. The library is responsible for supporting the research endeavors of children, teens, and adult members of the community at large. To promote the infusion of knowledge, the library must acquire and maintain materials and provide services that adequately support the needs of the Danville population. From modest beginnings in an office in the lobby of the Rison Park School, the library has matured with the construction and renovation of the main building and the addition of the Clifton Street Branch in 1988.
With these facilities in place, and in harmony with the library mission, the Institute for Information Literacy at the Danville Library arose in response to the information needs of an increasing number of unemployed persons who had once worked in the tobacco industry and related fields in the Danville community. After many workers were laid off from jobs they had held for decades, they were left without adequate skills to enter a job pool now dominated by high technology. The unemployment rate for the Danville area, including Pittsylvania County, jumped from 7% in November 2004 to 8.6% in December 2004 � at that time the highest figure in the state of Virginia. In Danville proper, excluding Pittsylvania County, the jobless rate rose to 11.2% in December 2004. Of course, much of the blame resides with seasonal tobacco furloughs and some textile layoffs. However, in 2006, the economic conditions are still shaky. This is a clear indication that the unemployed need immediate information and training about new job possibilities.After many workers were
laid off from jobs they
had held for decades,
they were left without
adequate skills to enter a
job pool now dominated
by high technology.
Internet usage is rapidly increasing across all segments of the population, and the digital divide between affluent and low-income citizens is increasing by the hour. To compensate, Danville Public Library decided to offer basic computer skills classes, both to assist the unemployed and to raise citizens' consciousness about their local public libraries' collections and services. With the approval of its parent city department, the Department of Human Services, the library released information about the Institute for Information Literacy to the local newspaper and television stations, with hopes that the news would reach the unemployed. Other interested community members were also accepted into the free program.
The institute provides hands-on training and basic, functional knowledge of the Microsoft Office suite (particularly Microsoft Word and Excel). Instruction covers how to cut and paste; how to use the Internet for searches and browsing, including job hunting; and how to use email to send attachments. Because interest in the program was very strong, the participants were selected on a "first come, first served" basis. Participants would take part in a four-week session held in the main library for one hour every Tuesday and Thursday morning, with an additional half-hour after class for feedback and some basic theory. To supplement the hands-on activities, Reference Information Specialist Lou Hendricks compiled a listing of search engines and websites geared especially for job opportunities for the unemployed. In the first institute, seventeen students enrolled. All of the participants who completed the program gave the sessions excellent evaluations and said that their increased skills would allow them to make every effort to take advantage of new opportunities.
Other components of the Institute for Information Literacy include literary activities for preschoolers; storytelling; Movement for Senior Citizens; outreach programs such as reading and visual arts activities for the sick and shut-in; Library Salon, a sharing platform for musicians, dancers, artists, photographers, and storytellers; Meeting Virginia Authors and Neighboring Writers; and the World Events Discussion Group for teens. Overall, the institute is a set of programs that can help connect the community and improve the ability of members to compete in a global society. It's all about lifelong learning.
Of course, if libraries are going to assist with the further development of the cultural, social, and economic infrastructure that will attract people and jobs to communities such as ours, then libraries are going to have to be equipped with the best personnel and given appropriate funding. After all, the library already provides for those who are interested in books, technology, AV media, intellectual and cultural programs, and other elements of the human experience. It will now be challenged to prepare its customers to participate in the knowledge economy of the future.
Otis D. Alexander, director of the Danville Public Library, studied at ACRL/Harvard Graduate School of Education Leadership Institute for Academic Librarians.