Training, accidentally

By Kate Sheehan |

How did you answer the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” when it was posed to you? I recently unearthed the 3rd grade journal Mrs. Laufer had her students keep and found my own scrawled meditation on the subject. Librarian was not on my list. Most of us stumble into our lives, making the best decisions we can at the time. A few have an action plan early on and pursue their destiny with a single-mindedness that can impress and sometimes alienate the rest of us mere mortals. For librarians, there seems to be a second episode of “how did I get here?” if the professional titles that include the word “accidental” are any indication. 

I am coming up on a year of training people to use Evergreen as their ILS. I have been fortunate enough to meet some excellent trainers along the way and pick their brains for training advice – fabulous trainers  Cheryl Gould and Nicole Engard convinced me that while manuals with screenshots are good for reference, training documents are more helpful in the form of pared down cheat sheets. I’ve had a year to see what’s worked, what hasn’t and to start organizing my experiences into something resembling lessons on training. I’m sharing my list of what I learned at work this year in the hopes that other trainers (accidental and otherwise) will chime in with their experiences and thoughts on the subject.

Training librarians is like training patrons, except when it isn’t

Like most public librarians, I’ve taught a lot of technology classes. A lot of the same basic group dynamics apply: smaller groups with similar skill levels are easier to teach than a big group with mixed abilities (I will never forget my “Internet Basics” class where one of the students couldn’t use a mouse, while another wanted to learn advanced searching techniques). However, patrons generally sign up for classes because they want to take them. If they have signed up for a class that isn’t appropriate to their skill level, the librarian can gently suggest they might benefit more from a different session.

Training a library staff (particularly on an ILS) means working with a group of people who are probably pretty stressed about the impending change to their daily lives at work. Some of them may not want to be there at all. As an outsider, the trainer may know titles and what each staff member does officially, but has no way of knowing (at least initially) how the informal, backchannel structure of the organization is going to play out during training and implementation.

Training is not about you

Much like reference work, training is not about you. This is most evident when it comes to positive feedback and praise. You and your friends may high five over small victories, but the people you are training may feel foolish participating in a playground celebration. Lavish praise for a basic accomplishment may boost confidence, or it may come across as condescending. Each group and each individual is going to respond differently and the first task for a trainer is to set herself aside and start sussing out what kinds of feedback the people in front of her are going to need.

The goal of training isn’t to cover everything

This was the hardest thing for me to learn. The same librarian personality trait that has me chasing after patrons with one last article on their topic pushed me to include endless scenarios and all possible situations in training. First of all, it’s an impossible task; no matter how many training exercises I came up with, the helpdesk phone calls always provided something I never would have thought of. Secondly, it makes training exhausting and stressful for everyone. One of the key points I try to make when I’m training librarians on Evergreen is that there are lots and lots of different ways to accomplish the same tasks. The best way to do something is going to depend on how each librarian works and what she’s doing at the time. Training isn’t about dictating workflow, it’s about explaining the structure of the software. I’ve found it’s more effective to cover the fundamentals thoroughly while pointing out features that might be useful in other situations. Library staff that are comfortable with the software will be better at figuring out advanced features later on.

The line between technology and policy is blurry

Training often highlights policies that were in place because of previous technological restrictions and a migration can be an opportunity to revisit policy and practice. In my case, the libraries I’m training are also joining a consortium, which has its own policies and practices. Joining a consortium also means increased resource sharing and a change in ILL practices. This can all get very messy during training. I find myself answering policy questions by listing out the technological options. Contrary to a lot of classroom wisdom,  I do let side conversations about policy continue for a few minutes. Yes, it can interrupt the flow of training, but if I know how the library wants to use the software, I can train them more effectively.

Training isn’t about your agenda

So, today is supposed to be cataloging training, but everyone has a lot of circulation questions. Or the staff realized they could change a policy and had a three-minute conversation about the feasibility of that change. This is not a big deal. Circulation and cataloging are interdependent parts of the library. If people are anxious about a change in a part of their jobs, they’re not going to be able to focus on the task at hand. Obviously, there’s a balance – if the circulation training is being overtaken with cataloging questions best saved for the next training session, the focus of the session needs to be redirected. But a few questions that are “off-topic” (for the trainer, not the librarians being trained, generally) aren’t a problem and can help quell any concerns before everyone rolls up their sleeves. Likewise, a brief side conversation about policy can be an opportunity to give extra help to anyone who needs it. Quick policy discussions also provide a moment for librarians who may be feeling overwhelmed by learning something new to feel smart and in control of their jobs. Which brings me to my last point.

Sometimes people feel dumb

Training means showing people how to use something they don’t know how to use. Even people who are tech-savvy and excited about whatever you’re showing them are going to feel confused and out of their element sometimes. No one likes this feeling. As a trainer, I’ve found that there’s no way for me to prevent people from feeling stupid, but I can make it more bearable.

I’m still not sure if it’s a good idea to tell people ahead of time that a particular piece has been difficult for other librarians in the past. Does it prime them to think it’s hard or does it make them feel better to know that other people have struggled? I always stop people when they call themselves stupid and assure them that they aren’t stupid and that they are not the first person to have that question. I also share my own “I didn’t get that for a while, either” stories.

I always give positive feedback and I don’t leave the building until I’ve heard something happy from the people I’ve been training. I don’t mean that I don’t want to hear anything negative, just the opposite, in fact. I try to tackle nerves head on – of course people are feeling nervous and stressed. Migrations are nerve-wracking, stressful things. It’s frustrating to go from a system you know really well to something all new. I’ve been surprised to find that the librarians I’ve been working with often think they’re the only ones feeling uncertain, so they interpret that uncertainty as a problem. Addressing fear as normal and common seems to defuse a lot of anxiety time bombs. 

Whenever I finish a training session, I’m always left with a feeling that I’ve neglected to tell them something important. Writing about training is proving to be similar. There are a billion other tiny things I’ve learned about training (go to the bathroom during the first break or no one will actually take a break) but this is my shortlist of big lessons. Trainers, what are your top lessons? Librarians, what do you wish more trainers would or wouldn’t do?