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Skype-a-Docent — Library Technology Buzz

by Amy Terlaga -- terlaga@biblio.org on July 2, 2014

Library Technology Buzz is an occasional blog post, written by the PLA Technology Committee, on hot topics in the library technology world. In this post, PLA Technology Committee member Amy Terlaga (Director of User Services, Bibliomation, Inc.) discusses the Fairfield (Conn.) Public Library’s “Skype-a-Docent” program with Lauren DeNisco (Reference Associate, Fairfield Public Library).

PL: What is the Skype-a-Docent program at Fairfield Public Library?  How does it work?
LD: “Skype-a-Docent: Museum Tours” is a program that brings the enriching experience of viewing and learning about art to seniors who otherwise could not get to the museums. Every month the Library drops off either an iPad or a laptop (depending on the wifi capability of the museum) at a regional museum. Then, on appointed dates/times, the docent at the museum Skypes a video phone call to one of four Fairfield locations for a one-hour tour. The four locations include two nursing homes, an independent senior housing facility, and the Library at a time when seniors are able to come. Because Skype is a phone call, the docent and the ‘tour group’ are able to ask and answer each other’s questions.

PL: What inspired you to create it?
LD: Several things happened around the same time, and when I thought about them all together, this program was the result. Early last year I was encouraged to apply for an LSTA grant for Older Adults that would provide programming that involved technology. My Director, Karen Ronald wanted something with more pizzazz than “Seniors’ Computers 101”, so I thought about the jobs I already did (Homebound Services and the Museum Pass Program, among other things). How could I offer our seniors a tour of even a local museum if they couldn’t get there?

Additionally, I am a huge fan of good docents – they make you stop and really LOOK at a work of art. The last piece came from my college-age daughter who used Skype a lot. It all came together in a ‘Eureka’ moment: Skype-a-Docent!

PL: What kinds of patrons have participated in the program so far?
LD: I describe our audience as belonging to two different groups: Mobile seniors – those at the independent senior housing facility and those who come to the Library are one group. The second are the more captive audiences at the nursing homes, most of whom are wheelchair bound. In both cases, many are quite art savvy, although for most of the nursing home folks, it has been a l-o-o-n-g time since they were able to visit a museum.

PL: How difficult is it to manage?
LD: One of my challenges has been arranging convenient times for everyone – one nursing home prefers mornings, the other afternoons; one doesn’t have enough staff to do this on Wednesdays, etc.

PL: What have been some of the complicating factors in running the program?
LD: Our biggest challenge has been working with locations that don’t have a strong wifi signal. While we started out using a simple iPad on the museum end, in several locations we had to upgrade to a laptop with a cable to an Ethernet connection in the wall. When we went to the Beardsley Zoo, we used a Myfi device to create our own hotspot. Whether we use the iPad or laptop, we have a wheeled stand that can be pushed around – even an iPad gets heavy after an hour!

PL: How many staff are involved in running it?
LD: The Library has two staff members who work on this. I coordinate the dates and times between the museums and the nursing homes/independent housing. Our IT specialist makes sure the museum’s wifi signal is sufficient, and sets up the laptop on the receiving end which he connects to either a large-screen TV or equipment that projects onto a white “movie screen”.

PL: How many docents? Was it difficult to attract the docents?
LD: Each museum provides their own docent(s). Some museums have chosen to have the curator do everything; some have the education director ‘manning’ the equipment and one docent giving all four tours; some have a different docent for each tour.

PL: Do patrons need training to use the program? Are they doing this in the library or from home?
LD: No, patrons do not need any training. Because we are not presenting our tours in individual’s homes , only at institutions (Library, community rooms) all the patrons need to do is sit there and enjoy the presentation and ask questions.

PL: What has been the patron reaction to the program? Do you expect it to continue for the foreseeable future?
LD: Patrons are amazed that technology allows them access to places they couldn’t go. My favorite quote was from someone who attended a tour at the Library: “We used to go to places like museums, but since my husband died, I don’t get out much. This was great, since I wouldn’t go by myself.” And museums are thrilled they can bring the gift of art to audiences who can’t come to them. Several museums have indicated a desire to a) adopt this technology for themselves to go to local schools and nursing homes; and b) present a different portion of their collection the next time we come. We definitely will continue this program – after a summertime break. I am on the lookout for more museums to include.

If you have any questions about Skye-a-Docent contact Lauren DeNisco at ldenisco@fplct.org.

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