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Computers in tow, roving librarian shares a new kind of literacy

Like the librarians who rode horses into isolated Appalachian communities during the Great Depression, their saddlebags filled with books, Sara Taylor takes to the road carrying her tools of literacy.

Unlike the intrepid Pack Horse librarians of the Works Progress Administration, Taylor steers a small white box truck painted with the words "BTOP Express." That stands for Broadband Technology Opportunity Program; here it's interpreted as "Better Technology, Onsite and Personal."

Rather than books, her laptop computers are packed inside a rugged cart fitted with a framework to hold them and their power cords, an EarthWalk charging station and a few portable wi-fi  jetpacks.

Taylor, BTOP Express eMobile Trainer for the NIOGA Library System and its community partners, is almost constantly on the road, setting up her mobile classroom to teach computer literacy classes throughout Niagara, Orleans and Genesee counties.

She teaches classes on Windows, Excel and Word, as well as using email, Craigslist and Facebook,. Other topics are Internet safety, social media savvy, job-seeking tips, and storage on flash drives or in the cloud.

"I have met very few people who are as energetically excited about technology as Sara," said Sarah Potwin, executive director of the Niagara Falls Public library, where Taylor led five students through a free class on the basics of Windows 10 on a recent Friday morning.

"Her enthusiasm for sharing the power of new technology is infectious," said Potwin. "She eats technology for breakfast."

At 43, Taylor has about 30 years of experience with computers, but says she is "among the last of what I call the analog generation, meaning I still use paper."

In school, she said, "I gravitated early to computers," although she and fellow students had to go to a designated computer room to use them.

She earned a bachelor's degree in Information Systems from Thomas College in Maine and a master's in library science from the State University at Buffalo in 2006.

Some of her students are seeking to sharpen their computer skills, while others are trying to jump aboard the fast-moving technology train before it passes them by.

"The current digital life is a necessary tool to succeed," said Joseph Obialor of Niagara Falls, who attended the class. "I commend her for her teaching."

With her computer screen projected behind her, Sara Taylor, the NIOGA Library's BTOP Express mobile instructor, leads her students through work on their laptops. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

At the Niagara Falls library, each student sat in front of a laptop and followed along with Taylor on her detailed handouts and a pull-down projection screen that projected an image of her work on her computer. She started with a talk about how to preserve privacy in a world where smart appliances and other technology can watch and track users' movements and interests.

Then it was on to Windows 10, the latest Microsoft operating system, and within 20 minutes students were identifying and using the taskbar, opening and minimizing programs, then quickly moving on to snapping, snipping and switching. By the time they took their first break, all the students were following her steps.

"This is my first time in a class, and I'm learning a lot," said Ann Marie Wiley of Niagara Falls, who is experienced with office computer programs but wanted to broaden her general skills. "I've worked on computers, but I haven't had the luxury of learning all these wonderful programs."

Suzanne Muller of Niagara Falls was seeking more information about computers, and appreciated the pace and focus of the class. "You learn as you go here," she said.

Ralvin McKoy of Niagara Falls has a Commercial Driver License and wanted to brush up on computer skills before taking some more training, he said.

Paul Bradberry of Niagara Falls is a veteran computer user. He bought his first computer in the late 1980s and estimated he has attended some 30 of Taylor's computer classes. But he is still learning from her. "Each time that I came, although some of them were repeats, there were things that I would absorb, that I had missed the first time around," he said.

"As a teacher, she is excellent," Bradberry added.

Each student was asked to complete a 15-question evaluation at the end of the three-hour class. "That's not just so you will praise us," said Taylor. "Please be honest. Classes have been formed, reformed and revamped based on those evaluations."

Hitting the road

Taylor grew up in Erie County and now lives in Newfane with her husband, Joel, and their children, Thomas, 18, and Brooke, 16, with whom she often discusses changing technology.

When she worked for the Buffalo and Erie County Library System in 2008, she helped design that system's roving technology librarian program. She brought the program to the Nioga Library System, which serves Niagara, Orleans and Genesee counties, when she started there in February of 2011.

Her records show that she has traveled nearly 45,000 miles in that time, teaching at library branches and the state Department of Labor center in Albion and the county workforce development center in Batavia.

When she is driving, "I really just go on the main streets," Taylor said. "Boring, but I know there's no low bridges the truck might hit!"

Most of her commuting is routine, although like most local people, Taylor has some stories about a 45-minute drive stretched to three hours by snow and traffic. Her most memorable drive was during Winter Storm Knife in November of 2014, which began while she was in Batavia.

"I was petrified, because the snow was piling up fast," she said. "I decided I would stick to absolute main roads -- route 98 north to Albion, then route 104 west to Lockport. I figured if I got stuck, I could call my husband and he could lead me home  -- 'No, I don't know where I am. Just drive east on 104 til you see me and the truck!'"

Fortunately, by the time she got about five miles north of Batavia, there was no snow falling and she could see grass. "That storm was so strange," she said.

'I'm so lucky'

Taylor has extensive experience with many computer programs, including Apple and Android, but specializes in the Microsoft Office suite. She works with all kinds of tablets and smartphones, as well as Kindles and Nooks, which students must bring to class. Anyone who wishes to learn on their own laptop rather than hers is "welcomed and encouraged" to bring it to class, she said.

Libraries that host her classes clear an area or room, and she arrives early, pulling the large black case Sarah Potwin dubbed Taylor's "coffin of technology." She sets up the laptops, fires up the wi-fi jetpacks, and welcomes her students.

"The libraries handle the sign-ups, the patrons come in and I teach," she said. "I am very lucky that the people who come to my classes are motivated -- they have to find out about the classes, they sign up for them, they have to get there at the right date and time, so they have taken steps to be there. They are also adults, so they know the point of it. Everybody has been fantastic to work with."

Sara Taylor brings this large plastic case on wheels filled with laptops, a power source and wi-fi jetpacks to every session in Niagara, Orleans and Genesee counties. She sets up the classroom before her students arrive. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Today, almost everything in life is easier with a computer-- from coordinating a potluck or finding a handyman to getting in touch with old school friend or sharing family photos.

And most professions require at least some computer use, Taylor said.

"My dad was a machinist, my husband is a machinist, my brother is a truck driver, and they all use computers," she said. Her husband does computer numeric control in a machine shop. "I stop in to see him every so often, and he's going peck-peck-peck on the computer. He has to write the programs to get the machines to work, that's part of what he does."

At the employment centers, some job-seekers are required to build their skill sets by attending her classes, and Taylor remembers one student who wanted nothing to do with computers.

"She refused to even touch anything and she said she was only there because she had to be there. She was sitting back from the table with her arms crossed in front of her. I asked her what she did, and she said she was looking for work as a bartender and waitress. I suggested we go to Craigslist. By the end she was leaned in, she had her pen out, she wasn't on the computer but she was taking notes on what I was showing her.

"You had someone who really didn't want to be there, but within a half-hour or 45 minutes she was at least interested in the options it was offering as a tool."

'Most egalitarian places'

The classes are free, which is important to Taylor. "I think our local public libraries are the most egalitarian places there are in the United States," she said. "There is no expectation that you must buy anything to use the computers here. Libraries are the best, but I think I'm a little biased!"

Some libraries like to offer her classes in a certain order, but it's not strictly necessary that students start with a specific class, she said. "I would describe myself as being like an author who writes a series of books. It's good to read them in order, but if you get out of order, it's not a big deal. You can pick up the story in the middle of the series."

Personal computers have been popular for more than 30 years, but Taylor still meets people who are using one for the first time. "Just last month I had two people, I believe they said they were in their late 70s or early 80s, and they had never used a mouse, so we sat down and started from the beginning."

On the other hand, she said, "I have also taught former COBOL programmers who used punch-card computers."

All of her students are adults, although a few have been accompanied by their teenage children, she said. "In one class, a teenager dragged his mother in and they were sitting together, and I've had a couple of classes where the parents dragged their kids in with them" so they could help at home if the parents had questions, she said. "That's fine."

She has seen no decline in demand for her classes. "The computer and device training is needed as much now as it has ever been. People may have a device and wonder how to use it; if they don't, they come to our local libraries both for computer use and assistance."

Although Taylor said, "If I had a nickel for every time someone said, 'My 4-year-old grandchild knows more than me,' I'd be able to retire," she cautions that not everyone who is skilled in using computers is able to teach others.

Also, as anyone who has ever tried to teach a relative to drive knows, "It's uniquely difficult to teach your own family members anything," she said.

An adult with a question about computer use shouldn't bring up the issue with a child or grandchild at a family gathering, she said. "You think you've got them cornered, but you're distracted and your brain is not working. Ask them to come over when you can just sit with them one-on-one and you can both concentrate on it. Both sides need to be relaxed and focused."

As a librarian, she said, her goal is getting content into the hands of users. "Content is king," she said. "I don't care how you get the content, whether in audiobooks, so you can listen to it, or if you can better understand a movie. Some people say Shakespeare can't be understood by reading it, you have to see it."

Libraries of the 1800s contained only non-fiction, because the idea of fiction caused people to say, "Oh no, get me my smelling salts!" she said, laughing. "But there has been a constant evolution, and I think most librarians are about helping you get the content. If it's right and it's good information, and you can absorb it, I don't care if you want to use stone tablets, go ahead! The computer is just a tool to get you there."


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