This article was updated from a 2009 piece, written by Chris Peters for TechSoup for Libraries (formerly the MaintainIT Project). This effort was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to gather and distribute stories around maintaining and supporting public computers in libraries.
This article is the second one in a two-part series. The first addresses online resources, and this segment discusses offline resources.
Whether you're looking to develop new skills, satisfy your technical curiosity, or solve day-to-day technology problems at your nonprofit or library, the offline resources discussed in this article will help. They include creating a testing or learning environment, networking, classroom-based training, conferences, and print resources like books and magazines.
Creating a Testing Environment
Most folks in IT (even accidental techies) have at least one test computer. Some organizations have dedicated testing environments. But part-time, accidental techies with small budgets often have to test software on their everyday work computer.
Here are several recommendations for testing software safely:
- Virtualization software. Virtualization is a way to install multiple operating systems on a single machine. This allows you to switch easily between the different operating systems. In other words, it allows you to turn one computer into many. This can be very helpful when testing software. But first make sure you understand virtualization and have enough power and memory on your computer to support the virtualization software. For more information, see TechSoup's article Virtualization 101.
- An old computer. If you have an old, unused computer, turn it into a testing computer on which you can play with different types of software.
- Your main computer. It's not ideal to test unknown software on your everyday computer. But if you have to do it, be careful to install software from reputable sources, back up your data, and create frequent restore points. You should never run tests on a live machine that your colleagues or constituents rely on.
Learning and Discussing in Person
Much of our communication and information-seeking occurs online these days. However, there's still something unique and irreplaceable about face-to-face interaction. The suggestions in this section focus on ways to learn about technology with (and from) others:
- Tap into your network. If you're lucky enough to have some engaged, informed techies on staff or in your personal network, they can be an invaluable resource.
- Expand your network by joining a computer user group, meetup, or technology club. Members are often generous with their knowledge and advice.
- Go to a conference. Local, regional, and national conferences are great places to learn and get inspired. The annual Nonprofit Technology Conference is the standout in this area, but lots of conferences cover technology topics. There are also many conferences on specific subjects (security, Web 2.0, content management, and so on).
- Attend training. Classroom learning can be expensive, but if you really need to master a topic, it can be a worthwhile investment.
- New Horizons is probably the best-known national provider of technology training. They are a good place to start, but keep in mind that local businesses offer similar services.
- Nonprofits and libraries can learn from each other. A local library or nonprofit may also offer free technology trainings.
- Community college technology courses are often cheaper and less intensive than New Horizons-type classes. Instead of learning eight hours a day for days straight, you'll probably attend class one or two evenings a week.
Using Print Resources
The design and readability of technology manuals have improved over the years, so don't worry that you're in for a deadly boring read.
Finding the right books for you
- Technology books vary in their teaching approach and complexity level. Spend some time in the computer section of your local bookstore or library and take a good look at the different options. Depending on how you like to learn and on your expertise, you may find some series work better for you than others.
- If shopping for books online, pay attention to the reviews. If possible, use the preview option to see if the book is a good match for how you like to learn.
- The For Dummies books are popular for a reason: they provide clear, easy-to-understand introductions to complicated topics. And they're certainly not just for dummies.
- The Teach Yourself Visually and Missing Manual series can also be very good.
- The "How it Works" series, especially How Computers Work, provides comprehensive and very detailed explanations of technology topics.
Magazines and Newspapers
Most newspapers and magazines are available online, but the print edition certainly isn't dead.
Like professional networking and public speaking, the ability to conduct research, find answers, and educate yourself about new topics are important skills to maintaining your personal growth and the success of your organization. We hope these resources will help provide you with a starting point with which to build your expertise.
Image: Library, Shutterstock