Where can you turn for help when you can’t get your computer to do what you want? For the past 18 months, the Santa Barbara Public Library System has been offering free computer coaching to the community, providing the opportunity to spend an hour with an experienced volunteer learning something new or solving a problem.

The service is provided at the Central Library, 40 E. Anapamu St.

The program started in February 2010 with one volunteer, but it’s now staffed Tuesday through Saturday afternoons by a team of coaches expert in using both PCs and Macs. Patrons who have laptops are encouraged to bring them, but it’s not a requirement. One of the library’s computers is also available for the coaching sessions.

What kinds of support do the library’s computer coaches provide?

“Everything from teaching the basics of Google and email to creating spreadsheets to troubleshooting a balky laptop,” said Brent Field, the reference librarian who supervises the program.

Although the coaches don’t do hardware repairs, they have installed software for patrons and adjusted system settings to improve performance.

Coaching sessions may be scheduled at the Library Reference Desk or by calling 805.564.5604. After an initial half-hour session to assess a new patron’s needs, he or she can schedule up to two one-hour sessions every two weeks.

To derive the most value from the coaching sessions, patrons are encouraged to come prepared with a list of questions and issues they’ve encountered. Experience has shown that this results in the best use of the time and in better retention of new skills.

What motivates a knowledgeable computer specialist to volunteer as a coach? Aside from the satisfaction of helping people, there are tangible benefits for the coaches.

“It’s a learning experience for me, too,” coach Paul Robins said. “It’s a challenge when a patron presents a question or problem I haven’t encountered before, and figuring it out makes it fun for me.”

Here are just a few examples of how the coaching program has helped patrons:

» Learn to transfer photos from a digital camera and edit them.

» Create a Gmail account and learn to use it.

» Learn to create a new Craigslist entry complete with photos.

» Replace outdated security software on a PC.

» Learn to automatically include page numbers in a Microsoft Word document.

So, if you can’t figure out how to get your computer to do what you want, remember that there’s help at your public library.

— Milt Hess serves as a computer coach for the Santa Barbara Public Library System.