Food for Thought at R.I.T. : An Interview with Jon Jiras

May 29, 2008 at 8:43 am 10 comments

Food for Thought, a unique day-long learning opportunity organized and hosted by R.I.T Libraries, came to my attention last week via a Facebook update status by my good friend Jon Jiras. I was immediately intrigued by the idea of a campus library leading the way in providing training for all staff on campus in such an innovative format and sent Jon a message asking if he would agree to be interviewed via email for the LG.

Jon is currently Library Technologist at the Rochester Institute of Technology Libraries. I first met Jon in 1996 when we both began working at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva NY. We were both recent graduates in our first professional librarians positions. Jon was a cataloger while I was a reference/ILL librarian and we collaborated on many projects during our two years at HWS, including the creation of the library’s first web portal. We have kept in contact throughout our careers and it is my pleasure to be able to present this interview with Jon that highlights a program that I am absolutely positive others will want to replicate at their own library.

Janie: Can you tell me about the background behind Food for Thought? In particular: What is your role? How did the idea get started for such a day? What were the original goals of the program for the organizing committee?

Jon: The origins for Food For Thought (FFT) stem from two developments. First, a somewhat similar annual event for faculty has been sponsored for several years. The Faculty Institute on Teaching and Learning had been moving away from application specific training and more toward classroom pedagogy and educational innovation. Our library director had been attending and participating in this annual faculty event since its inception. She noticed that the shift away from technological training at this event created a opportunity to develop a day long event that focused on application training.

Secondly, as part of the Library’s strategic planning process, we identified university staff as a constituency for which additional library services could be developed. We noticed that most of the registrants coming to the library’s long standing series of technology training workshops were university staff. So we decided to leverage this success by creating a full day of learning events. No one had ever (to our knowledge) sponsored a complete day’s agenda of learning sessions directed at staff.

A small internal team was formed in Fall of 2006 (four full-time Library staffers) to conceptualize, plan, and promote the project. The team consisted of an array of staff from four different Library departments: Library Technology Services; Reference; Serials/Acquisitions; and Marketing/Communications. I was the representative of the Library Technology Services department and chaired the Food For Thought team. I was responsible for coordinating the efforts of the team, keeping them focused, and acting as liaison to library administration. Organizing and developing this program was so rewarding that I volunteered to chair the team again for 2008.

Some things the FFT team established within the planning process included:

  • We decided to format an entire day (9am – 4pm) with multiple “tracks” to allow for the most flexibility to accommodate people with limited free time.
  • We wanted to make it like a conference with registration, name tags, tracks, and simultaneous sessions.
  • We determined the optimal date to be June 14, 2007; for many reasons all tied to timing and the likelihood of having the most staff available on campus
  • We named the program “Food For Thought: A Day of Free Techie and Not-So-Techie Learning Sessions for RIT Staff”
  • We established available session venues within our building, spanning three floors.
  • We decided to spend the bulk of our limited budget on 3-ring binders to be given to every person who reserved a spot in any of our sessions.
  • We decided to spend the remaining budget on light refreshments.
  • We set out to brand the event and collaborated with a student employee and another library staff member to create the original graphic identity.
  • We involved the entire Library staff in not only sharing ideas, but in helping to shape the schedule. Most of the instructors of the sessions were Library staff.
  • We decided to offer “Brown Bag” Lunch-time sessions, to maximize our number of possible sessions and to accommodate those who might only be allowed release time during their lunch hour.
  • We decided NOT to invite a keynote speaker. There were some who felt a shared experience of a keynote address would be welcome. FFT team members decided against this as it conflicted with the “a la carte” nature of workshop sessions.
  • We knew that many staff could not take the entire day, so we wanted to provide a broad range of topics so they could pick and choose which sessions interested them the most.

The session topics were carefully chosen to provide a balance between application-specific instruction, technology trends, and fun diversions.

Presentations were solicited in three ways.

Individual presenters pitched specific sessions to the FFT team. (For example: Advanced iPod; Create your own website; and Origami for the Office).

The FFT Team invited library staff to brainstorm sessions at an open meeting. Several sessions resulted from this meeting. Technostress 101, The Web 2.0 series, and Organizing with MS Outlook were pitched to FFT team at this session.

In addition, the FFT team approached individual library staff and requested specific topics be covered (such as Windows Vista, MS Office 2007, Adobe Captivate, and the Art on Campus Walking Tour).

This mixture of presenters pitching ideas, the FFT team holding a staff-wide brainstorming session, and the FFT team soliciting specific presenters for specific topics produced a well rounded list of workshops.

We specifically asked that presenters not offer workshops that are already on the list of technology training sessions that the library offers as part of its technology training workshop series that runs throughout the year. Instead, we ask them to develop new workshops on new topics. This is their chance to present on a topic that might not normally be covered in our regular training series. Several of the 2007 FFT sessions became regular sessions in our workshop training schedule.

The Food For Thought team had a total operating budget of $1,000. Here’s a list of expenditures made in the first year:

2007 FFT Budget Expenditures:
3-holed paper: $ 35
3-ring Binders: $ 435
Name Tags: $ 3
Food: $ 200
Marketing: $ 200
Buttons: $ 50
Total: $ 920

The 2008 budget is not yet finalized, but we are planning to spend significantly more on food and to drop the binders in favor of simple paper folders. We will still keep the entire budget at under $1000.

Janie: How many attended last year and what was the response from those who attended? Did you get a good cross-section of employees who work at RIT attending? Is this program open to all RIT employees?

Jon: Food For Thought is directed at RIT staff. However, it is open to any member of the RIT community. RIT staff makes up largest group to attend the event – indicating that the target audience is being served.
2007 numbers:

Total number of people who registered online: 196 (plus 15 on-site day-of registrations) = 211

Total number of session registrations: 546

Staff: 169 ; Faculty: 21 ; Students: 5 ; Other: 1; Unknown: 15

Number of people registering for:
0 sessions: 11
1 session: 36
2 sessions: 46
3 sessions: 33
4 sessions: 31
5 sessions: 39

52% of registrants registered for 3 or more sessions – indicating that a majority attempted to devote most of their entire day to this event.

Several of the sessions had to be moved to larger venues. We took over a large lecture hall in an adjacent building that holds over 200 people and moved as many sessions there as possible.

If you count every available seat (in the original selections of rooms from 2007), we would end up with an event capacity of 790 seats. The event was 69% filled which is an extraordinarily high response rate.

2008 numbers — so far this year (with 10 days to go till registration closes) we have the following numbers:

Total number of people who registered: 167
Total number of session registrations: 497

Staff: 147 ; Faculty: 16 ; Students: 1 ; Other: 3

0 sessions: 6
1 session: 28
2 sessions: 35
3 sessions: 32
4 sessions: 27
5 sessions: 39

A post-event feedback survey was sent to registered users. We received 75 responses. Ratings for individual sessions were generally “Very Good” or “Excellent.” Ratings for the day as whole were generally “Very Good” or “Excellent.”

Comments from the feedback survey can be broken down into three general areas:

1) Comments about time: These included comments about breaks between sessions, session lengths, the timing of the event, and the number of sessions offered. One frequent comment was that a realistic lunch break should have been factored into the schedule. (That suggestion was incorporated into the 2008 event)

2) Ideas for next year: This category of comment was the most extensive and included these suggestions:

Movie Making Software
Help Grad Students Navigate Thesis Writing
Separate class on PhotoShop
More academic topics like surveys in different disciplines
More tours (printing facilities on campus, Hub, president’s office, dorms).
More fun topics for brown bag sessions (movie discussions, video game discussion etc..
More advanced coverage of In-Design and Creating a Web Site
Very basic class in computers for those who do not use them
Mac orientated sessions
Home computer maintenance

3) Criticisms and suggestions:
Binders were not necessary
Techie sessions seemed much too basic
More extensive handouts

In addition to the survey, the library staff has received many compliments behind the scenes. The Food For Thought Team was nominated for a campus –wide staff excellence award.

Janie: How have you modified Food for Thought this year?

Jon: We repeated only three 2007 sessions in 2008: Create Your Own Website, MS Office 2007, and MS Outlook. All three were highly attended in 2007 and continue to draw well in 2008.

Last year all sessions fell into one of three themes: application specific training, technology trends, or fun diversions. For 2008 we have developed a fourth theme: RIT-specific information. Several workshops were developed with this fourth theme in mind, such as Virtual Worlds: Touring the RIT Island in Second Life, Understanding the RIT Student, Basic Sign Language and Deaf Culture, and Lightning Talks.

Other sessions were consciously modified to incorporate specific aspects of this university’s setting. For example, a proposed “Facebook” session was broadened to become Facebook and RIT. No longer just an overview of Facebook, it will now include information about how Facebook is being used on this campus by various departments and student groups.

For 2008 we have added two new features:

1) We have added an “Extra Helpings” area in the computer lab on the second floor of the library. It is modeled along the lines of the Apple Genius Bar where folks can book one-on-one training sessions with technology staff to get personalized help with whatever technology, application, or other questions they may have. In this way, the content of the day gets to be driven by the registrants themselves. Instead of being limited to a select list of sessions, registrants can bring their issues and needs to the attention of training staff. We collaborated with other campus departments to arrange for additional staffing of this area for the day. Knowledgeable and helpful staff from the university’s central Information Technology Services group and Online Learning are partnering with the Library to staff this area the entire day.

2) Lightning Talks: This special session is modeled along the lines of unconferences and Barcamp where the content of the session is driven by the registrants. Staff from across the campus have agreed to give 5 minute micro presentations on technology they use, services they provide, or anything they think other RIT staff may find of interest. So far we have commitments for 9 (of the 10) 5 minute sessions, so we are confident that all of the micro sessions will fill up.

Both of these new initiatives involve a greater degree of cooperation and collaboration with other campus units. The “Extra Helpings” area has been a great opportunity to reach out to other campus units and get their buy-in with the day as a whole. The “Lightning Talks” in particular allow other campus units to present topics during the day. Limiting their presentations to 5 minute micro-presentations gives them the added advantage of not having to prepare too much for the sessions. To line up the Lightning Talks library staff approached their contacts across campus to pitch the idea. The mere process of approaching these outside departments, discussing the opportunity, and offering the possibility is a networking opportunity and creates awareness of the event and buy-in.

The 2007 Food For Thought event had a few sessions that were co-presented with other staff from across campus. For 2008 we encouraged presenters to collaborate with other campus departments. As a result, one in four sessions have co-presenters who are non-library staff. The “Lightning Talks” session and the additional staffing needed for the “Extra Helpings” area are convenient ways for non-library staff to participate in the event and are a direct result on the 2008 emphasis on encouraging collaboration.

Janie: What topics are proving to be most popular this year? Is this different from last year?

Jon: For both 2007 and 2008, workshops that list specific applications and/or websites in their titles tend to receive more registrations than workshops that do not mention them.

Overall registrations have been very good. We anticipate having over 250 individuals register
for 2008.

Janie: What obstacles (if any) did you have to overcome to get Food for Thought off the ground last year? How long is the planning process?

Jon: Here’s the event planning timeline for 2007:

Feb 20 – FFT team meeting prior to prepare for the Library staff brainstorming session
Feb 26 — hold library staff brainstorming session on possible sessions
Mar 23 — deadline for session presenters/commitments
Apr 13 — deadline for schedule/program confirmation, room reservations
May 15 — publicity kick-off and online registration begins
June 11 – presenter handouts due
June 12 — end registration
June 14 — hold event

A major deliverable for the event was the event website with registration and schedule selection capabilities. It’s a PHP / MySQL website developed in-house:

A staff view that shows the number of registrations for each sessions, the list of individuals registered for each session, and overall statistical information was created. All presenters were given the username and password to access this staff view of the FFT website.

As with any large event that involves multiple participants and large numbers of people – it’s the details and logistics that are the most challenging.

Janie: Is this a model that can be adapted elsewhere?

Jon: The Rochester Institute of Technology is a mid-sized, private, academic university with 1,900 staff, 1,300 faculty, and 16,000 students. This program may have to be scaled down (or up) for smaller (or larger) institutions. We have declared 200 registrations (just over 10% of staff) to be successful. The hardest part is lining up quality presentations that don’t compete with other staff development opportunities on campus and have presenters willing to present them. The RIT Libraries is fortunate for having a number of librarians and technical staff who not only have the ability to develop and present quality presentations, but more importantly, the eagerness and willingness to do so.

Janie: Is there any other information you wish to share?

A large part of the time and effort of the FFT team was spent on marketing and promotional materials. We used all of the following as promotional devices:

– PowerPoint displays (teasers) on our Plasma Screen.
– Bookmarks (handed out at Circ).
– Pins (tin buttons) in two different designs, worn by our entire staff for the weeks leading to the event.
– Full-color Posters (variety of graphics; in three sizes- tabloid, letter-size and a custom size).
– Electronic (email) messages sent on multiple dates leading to event.
– Created a customized website with original graphics, an interactive component and complete with online registration capabilities.
– Advertised on thermal Circulation Desk receipt printers (like a store imprints a message).
– Outdoor (exterior) Digital Message Boards (animated text) for three weeks prior.
– Promoted the event on the Library web site, including our scrolling News Ticker that highlights special events and services.
– Published an article and our Logo (branding) in campus newspaper News & Events one month before the event.
– Highlighted (advertised) the event on the Library’s “What’s New?” web page.
– Created custom Binder Covers (color) for each binder (200) we prepared.
– Created color Cover Sheets for each presenter’s section within each binder.
– Created and printed out a condensed complete Session Schedule as hand-outs.
– Created a Press Release, sent to University News.
– Designed and created PowerPoint Templates to assist presenters in creating their PowerPoint slides; ensured a consistent branding and a format that was uniform (optional if they wanted to use the templates).
– Created a Facebook event page and encouraged library staff to invite their RIT Staff Facebook friends to the event via Facebook.

A sample of our promotional materials is available here:

For both 2007 and 2008 we asked all library staff to reach out to their staff contacts across campus to get our promotional material into areas we don’t normally cover. Instead of merely placing posters in hallways and public areas, we devised a way to get our posters into staff break rooms, copy rooms, and other staff-only areas.

We requested all library staff to take a variety of posters, flyers, bookmarks, etc… and hand deliver them to their staff contacts across campus. We had library staff record where they dropped off this material and who they had contacted about it. As a result, our promotional material reached areas of the campus we have never previously covered and the mere act of reaching out and visiting other departments on campus drummed up interest.

Janie: I would like to thank Jon and the entire Food For Team at RIT for providing the readers of Library Garden with such a detailed overview of their highly successful program and for all the planning process information. Best wishes with all of your plans for June 10th and please keep us updated after the event with new statistics.


Jon Jiras has worked at the Rochester Institute of Technology Libraries since 1998. His interests include the support, maintenance, development, and integration of library technologies. For more information about this event please contact Jon at jjjwml at rit dot edu.


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  • 1. Anonymous  |  May 29, 2008 at 3:11 pm

    Yellow font is HORRIBLE on the eyes. Impossible to read in bloglines and no picnic here.

  • 2. Janie L. Hermann  |  May 29, 2008 at 5:42 pm

    My deepest apologies for the yellow font being problematic. I am trying to fix it, but blogger has added so much code to the post that it is near impossible to undo. I have tried to fix the html manually, but it is not working. I will keep trying. We have used yellow font on LG before. I think this is a practice we will need to stop. Thanks so much for the feedback.

  • 3. Amy Kearns  |  May 29, 2008 at 6:11 pm

    WOW! I have to say I am honestly blown away by the concept, the execution, the success and the information provided!

    What a great idea! Of course, I am already thinking of what could be done with this – as the Program Coordinator for the Central Jersey Regional Library Cooperative, my wheels are spinning! 😉

    I am so excited by what you have done and so happy that it is clearly something that is needed and wanted and has been such a success for you!

    This event not only provides the needed additional training and information, but also really allows the whole community to come together, and allows the community to have a personal interaction with library staff – something that in some cases might not ever happen!

    I’m all for helping the community the library is in while also having the added benefit of helping to promote the skills and value of that library in a win-win situation for all!!!!

    KUDOS to you! Is this available to “steal” with credit, like Helene Blowers’ Learning 2.0 program?

    Thanks so much for sharing!!!!!

  • 4. Janie L. Hermann  |  May 29, 2008 at 6:59 pm

    Update: The yellow text is gone. Hope this solves the problem for bloglines and other rss readers.

    Thanks for the feedback Amy. I agree that this is an idea worth adapting and “stealing”. I am envisioning a Tech Day for the community at PPL and I can definitely envision this working on other campuses.

    While I was doing my MLIS I conducted an study as part of a course requirement and it was on campus staff (non-faculty) use of the library. My study, which was eventually published in College and Research Libraries, clearly indicated that campus staff are underserved and that academic libraries need to find a way to improve outreach. Days like this could go a long way to improving library use for all staff.

  • 5. pollyalida  |  May 29, 2008 at 8:37 pm

    WOW! What an incredible program. Kudos to RIT staff for such a great event. Makes me want to masquerade as an RIT staff member and attend the program. It’s been a long time since I worked in an academic library, but I can concur, staff are a often a very underserved group. Thanks to you and Jon for sharing so much detailed information. What a great model.

  • 6. Cynthia  |  May 30, 2008 at 10:54 am

    Terrific idea! I hope we do this at Princeton Public Library. This really helps to deal with the age old issue of so much technology, so little time!

  • 7. Erin  |  June 10, 2008 at 12:59 pm

    I just wanted to say that Food For Thought 2008 is happening now – as I type this, I can hear the gong from the Lighning Talks. I am a staff member at RIT and have just blogged about my session here:

    Kudos to the RIT Food For Thought team! 🙂

  • 8. Dinner Preparation London Ontario Canada  |  June 17, 2008 at 10:52 pm

    Yellow font may seem impossible for the eye, but it depends on the background yellow and black is the best contrast this is why many countries have black letters on yellow background(or the other way around) as the color of the license plates – to make it as visible as can be. so, it’s not always the beauty as much that it is the function of it.

    Easy Meal Preparation Mississauga

  • 9. Anonymous  |  June 18, 2008 at 12:15 pm

    Now that the 2008 Food For Thought has concluded, Janie has posted my update here:
    2008 Update

    -Jon Jiras

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