This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org.
For single older adults today, some libraries offer far more than books as windows into the soul. To meet the needs and demands of boomers nationwide who are looking to make actual soul connections, some librarians are now moonlighting as matchmakers. An increasing number of local libraries serve as portals to the dating world, both in-person and virtually, through online dating workshops and ongoing personal and tech support.
There’s something, and maybe someone, for everyone
“Our program started out of popular demand,” explains Tina Williams, outreach services manager of the White Oak Library District (which includes Romeoville, Lockport and Crest Hill, Ill.) She’s been running the 2-hour dating class titled “Dating Over 50: Have Fun, Be Safe” on the last Friday of each month at the Romeoville branch since 2017, and a few times a year at the other two libraries in the district.
Williams recently proposed the course to several other branches, hoping to reach more isolated older adults interested in meeting others. Once again, her initiative was a success: Three neighboring town libraries have now hired her to present the class to their patrons.
The online dating portion of the class addresses general pros and cons of several top dating sites, and delves into the nitty-gritty. “A lot of people don’t know much about online dating, and want to learn more and decide, ‘Is this for me?’” Williams says.
At the Darien Library in Darien, Conn., associate director of programs and services, Mallory Arents, has run an annual e-dating class since 2016. She launches her presentations to single older adults with screenshots of niche dating sites, such as Farmers Only.
“I like to make sure people understand there is something for everyone,” says Arents.
Since cost is also a topic of interest, the librarians make a point to review the pros and cons of the most popular and user-friendly free dating sites, such as OK Cupid, as well as paid ones, including Match, E-Harmony and Our Time.
Part tech support, part personal coach
In addition to demystifying online dating as a concept, part of the demand for this type of programming comes from difficulties some older singles encounter when trying to set up a personal profile or download an app.
“The tech-knowledge gap is significant in this population,” explains Zsasha Cubero, former technology support specialist at the Westport Library in Westport, Conn. In her experience, older patrons were regularly stopping by her desk seeking assistance with a phone or tablet their kids or grandkids had given to them, but which they struggled to use.
Cubero came up with the idea of offering a digital dating workshop in time for Valentine’s Day last year called Anyone Can Use Online Dating. The event was a hit, and has been repeated four times since.
“One of the first points I made is: Don’t be afraid to flirt. It’s OK to put yourself out there and experience some fun and even rejection,” Cubero explains. As part of a more reserved generation, her patrons have let her know this advice has been liberating and welcome.
In class, Cubero shared dating-app user tips, including how to write a strong personal profile. “Patrons would often come up and say, ‘Read this (profile) and tell me what you think,’” says Cubero.
How did she respond to these personal questions from her mostly-female confiders? “I didn’t sugar coat it; I was honest and said, for example, ‘This is too long — no one wants to read all this, girl,’” she says.
The Darien course has included an actual photo booth complete with backdrop choices to get patrons up and running on their profiles. Williams’ local monthly dating program has been so popular at the Romeoville branch that she is now launching a Part II to tackle the hands-on, technical aspect of the online relationship-building process. She invites participants to bring their phones, a couple of photo options and an idea about one or two preferred dating apps. From there, patrons will get set up on the sites.
Staying safe while having fun online
According to all three librarians, the biggest concern among participants is staying safe from scammers and protecting personal information. The older adults “have a lot of paranoia around the internet and Google,” as one Westport patron explained to Cubero.
To empower single older adults, the library dating classes review red flags that everyone should look out for. They also explain relevant terminology such as “catfishing” (when someone pretends to be someone they are not) and what it means to “get spammed” (to receive nonstop messages and junk mail).
In the classes, app users are also strongly encouraged to share the name and address of where they are meeting someone from a dating site with a trusted friend or relative.
A sign of success
Cubero’s support of online dating extended well beyond the course offering: Patrons privately asked for her help and opinion on their profiles daily during her tenure at the Westport branch. They were thankful for the continued support she provided.
Williams fields constant follow-up questions via email from patrons as well. “I have over a hundred email addresses of people who have attended the dating program at some point,” she says. And they are proving eager to seek her advice and support as they continue navigating the world of online dating.
For Williams, the sweetest sign of success is when a person drops out of the program. “Just recently, two people wrote to tell me they wouldn’t be coming anymore because they had found someone. They’re in relationships now and don’t need the class, which is great,” she says.
Check with your local public library or community center to see if it offers a similar program. But according to Arents, even without one, patrons shouldn’t hesitate to ask questions of what she calls “the information professionals” at their local library.
“Every reference librarian is trained in helping folks navigate our digital space: online dating included!” she says.
Lorraine Allen is a writer and educator who splits her time between New York and Spain. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Parents magazine, among other publications.
This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org, © 2019 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.