Active Listening

An IT Supervisor Attends to the Needs of Staff and Patrons
Scottsdale, Arizona
Aimee Fifarek

As Lead Systems Integrator/Library Technology Supervisor at Scottsdale Public Library in Arizona, Aimee Fifarek shows how active listening skills, flexibility, and the willingness to try new ideas can result in a more efficient library.

Update: Since being interviewed in July 2007, Aimee Fifarek has changed positions and is now the Technologies and Content Manager for the Scottsdale Public Library.

The Scottsdale Public Library (SPL) system is comprised of four libraries in the greater Phoenix Metro Area that includes Scottsdale, Phoenix, Tempe, and Mesa. In September of 2007, one of its four libraries moved from its location on an elementary/middle school campus to a standalone building. The renovation of another of its four libraries was scheduled to be completed in November 2008. Appaloosa Library, a fifth branch, is being planned.

As of the summer of 2007, there were approximately 175 public access computers across the four buildings, but Aimee anticipated adding at least 25 more for the new and relocated sites. Staff computers are run and maintained by the city’s IT people, with help from Aimee and her IT staff. The city has a five-year replacement plan for all computers. The IT team also rolls out upgrades, especially for software such as Adobe Flash Player and Adobe Shockwave Player, which need frequent updates.

Aimee supervises the IT staff, provides system administration support on nights and weekends as necessary, and does a considerable amount of beta testing and product development. She also maintains the systems department budget. She has to budget 18 months in advance and therefore must know the library’s technological needs very well. Her IT team consists of three people: a Senior Systems Integrator, or Network Manager, who oversees the SPL production servers; a Technology Coordinator who acts as a back-up systems administrator and provides training to staff and patrons; and a Technology Specialist, who is in charge of the desktop server.

Saving Time
The Technology Specialist is currently in charge of approximately 200 public access computers and more than 50 library staff network computers. Aimee says they “try to automate whenever possible because we all have too much to do. And if you can either get rid of the routine tasks or shift them around slightly, you can spend more time doing the stuff that you are hired and trained to do – and that makes it that much easier for everybody.”

The library system uses EnvisionWare’s PC Reservation for patron management and reservations. Before it was installed, Aimee says that her staff used to say that they sometimes “felt more like waiters and waitresses than librarians [when they had] to manage the public access computers and take reservations.” She adds that the software has freed the staff up to have “really meaningful interactions with the customers.”

Staff also use Deep Freeze to protect workstation configurations from accidental or intentional damage without restricting user access. For remote access and control of computers, they use Microsoft Systems Management Server, which according to its website, is designed to “comprehensively assess, deploy, and update servers, clients, and devices across physical, virtual, distributed, and mobile environments.” The software helps the Technology Specialist remotely schedule anti-virus, plug-in, and software updates, as well as diagnose many problems from afar, saving him a trip to the branches when issues arise.

The team also uses DeployCenter for imaging, which Aimee explains saves them “from having to build every computer from scratch, which we did at one point.” She adds that she would like to minimize the frequency of imaging. As she explains, “Ideally, I’d like to get it so that the only time we really have to image a computer is when it’s replaced or when we decide we’re going to a new operating system.”

Training of Staff and Patrons
The library works regularly to train its staff on IT issues. In 2006, library staff instituted a Library Technology Assistance Plan, nicknamed the LTA Plan, for staff who are interested in helping out with quick fixes. The Technology Specialist created the program to teach staff fast solutions to such common problems as loose cables, Internet connectivity, or non-functioning mice. If the problems take longer than five minutes to solve, the designated “LTAs” submit a work order for the IT staff to address the issue. This system is yet another way to save the IT team time, but also serves to build the skills and knowledge of non-IT staff.

The library is also committed to patron training on everything from the basics (e.g., how to use a mouse) to software (e.g., Advanced Microsoft Excel, Advanced Microsoft Word), to travel planning on the Web. Laptops are used for the trainings, which depending on the site, are held in either permanent or portable computer labs.

SPL outsources all of its public printing with EnvisionWare, which did the initial installation of the hardware and the LPT1 software. But the library has also subcontracted with the company for the printer copiers, which means they are in charge of collecting money, reporting, upgrading software, and fixing the printer copiers.

The library also outsources its public wireless access. When staff first instituted wireless in 2003, they piloted a program with what Aimee calls “a homegrown wireless system.” They soon found that front staff were spending far too much time troubleshooting problems on patron’s personal laptops. They have since switched to EthoStream, a service that provides a 1- 800 number that patrons can call if they encounter problems with wireless access.

Open Channels of Communication
Aimee advises that the best thing for an IT person to do is “keep open relations with the front-line staff,” whom she regards as internal customers. She explains that she never starts with technology and subsequently finds a use for it. Instead, she asks the front-line staff what they need and then suggests technology to support their goals. She adds, “It’s not about the technology – it’s about the people and the public.”

Learning Together
The SPL has served as development partners and beta testers, a commitment that Aimee believes helps them in many ways. She believes that it is a good way to get staff and patrons’ input on technology. She adds, “When you take the time to be development partners or beta testers, you have a much better chance of getting an end product that you really find useful and that really works for you.”

The library has been a development partner for Innovative’s Research Pro, which is a federated-search application that streamlines access to multiple data sources. The library has also done beta testing for Innovative’s Encore>, a next-generation library interface designed to provide a unified approach to finding information resources. During the beta testing, Innovative did an accelerated, three-month development process instead of using a traditional 12- to 18-month development cycle that an integrative library system vendor would use for software. Aimee says that the accelerated cycle mimicked current web development, and that they “essentially went from looking at mock-ups of a product to having a product that worked with our data in three months.” Aimee describes the process as an exciting “discovery experience.”

Future Job Security
Aimee doesn’t agree with doomsayers who believe that the Internet and technology in general will make libraries obsolete. She says, “I’m a firm believer in the fact there’s always going to be somebody who needs to be around to answer a question. And as long as we develop and change to meet our customer’s needs, we’ll be around. And there will be a place of us and a reason for us to be here.”

Aimee believes that one of the cardinal rules of library IT staff is to “be responsive to your public and make sure you understand what they’re looking for and what they need. And if you do your best to meet that need, that is the best job security there can be.” With attentive, helpful IT staff like Aimee, job security seems certain.