Finding the "IT" Factor

A Small Town Librarian Turned Techie with Help from her Brother
Farley, IA
Becky Heil

Becky Heil is the Library Director of Dubuque County Library (DCL), a county library system in northeastern Iowa that serves a little over 16,000 people. Like many librarians in small counties, she wears many hats. Although her official title is Library Director, she also works in Information Technology (IT) thanks to some on-the-job training and help from a consultant, providing support to the system’s three branches in Farley, Holy Cross, and Epworth.

Finding the “IT Factor” in a Consultant

Becky manages a small staff and explains that she also became the technology person “kind of by default.” When the library first started incorporating technology approximately 20 years ago, her brother Brian Heil worked as a systems analyst at the University of Iowa about 90 miles away. Becky would call her brother for free IT help, and he would walk her through the necessary steps. But as the library began to expand and add more public-access computers, she found she needed additional assistance. The county  has since employed her brother as a contracted consultant who provides remote support of the library’s public access computers. 

As with most librarians, Becky must work with a limited budget. She is reluctant to use volunteers for IT help because of the library’s unique needs in managing public access computers. She has extended bids for consultants, but found that her brother’s fees for remote access work and phone support came in at approximately half of what other consultants charge. Becky explains that her brother’s job managing approximately 600 PCs in the university also means that he is not simply a hobbyist. He understands how to filter information, prevent the public from getting access to the patron database, and work with the company that the library uses for its automation system.

Becky’s experiences as the default technology person have given her insight into what to look for in a consultant. She suggests “playing dumb” when asking companies about their services and hourly fees. She has had companies refuse to listen to her needs and limitations, insisting that she implement software or hardware that did not fit her explicit specifications. She therefore suggests picking the company that is truly able to listen and make appropriate suggestions.

Help from an IT Consultant

The DCL has ten public access computers between all three of its branches. One of consultant Brian Heil’s jobs is to upgrade the desktops remotely with CenturionGuard, a hardware-based hard drive and configuration protection solution designed to protect a computer against harmful and unwanted changes to the system. 

Brian has also helped set up new computers. Becky explains that Symantec’s Ghost (General Hardware-Oriented System Transfer) disc-cloning software has facilitated these setups. She explains that they maintain a staff image, a public image, and a PAC (Patron Access Catalog) image, and when new computers arrive, the Ghost images are loaded onto them. When Becky used grant money to buy eight laptops for a portable lab to offer computer classes, she plugged an old router into a network card in the work port in her office. Her brother loaded Ghost onto it and within four hours, all eight computers were “loaded up and ready to go.” Her brother suggested the idea, but Becky had also read about Ghost in MaintainIT’s "Recipes for a 5-Star Library" Cookbook" As she explained, “We were right in the middle of trying to get laptops to check out inside the building. And I read [in the Cookbook] about how they put a Ghost image on a flash drive…and I just thought that was such a great idea.”

Learning IT on the Job

Although her brother offers regular help with remote access work, Becky manages and oversees the immediate, day-to-day technological needs of the three branches. As she explains, “I’m sort of his on-site person when he needs something that he can't actually do remotely.” She says that her brother has taught her to do a lot of the work herself, adding, “When my brother first started giving us support, he wanted to teach me and the rest of the staff how to do it ourselves. He literally walked us through those things so many times, that [now] I’m certainly not at the beginner level. I’m a lot more sophisticated now… because he made me understand why we were doing it.” She says that this process has made her more of an IT person than a library director, and that she has a lot more technological knowledge than many of the directors in her area or clerks running the other branches. She adds, “I couldn’t do it on my own, that’s for sure. I manage a small library but I’m lucky enough to have some really good training.”

One issue that Becky has had to face is Internet access. She explains that the Internet in some of the buildings is “really flaky.” When the library started looking into offering Internet nearly nine years ago, they had limited options. She says that they did not have cable or DSL, and when they looked into other options, “we were off some local loop. It was $1,000 a month for a T1. There was no way we could afford that.” To solve this problem, Becky partnered with a local company to provide wireless. Since that time, they have set up their own T3 on a water tower in a nearby town, and the library still has no hard line.

Becky has also come to understand the concept of “burstable bandwidth,” a hosting option that allows sites to use the available network capacity to handle periods of peak usage. Burstable bandwidth is intended to be a more flexible and cost-efficient alternative to dedicated bandwidth for the hoster and hostee. She explains that some of the library’s patrons play computer games on the public-access computers after school. But the library’s Internet service provider (ISP) keeps a list of game sites, and when those particular sites come through, the ISP clamps down on the library’s bandwidth, reducing the entire flow to the library. Becky has found that this policy is not specific to her library, but because increased bandwidth is a much more critical issue to the library than it would be to a private home, she is negotiating with her ISP.

Becky explains that although the library does not have a written replacement schedule, they try to replace equipment about every four years. Although DCL has varying levels of public-access at multiple sites, her first priority is to keep staff machines at the high end. The staff machines are repurposed to public use computers, and the public use computers are repurposed to card catalog computers.

Gaining IT Expertise

Becky supplements the training from her brother by taking classes and seeking resources on the Internet. She took an online class through the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Library 2.0, a model focused on user-centered change and participation in the creation of content and community. She recommends the class to other directors, remarking how it did an excellent job of introducing a variety of topics.  She adds that she has “just fallen in love with RSS”, noting how she followed Sarah Washburn’s blog, even before she knew about TechSoup. She also reads LibrarianInBlack, a blog that markets itself as a site “for tech librarians by default.”

Becky has also learned about a variety of tools that help make employees’ lives easier. For example, creating a staff wiki is one idea on her mind.

A staff wiki, I think, is a great idea.  I haven't done it yet, but that's actually on one of my top to-do things now.  We deal with policy things all the time, and so to put one out there and say, ‘this is what the new policy is.’  I can always send an e-mail to everybody, but to have it out there and have somebody else say, ‘In my branch, this part of the policy doesn't work very well because of …"  And the rest of the staff can add to that and we can revamp the policy as a group without everybody having to be in the same room together.  With multiple sites and multiple hours open, it's really tough to get my staff all in the same room at the same time.  So I really like the idea of a staff wiki on policies and other things.”

A second tool Becky would like to implement is, a social bookmarks manager. She explains that if a reference librarian were to retire, all her knowledge, including essential bookmarks, would leave with her once her computer was wiped clean. To prevent this, staff could use Delicious to share helpful websites. Becky is considering asking staff to share both their favorite personal websites and library-related websites that help them do their job. Finally, she has started using Doodle to schedule meetings and sign up for committee jobs. Doodle helps her schedule meetings for her role as treasurer of the Association for Rural and Small Libraries (ARSL).

Training Staff

Becky has learned a great deal from her consultant brother, and she, in turn, has trained staff. She says that it can be frustrating for staff when something goes wrong and they are unable to fix it. She explains, “When you have non-technical staff, they don’t always understand why things don’t work and why you can’t just click a button and have it fixed tomorrow.”  One tool that has worked well is a checklist of basic troubleshooting steps staff can use to fix problems. The list has resulted in increased confidence from the staff, and they are “very proud of being able to try [fixing] it themselves.”

Sharing Knowledge with the Public

Becky also focuses on sharing knowledge with library clientele. For example, when patrons wanted computer classes, the library only had four computers, and it was not cost- or time-effective for Becky to offer classes for four students. So she wrote a grant. With the $10,000 grant, she bought one laptop for the teachers, and seven more for the students. She saved a considerable amount of money by buying Microsoft Office software through TechSoup and a local statewide plan. Because these laptops are in addition to the ten used for public access, staff loan them out when Becky is not conducting a class. 

Paying IT Forward

With the help of a dedicated IT consultant/brother, Becky has come a long way from her unofficial role as default IT person. Now, she is building upon what she has learned by seeking out new resources and training, and “paying IT forward” by training her staff and the community.