Steering Librarians in the Right Direction

Austin, Texas
Christopher Jowaisis

As the Library Systems Grants Administrator of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission (TSLAC), Christopher Jowaisis is well qualified to offer sage advice on everything from improving staff communication to staying abreast of current information. He is also a proud father and husband as shown in this photo with his three children. 

Improving Staff Communication

In many libraries, tension arises when employees feel that the need for security, standardization, and centralized efficiency is at odds with user empowerment, access, and flexibility. Christopher feels that this tension arises as a result of faulty communication and the fact that groups “speak different languages.” He explains, “The librarians have one set of terminology that they use and the IT people have another, and so they often seem to be talking at cross purposes – even when they want to end up in the same place.”

He feels that the key to improved communication is to take the time to sit down, learn how to talk to each other, ask questions, and make sure that each group understands each other’s assumptions. He adds, “There are probably things that we may assume the technology people may know and I think there are probably things the technology people assume that we know that we don’t know. A lot of IT people interested in meeting the needs of the user are also worried about [how they might] end up taking the blame if something ‘blows up’ because they left a system more open than they would have preferred.”

Christopher uses a summer reading program as one example of how an IT group and a library director might run into problems with communication. He explains that technology can simplify the requisite tasks that take an inordinate amount of time, such as signing children up for the program, scheduling performers, and tracking participation. But, he cautions, “If the director or facilitator is not comfortable with the technology, it will be hard to have them buy into that and consider the [available] options.”

He says that communication with a library director may break down because of “benign neglect,” while other times it is a matter of “a sort of ignorance.” He adds that the library directors may “just not be aware of what’s out there or it could be fear. They’re not interested in learning about it, because for whatever reason their approach to technology is just negative.” He feels that one way to improve communication is to understand what motivates each person and the primary factors involved in their decision-making process, and try to present the argument according to those terms. Another critical step is to anticipate the questions that one’s immediate supervisor might be asked by their supervisors and bosses, and consider the potential roadblocks to getting a project approved. He adds, “That’s hard. That takes a lot of skill and it takes building a relationship, so you know what is important to them and how they like the information presented to them.”

Making Time for a Technology Plan

As with financial planning or retirement planning, Christopher feels that it is just human nature to put off technology planning, because people do not necessarily see a direct or immediate benefit. He compares technology planning to flossing one’s teeth: “It’s the same reason I don’t floss every night. It’s one of those things you should be doing, but a lot of times you don’t see the immediate need. It’s like outcomes. People have been talking about outcomes now within the library field for [nearly] ten years. People haven’t understood how outcomes were really set up to help you plan for the next round of programming – and that is what tech plans do.”

Christopher advises that a technology plan will help people manage more effectively and plan out what they want to do because it provides them with a roadmap. He says that crafting a plan ahead of time will help address roadblocks from the onset instead of launching headlong into something without sufficient forethought and “ending up crying in the corner.”

In the Business of Software Maintenance

Christopher would like more large libraries to understand the benefits of a distributed model of development. He feels that library employees often pay their vendors to develop software and do not subsequently take the time to reevaluate how circumstances might have changed, and whether there might be a more efficient way to operate, such as playing a larger role in maintaining software. He offers an example of one particular software application, which he chose to not mention by name, but that he estimates is used by at least 85 percent of libraries. When the software was created, he says it filled the need and people “signed the contract because the [software developer] was the only game in town.”

But now, there are options. He explains, “It’s just a question of people stepping back and understanding the larger technology world. And so, from that point of view, I think it wouldn’t necessarily be development, but I would see libraries possibly being in the business of maintenance of software.” He believes that libraries could build open-source software in house. The upfront costs would be substantial. But the expense would even out in the end, as the software would be constructed with the idea in mind that it could be both developed by multiple people and managed from within.

Network and Computer Security

When it comes to network security, Christopher says that people should always keep in mind how they can be “good net citizens” – in other words, people should consider how their actions on their network impact others. In regards to computer security, he believes that staff should always be vigilant about ensuring that the software installed on the library’s computers does not have spyware.

When deciding on security options, you should determine whether or not each option is worth the level of effort involved. For example, Christopher feels that securing a hard drive so computers reboot after each user’s session should handle the majority of security problems. He says that staff could go one step farther by locking the computers down administratively, but one must consider the number of public computers and whether it is worth the extra work. He has seen smaller libraries deal with this issue simply by positioning the public computers right near the reference desk.

You should also consider the level of effort involved when it comes to filtering. Christopher says that he would not lock out sites that are bandwidth intensive unless absolutely necessary, because for every person who is watching content that is far from edifying, there is another person who might be streaming an educational video, such as a plumber who must watch a video for certification training.

Backing up is not enough, according to Christopher. He cites an example of a library in Michigan that closed down for a long period of time after their network was hacked. When staff went to restore the network, they found that the backup tape did not work. Libraries must have a test or verification system that ensures the data is being backed up properly. He shares that although many people do regular backups, they do not practice how to restore the data. When they eventually do have to restore the data at one point or another, he says “they find that not everything got copied to the tape.”

Staying Informed

Christopher recommends getting outside information and staying informed. He has found that the webcasts and webinars produced by various hardware manufacturers provide a wealth of information. He shares, “Now of course they are trying to sell you their product, because they think it’s the best. But they’ll [also] spend 15 to 20 minutes or sometimes longer on the technology landscape and give you a really good grounding in what the problem is and what some of the various solutions are.” He admits that while his attention may drift as the piece moves into the sales portion, he does pay attention to the introduction. He explains, “Because what I really wanted was to understand was, ‘Do I know all of the challenges? Have I thought through the problem that we’re facing and what their opinion is on some of the solutions?’”

He believes that library employees can learn a great deal from contact with vendors. For example, if companies consider a tool important enough to build an entire product line around it, that means there is a good chance that other organizations are selling a similar tool and that “sometimes it’s just [a matter of] tracking that down.”

Similarly, he argues that people can learn from looking into state contracts and state procurement processes. He adds, “Many libraries don’t take advantage of that. It’s not always going to get you a better deal. But if nothing else, it will put you in touch with some people who understand where you could go if you’re looking for certain things and what that process is.” He says that getting quotes from the state contracts can also position staff to get better discounts and prices from private vendors instead of paying list price. In most states, buying off a state contract means that all local bid requirements are met, which saves staff from having to get bids.

Christopher also reads CIO magazine, which provides senior IT executives with technology news and solutions. He shares that the magazine provides a great deal of interesting material about how one can track the use of technology and better explain its value to the organization.

Ideas for the Future

In the future, Christopher would like to see a web-based database that would provide a directory of all libraries and the hardware and software that each uses for various purposes. Library staff could use this database to connect with each other, pick each other’s brains on experiences and feedback, and avoid reinventing the wheel. In the meantime, comprehensive advice from experts like Christopher can be a tremendous help.