How to Manage 40 Branches across 20 Counties

Careful planning, monitoring, and tracking help a technology consultant and her team keep one library system up, running, and ahead of the curve
Dodge City, Kansas
Charlene McGuire

Thirteen years of experience taught technology consultant Charlene McGuire that the secret to a successful library is good planning, careful monitoring, and the willingness to try new thingsIn this case study, we discuss Edge Benchmark 10: Libraries manage their technology resources to maximize quality.

Charlene McGuire is a technology consultant for the Southwest Kansas Library System, where she’s worked for 13 years. Headquartered in Dodge City, the library system includes approximately 40 branches spread across 20 counties. The branches serve anywhere from 100 to 25,000 people. McGuire, along with two technology assistants, handles the technology needs for 38 of these branches. (The two largest branches have in-house technology staff whom McGuire assists on an as-needed basis.)

McGuire notes that the Southwest Kansas Library System achieves all of Benchmark 10’s indicators, but that managing the technology needs of 40 different libraries and their patrons is no small feat. She believes the core of the library’s success has been a commitment to service, detailed tracking and technology planning, and a willingness to try new things.

What made your library successful?

With so many branches in the Southwest Kansas Library System, there is a wide variety and high volume of work. This requires hard work and a careful balancing of priorities. McGuire credits the library’s success to the following:

1. Commitment to service. McGuire emphasizes the importance of setting a constructive, helpful tone. "Our staff feels very comfortable asking us questions," she said. "Treat people like you like to be treated, and they respond well to it." She says that this atmosphere of respect also extends to visitors, noting that patrons increasingly view the librarians as a trusted source of information about cutting-edge technology.

2. Detailed tracking and technology planning. From the get-go McGuire and her team help library staff make informed decisions about new technologies, including internet service providers (ISPs). With just a handful of ISPs operating in some parts of Southwest Kansas, McGuire says, some branches have a limited number of providers and speeds to choose from. Once the technology has been selected, her team makes sure things run smoothly by routinely testing bandwidth, monitoring connectivity, and troubleshooting through the library’s real-time alert system.

3. Willingness to try new technologies. Inventories and tracking reports are critical in managing the library system’s connectivity and technology resources, but McGuire also points to the library’s willingness to try new things as an important factor in its success. This has included installing new routers to better control and monitor bandwidth use and session times at the library branches; adopting system recovery program Deep Freeze; and offering one-on-one technology instruction in addition to group classes. McGuire notes that the library has in the past also set up "technology sandboxes," whereby librarians have the chance to try out and learn more about devices like e-Readers, iPads, and MP3 players.

What did you learn during this process?

McGuire says that nowadays librarians have to wear a lot of hats, with one of those hats being technology instruction and support. To this end, McGuire believes she and her team should take care of the "mundane" technology tasks (such as unfreezing computers and managing updates) to allow librarians to focus on thinking strategically about how technology can help patrons.

McGuire’s team helps the librarians write technology plans, make decisions about new software, and provide training for new equipment, but it’s important that roles be mapped out, she cautions. Not everybody should have to do (or know how to do) everything, she says; building a relationship with staff is important in defining roles and exploring how to best work together. See how librarians and patrons use technology, talk with librarians, and listen to new ideas, she advises.

McGuire said she keeps up-to-date by monitoring TechSoup for new information and technology solutions. The library system uses TechSoup extensively for software; when it’s time for new software or to purchase a new computer, McGuire can easily review what’s available and find the best product within the library’s budget.

Where did you run into trouble?

McGuire says that while her team excels at monitoring and tracking technologies and issues, she would like to start keeping detailed records of the process of choosing and deploying new technologies. She strongly believes in sharing what you know with others, and wishes she had better documented the library system’s switch to new routers and other similar decisions so that she could pass the information along to another library in need.  

What advice would you give to a colleague?

McGuire believes that maintaining a community of practice helps her see new ways to maximize the Southwest Kansas Library System’s technology resources, and would advise others to do the same. She points out that libraries need not reinvent the wheel, but can instead tailor successful peer projects to their own communities. "Find your resources…reach out to colleagues and find out who’s doing what that’s working," she said.

What three steps would you tell a colleague to start doing now?

  1. "Plan, plan, plan!"
  2. Invest in new technology that can help you manage existing resources. For example, the Southwest Kansas Library System’s new routers help McGuire and her team control Internet use, and Deep Freeze frees up time they used to spend working on computers for more strategic tasks.   
  3. Monitor and track. The more information you have about how things work, the stronger your case is for new or maintained funding. Knowing your needs helps your library better serve its communities.