The Place for Information

Providing Patrons with Support and Enlightenment
Fitzgerald, Georgia
J. Sara Paulk
As Assistant Director of the Fitzgerald-Ben Hill County Library in Fitzgerald, Georgia, J. Sara Paulk is responsible for everything from computer maintenance and upgrades to adult programming, interlibrary loans, and cataloging. One of the biggest and most important aspects of her job is to provide patrons with much-needed support and access to information.

Small and Rural

The Fitzgerald-Ben Hill County Library is a single facility, single system library in rural southern Georgia that serves approximately 15,000 people in the county. Using skills garnered from over 25 years experience as a librarian, Sara works alongside her director to manage 18 public access computers, each with Internet access, for adults and children. To protect these computers, staff use Faronics Deep Freeze, which ensure that any changes or downloads to each station are never permanent. Sara is responsible for installing the software on all the computers and manually ensuring that the set-up for each one is exactly the same.

Total Cost of Ownership

With funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Sara and her director plan to nearly double the number of computers in the library. Although they are excited about the influx of resources, Sara has concerns about the total cost of ownership – in other words, the costs involved in the upkeep of and training on the new equipment. She worries how they can manage more computers without employing more staff. As she explains, “How can we adequately monitor, assist, and provide access control – everything that’s involved with public computers to the public – with the same number of staff?”

She shares, “It’s great to get the computers, but then it’s challenging to come up with funds for software or staff or any other way to [regularly maintain and] handle the computers.” To address these concerns, she has posted questions on various online discussion lists to get advice from others on how to add more computers without hiring more employees.

Sara also considers the total cost of ownership when selecting software. She determines the amount of training new software might require, and limits requests for software that would require considerable staff training and annual maintenance fees. For example, she shares that she was able to implement Deep Freeze software after reading about two pages of instructions. In contrast, she is more hesitant to tackle a fifty-page book she found on an anti-viral software product. With an extensive list of job duties and limited staff, Sara must choose software that will not require extensive training and upkeep.

Monitoring Computer Usage

Sara has considered many ways to monitor patrons’ usage of computers, including sign-in sheets, egg timers, and cardboard clocks with moveable hands.  Currently, they print out receipts for each patron, each of whom must own a library card and be in good standing to check out a computer. They use Georgia Library PINES’ Evergreen, described on its website as “a library automation system that helps library patrons find library materials, and helps libraries manage, catalog, and circulate those materials, no matter how large or complex the libraries.” The Evergreen system prints out a receipt for each item that is checked out and time stamps the transaction. When patrons sign up to use the computer, the system marks it as a non-catalogued item, which saves staff the time spent checking patrons back in. Computer use is limited to one hour, or two hours for those doing homework. Sara explains that monitoring everyone’s status can be time-consuming. She adds, “It’s just a lot of paper shuffling when you’re trying to just make sure that everybody’s [had] their time that needs to – and you are also trying to serve the other people who are sitting around waiting. So it’s hard to [ensure that] everybody is happy sometimes.”

The library has automated computer filtering, which Sara says has helped with many policing issues. But they also monitor patrons’ usage in person. She shares that they try to “keep intellectual freedoms in mind” but if they see patrons looking at a suspect website, they provide a discrete warning. If patrons persist, they may lose their computer privileges.

Keeping Current

One of Sara’s biggest challenges is keeping current. She shares, “Once [a computer] hits the three-year mark, things just start going bad if a computer can’t keep up with the updates and doesn’t have enough memory. You just seem to hit an ‘aging factor.’ The computer gets to be quarrelsome and troublesome and wants to freeze up and not perform as it should.” Sara and her director are trying to get a regular technology replacement line item in the budget so that inventory is replaced annually, but they are currently replacing one or two computers a year, including staff computers. She shares that the Gates funding will “help tremendously. It can get challenging as the [computers] age to be able to replace what you need to replace in a timely manner.”

In such a rural area, Sara says it has been challenging to keep up with the latest technological trends and has found it difficult to network with other IT people. One solution has been a Listserv of technical librarians, whom she describes as librarians who work with computers a great deal or work with computers in cataloging, and “are very willing to share their expertise.”

When Sara and her director run into issues with their circulation systems’ connectivity, software, upgrades, integrated circulation system and Online Public Access Catalog (OPAC) computers, they can get help from the statewide circulation system staff. But when it comes to internal problems such as Internet access or individual staff computers, outside help is limited. Sara and her director are responsible for setting up all of the computers, installing the software, and regular maintenance and troubleshooting, which can take a considerable amount of time for a two-person IT team.

Curing Technophobia

Sara has many examples of how technology has permeated the lives of people from all backgrounds and in all professions. She explains that although the library has many computer-savvy adult and teenage patrons, there are still a considerable number of adults who “are scared and intimidated, and kind of aggravated” when they first use the computers. Sara and her director are there to help everyone, regardless of prior experience.

For example, the State of Georgia recently passed a law that, in order for truck drivers to renew their commercial driver’s license, they must view a video on homeland security and take a subsequent test. Sara says that many of the drivers come to the library “in a panic.” She says that some “folks can’t use a mouse, don’t have email, and don’t understand drop-down menus.” She says that these patrons often need a lot of hand holding, and she or her director may spend a minimum of an hour and a half with each person. Although it means more work, Sara sees it in a positive light. She shares, “I’m glad we can do that. I’m glad they feel like they can come to the library.”

Sara shares another example of a grocery store owner who accepts food stamps. In the past, the businesswoman kept a manual log of her accounts, but the new system must be done online. When the woman first visited the library, she had never used a computer before and did not know how to access the Internet. Sara and her director have provided her with the necessary support to complete her paperwork and feel more at ease with technology.

Similarly, in order to get child support in Georgia, the public must now register online and fill out a considerable amount of financial information. While this new process was designed to save people time they previously had to spend meeting and working with a counselor to complete the documentation, the burden now rests completely on them. Many of these people have never used a computer before and turn to Sara and her director for help.

The Place to Get Information

Sara is proud of the fact that people recognize that their library is “the place to get information.” She shares, “This is the place where they can get a computer to do e-mail and to communicate with other people. This is the place where they can write up their resume or they can work on their school project or they can look at magazine articles.”

The library also makes use of GALILEO (Georgia Library Learning Online), a collection of databases funded by the state, and made available statewide through public schools, public libraries, and college libraries. She explains that although students can access the database from home, many people in the area do not have computers at home. She shares that being able to offer the service at the library is “a very positive role for us.”

The library offers an online tutoring service, which patrons can access from home or the library. Students at different grade levels can get help in various subjects from a qualified, online tutor seven days a week from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Currently, Sara has shared that their "greatest concerns are 1) maintenance – all of their machines are now out of warranty and 2) greater software and download demands on our system than it can sustain." With today's current economic problems, Sara reports that "many folks are using our Internet access for job applications and online education and it feels like a losing race to be sure that what they need is both available and secure on our computers."

Future Plans

Moving forward, Sara plans to continue reformatting and cleaning up the computers she inherited when she took on her current position, a strategy she hopes will increase the computers’ lifespan another 12 to 18 months. She also plans to do some one-on-one reference and computer training with her staff, as well as some adult computer classes that would cover such basics as using email and popular websites.

The biggest effort will continue to be the time spent with individual patrons, some of whom have never used a computer before. Sara and her director will continue to make sure that the Fitzgerald-Ben Hill County Library is the place to get information and support – for people from all backgrounds, professions, and levels of experience.