Libraries and IT: A Win-Win Situation

How one librarian turned a county IT department into a shared asset
Marysville, CA
Loren MccRory

The Yuba County Library, located on the banks where the Feather River forks, is the county’s sole branch, serving a population of 70,000 people spread over 600 square miles. Over the past few years, Yuba County has been among the fastest-growing counties in California, making the need for modern library services even more urgent.

Like all government institutions, Yuba County Library has to maneuver through an often rigid bureaucracy to get the attention it needs. MccRory, the library’s director, understands this frustration as well as anyone. Having off-site IT personnel only adds another layer of difficulty in getting work done. “The County’s IT department does everything with our computers for us. We’re not allowed to do anything. We are informed to completely keep our hands off when it comes to installing programs or even simple troubleshooting.”

Yet after three years of building relationships with Yuba County’s IT department, Loren MccRory and her patrons are reaping the benefits of useful, reliable computer resources that offer 28 machines for public use.

Non-Techies: An Important Liaison

One secret to MccRory’s success has been her ingenuity in recognizing how staff can play a part in troubleshooting issues. The front desk staff’s direct interaction with patrons makes them the natural first step in diagnosing technology issues. While the library's non-technical staff can’t always tell IT what’s wrong using the right terms, they can be a valuable point of contact.

Through process of elimination [the staff] end up with a really good idea of what a problem might be. Their input can solve the problem for the tech if they just have good lines of communication,” MccRory said. “Communication between non-tech staff and tech staff I think is one of the most important issues as far as keeping the computers up and running.”

Efforts like this are indicative of MccRory's commitment to her library, not just as an institution but a community. “The library isn’t just a government service,” said MccRory, who objected to a Web developer's assessment that the library’s Web site was “just a government Web page.”

Mutually Beneficial Relationships

Eventually, MccRory convinced the County IT department to dedicate one of its staff to the Yuba County Library. Already a strong library supporter, this IT staff member had been instrumental in getting library needs addressed. And because the library is more cutting-edge technology-wise than many other areas of County government, she in turn has provided the library assigned IT staff the opportunity to develop skills they wouldn’t necessarily learn in their work with other county departments.

For example, MccRory is currently working on updating the library Web site with an IT staffer who is interested in improving his Web development skills. The result will be an improved Web site for the library and important experience for the IT staffer. Collaborations such as these help attract the interest of the IT department and have lead to stronger, more mutually beneficial relationships with the library.

The degree of progress MccRory has achieved during her tenure at Yuba County Library is a testimony to her own dedication and perseverance. When MccRory first joined the library, she started going to meetings of the county’s Technology Review Committee. “I complained. I asked questions. It was sort of, ‘Oh, no, not Loren again.’” Disheartened, she stopped attending meetings, but things are looking up. MccRory has joined the committee as a member, a position she hopes will give her additional input and sway.

Persistence and Networking

MccRory is quick to admit that she didn’t come to her library with a wealth of technical knowledge, nor does she necessarily consider herself a techie. But she spends a lot of her time learning about technology, and she thinks she was able to get a seat on the committee because she’s “[at least] as knowledgeable as most of the other department heads.”

At the same time, MccRory doesn’t know if what worked for her would work for others. She recommends that if other library directors feel insecure about their technical skills, they may want to find someone else from within the library to represent them in these types of issues. “Lobby to get someone from [your] library, whoever knows the most, to go and represent the library’s point of view from an informed technical perspective.”

Her relentlessness didn’t hurt, either. MccRory feels that timing had a lot to do with getting her requests to the IT Department accepted, as well as repeating her message until it received attention. “You just have to say the same thing over and over and over again and finally maybe the fiftieth time you say it, a light goes on ... they’re finally ready to hear it.”

But perhaps the most effective use of her time was just getting to know the IT staff personally. MccRory used to go out to lunch with the library’s dedicated IT contact once a month. Building that relationship led to securing computers for the library from another department that was replacing their machines. “She’s the one who helped us get these computers that the county’s Health and Human Services was getting rid of, using some behind the scenes kind of networking on the library’s behalf. It was amazing how she made it happen.”

Supporting Those that Support the Library

MccRory knows that without a dedicated and earnest staff, everything she’s tried to do for the library wouldn’t be nearly as effective. To that end, she encourages her staff to take advantage of a wide range of learning opportunities. Yuba County offers a number of technology classes to employees, but they’re not always convenient for a perpetually short-staffed library. MccRory has found online courses to be an ideal substitute. She especially recommends and WebJunction. “It’s nice when you can learn at your convenience.”

None of this would have been possible four years ago. When MccRory first started, only one or two of the staff had their own computers. Now, all of the staff have computers to call their own. To continue to make her staff more comfortable with their computers, about once a month she holds a training day where staff can "play on the computers.” By incorporating Helene Blowers and the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County’s 23 Things (a series of Web exercises designed to help libraries use Web 2.0 services) into her staff’s training, the staff can explore on their own and at their own speed what’s new on the Internet that’s relevant for the library and their patrons.

Yet MccRory's work isn’t over. Not content to merely bring her library up to speed, she wants to keep riding the wave of new technology, instead of playing catch up. MccRory recently took a course on the virtual world of Second Life, which she was surprised that many members of her IT department hadn't heard of. “I knew something first for a change, which was kind of fun, and turned them on to it.” Since then, the California Library Association implemented Second Life as a learning medium for its mentoring program, and MccRory will be one of the first mentors.

MccRory believes libraries are a naturally interesting venue for IT departments, and the two have a lot in common. By convincing the right people of the similarities, you produce IT departments that are self-motivated to help libraries, and the result is a situation where everyone wins.