Planning Makes Perfect

How a library IT Manager supports her system’s computers today, while keeping an eye on the future
Burlington, KY
Michelle Foster

In the northernmost part of Kentucky, Boone County Public Library is a relative newcomer to the 210-year-old county. It was only 35 years ago when the library was imagined, and has been a part of Boone County for 32 years. Since then, the library has wasted little time in catching up: today there are five branches meeting the needs of over 100,000 people. Boone County's rapid growth (it’s been among the top 50 fastest-growing counties in the United States) and prosperity have given the library the added benefit of an unusually generous budget.

Overseeing the technology side of the library and its branches for the past five years is IT manager Michelle Foster. Eleven years ago, Foster began working at Boone County Public Library as a librarian; three years later, she moved into the IT department. Foster’s dual background makes her especially well-suited for her role: “I started off as a librarian and then I became an IT person, and then I got certifications [A+ and MCSE], but I was a librarian first,” she said. “I know that I’m kind of a rarity. Almost nobody has an IT manager in the library.” Yet even with her broad expertise, she doesn't do it alone: supporting her is an assistant, a Webmaster, and two others on staff who devote half their time to supporting the IT needs of the library. The team has been instrumental in helping the library plan its technology expansion.

A Plan — and a Backup Plan

Three years ago, Foster, a consultant, her team, and the community crafted a technology plan for her library. The library director hired a consultant who was an expert in library planning, and together they invited the community of Boone County to come in and make their own suggestions regarding what technology services the library should provide, a move typical of the library's inclusive approach. “One of the things that the public said they wanted was the library to be like a community meeting center. We started talking about, 'Maybe we need to renovate some of our older meeting rooms so that they’re more user-friendly, and maybe we need to drop in some extra data jacks, stuff like that.' That’s where it started.” With the input she received from the community and the consultant, Foster and her staff came up with a five-year plan for the library’s technology goals.

But Foster doesn’t let the plans go on autopilot once they’ve been approved. Every year, she and her staff update the plan with activities that support the library's current technology goals. To Foster, technology plans are active documents that need regular attention to stay relevant. Foster has seen other technology plans that don’t relate to anything a library is doing, or ones where someone “spent all this time doing the plan and it ends up lining your drawer and you don’t ever look at it.”

Because the new technology services of the library have proven successful under Foster's leadership, she’s demonstrated she can be trusted to do what’s in the library’s best interest. As a result, she is given considerable free reign to implement her plans. Yet even when others are hesitant to back her ideas, Foster perseveres to make her case. When she wanted a telephone notification server to call patrons rather than mailing notices, “I kept trying to say, 'This will save us so much money!' and people were like, ‘We don’t understand why.’”

Undeterred, she calculated the weekly savings the new server would bring, then presented the data in an easy-to-read chart. By explaining how the system would pay for itself in three years and last for at least five, Foster proved her ability to project long-term value for the library and was given permission to buy the server. “I always joke because my father was an accountant, so I’m always big on ‘Show me the numbers.’ It’s in my blood. It’s natural.”

Mindful Spending

From outsourcing to Web analytics, Foster puts the library's money where she knows it will best be spent, describing herself as "a big return-on-investment girl.” Sometimes it’s an easy choice, like when she sends out a few repairs for a flat fee because it’s more cost-effective than using an in-house tech on an hourly wage. Other times, she knows that spending a couple of dollars more in key ways mean better returns down the road.

Foster maintains close relationships with a few select vendors in order to get the most for her money, even when another vendor might occasionally be cheaper. Free upgrades in the form of warranties, services, and parts more than make up for potential savings she might gain by going with whoever happens to be cheapest at the moment. “You have to look at it from [a vendor's] perspective. They’re trying to make money, so if you throw 1,000 bucks here and 1,000 bucks here ...if you give it all to the same person, your account gets big enough that they care about you.”

Preventative Measures

Getting all of her computers in place and with functional hardware is difficult enough, but maintaining the library’s 225 computers demands a strategy that can keep them up and running with as little intervention as possible. When computers go down, Foster relies heavily on a process known as disk imaging, whereby a copy is made of a standard computer’s hard drive and can be copied onto the hard drives of other computers that have the same components, thus standardizing the computers and making most maintenance more efficient.

Foster has several master images which can be applied to the library’s eight standard configurations. If a computer can’t be fixed with a reboot or by relaying instructions over a phone, she doesn’t hesitate to wipe the computer clean. “We image everything, so if a desktop is down, we just image it and it’s done in six minutes,” she said. The ability to fix software-related issues quickly means that the library's computers stay in use more often, resulting in less down time and happier patrons.

To further increase preparedness, Foster keeps two testing labs to train the staff. “I always say ‘Test it a lot before you put it out, because that’ll save you so much time in the long run.'” She also has two Integrated Library System (ILS) servers, one for production, and another for training. The training ILS server gets new versions of the software to be tested, while the staff runs the client versions to find any bugs. Generally the turnaround time is one month between when the testing environment for the new version of the ILS software is set up until it’s deemed ready to go. “To me, when you run it in the lab and when you run it on a training server, you’re kind of simulating the environment anyway. We like to simulate environments as much as we can before we deploy.”

Whether she’s updating the library's Web site or introducing a self-checkout system, Foster’s ability to combine her library and IT skills, accounting know-how, and collaborative approach have helped create a tech-savvy library that is responsive to both the current — and future — needs of her community.