Crash and Learn

A Librarian Learns and Grows from Challenges
El Dorado, Arkansas
Mindy Farley

As Systems Administrator and Youth Services Coordinator of the Barton Public Library, Mindy Farley has run into the usual technical problems such as a freezing computer or a patron unable to open a document. But within the past three years, her library has experienced far more than its fair share of tough challenges and adversity. Mindy has faced every challenge with an optimistic attitude, and learned from each experience.

Fifty Years of Operation

Barton Public Library, which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary in October, is located in El Dorado, a city in southern Arkansas with a population of roughly 23,000 people. This main county library and its five branches serve close to 35,000 people from the city and surrounding rural towns.

Barton Public Library has twelve public access computers in its main library, six public access computers in its youth computer lab, and two computers in the small children’s area. As systems administrator, Mindy oversees the computers in the library and makes sure everything runs properly. She works together with the library director and the financial person, whom she describes as computer savvy, to discuss new technology initiatives. She also provides backup at the front counter as a circulation manager.

Hands-On Technology Training

Mindy does not have a degree, and says she has learned most of what she knows from hands-on training. She has learned a great deal about technology from watching and working with the library’s current and former consultants. For example, when she wanted to install a wireless print server, a consultant provided her with instructions over the phone, and Mindy used what she had learned to install the wireless print server on the youth computers.

Mindy also does research on the Internet, using websites such as WebJunction and MaintainIT. She explains, “There is always a little experimentation that goes on. I feel that if you don’t experiment and try certain things, you’re not going to know if it works or not. I feel like we do that a lot here. [We] just try things to see if it’s going to work and if it doesn’t, then we try something else.” Mindy has also learned from MaintainIT’s Cookbooks, which she describes “as a great resource.” She says, “I love it – you can get a lot of information just from flipping through [the book].”

Although Mindy’s many job responsibilities have made it difficult to find time for a technology plan, Mindy has used TechAtlas, which she describes as “an awesome tool” to help her with a plan. She says she found out about what she describes as “user-friendly” free software at a Maintain IT workshop. She has since used it for a variety of purposes, such as creating a budget, surveying her employees to determine their level of technological expertise, and creating a technology plan. Mindy was so enthusiastic about TechAtlas that she gave a presentation about the software at a state library conference in 2007.

A Server Crash and Other Calamities

Barton Public Library is still recovering from a calamity in 2005, when faulty electrical wiring caused a fire. The library was closed for a year because of smoke damage, and it now has new flooring, a new ceiling, new lighting, and new electrical work.

In the summer of 2008, a second disaster struck the library. A car slammed into a telephone pole in El Dorado, causing an enormous power outage in the area. The library’s server shut down, and the immediacy of it meant that many of the library’s records were lost. Soon after the disaster, books that staff had catalogued as far back as November 2007 did not show up in the system. Staff had to get a new server, which proved to be costly.

Library staff tried to work on the problem during operating hours, but found it difficult while helping patrons. So they discussed the issue with the library’s Board of Directors, who decided that the library would close for about a week in early fall of 2008 to ensure that the library’s entire collection of books was catalogued in the system. Mindy says that everyone would pitch in to help get the job done when they closed the library to the public.

Mindy and her staff have learned several lessons from the experience. The first is the importance of working with a responsive, reliable company. Mindy says of one consulting company, “it was like pulling teeth to get them to contact us or call us back” when they had serious problems. After the 2005 fire, Mindy had taken the backup tape out of the library each day in case of another disaster. But although a former consultant reassured her that they had proper backup, this did not turn out be the case. The library’s current consultant has since shown them how to effectively back up their records.

A Competent Computer Consultant

Prior to Mindy’s arrival, the library had a series of incompetent consultants and consulting companies. She says that these consultants took a lot of shortcuts, “threw stuff together,” and did not leave a paper trail for successors. When a former computer consulting company went under, she says, the library could not get any information from them. When the library needed technical assistance, they were often “put on the back burner” while the company tended to larger accounts.

A new computer consultant was identified by one of the library’s tech-savvy board members. Mindy describes him as “a godsend” who is available whenever she calls him or needs him, and who revamped everything by industry standards. He keeps information in a three-ring binder that can be shared with both staff and successors. He has used disk imaging tools and will use recently-purchased equipment that will enable him to fix computers remotely. This remote access repair work will save Mindy time she previously spent driving to the branch libraries each time that staff called her with problems.

The board also recently approved a print and computer management system suggested by the consultant. The library will have a kiosk where patrons can sign in and receive notifications as computers become available. Staff at the circulation counter can monitor patrons’ computer use, and computers will shut off automatically after a specified time limit. Staff plan to implement this new system after all the records are restored from the server crash.

Staff and Patron Training

The library has recently had some staff turnover, which has resulted in new people manning the front desk. Mindy found some courses on WebJunction for people with little to no experience with computers, and has scheduled that training to take place when the library is closed.

She has also had elderly patrons who are somewhat afraid of computers. She explains that some patrons “are just so afraid to touch the keyboard – they’re afraid they’ll do something wrong.” She says that she does not lose her patience with people about technology. Instead, she calmly reassures them that they “really can’t mess anything up.”

Success in the Midst of Challenges

Mindy is very proud of the library’s youth lab for grades five through twelve in the library’s young adult area, which opened in the spring of 2007. Soon after the lab opened, staff worked hard to encourage youth to come into the library. Staff had what Mindy describes as a “little giveaway program” in which youth could complete research projects in exchange for raffle tickets. Participants used the Internet to research information about authors, story lines and other topics. By the end of the summer, approximately 700 youths had participated in the program.

Staff keep adding more computers in the youth lab to support its homework club for teens, many of whom do not have computers at home. Like the adult patron computer area, the youth area has wireless Internet access. Both desktop computers and laptops are available so youth can choose to sit on the comfortable chairs instead of sitting at the table. The computers have K9, a free Internet filtering application. Staff post signs alerting patrons that the library has blocked sites such as YouTube and Facebook, and although Mindy says that teens may “grumble at first”, they know that they can gain access if their classes require it, and if they bring a signed form from their teachers.

Children and teens can watch movies on the computers in the lab, or attend the weekly movie night on Fridays. Movies are projected onto a large screen, and donated popcorn and soda are provided. The event has turned out to be quite successful, with as many as thirty to fifty attendees each week.

An Eye on the Budget

Mindy says that the library’s Board of Directors has been very understanding about technology expenditures “because they know that we’re having to spend more to get things fixed.”  The Board also understands the great need for technology in a rural area where few people can afford computers at home.

Mindy works hard to stay within budget and finds grants when she can. Barton Public Library has received grants from the Gates Foundation, which funded computer hardware and other technology-related expenses. However, she shares that it is difficult to supplement this funding, as many of the grants for public libraries cannot be used for technology.

Mindy also received donated licenses for Microsoft Word through TechSoup. She described the process as easy, adding, “It was great. It didn’t take any time at all. All I had to do was go online and fill out the paperwork. We had it within a matter of probably a week and a half. The Board was excited because I saved about $17,000 by doing that instead of having to purchase a copy for each computer.”

An Optimistic Future

In the future, Mindy says she would like the library to have a new set of computers. Although they try to replace them as funds become available, she explains, “The computers are getting pretty old. They are probably four to five years old and to me, that’s old.” Mindy would also like to continue her work on building the computer literacy of staff at the front desk. A third wish is to get the “kinks” worked out of her backup procedure.

Mindy has learned a great deal at the library, but feels she “is learning something every day.” When asked about her successes, she says, “I feel like I’m helping the library. I hope I am. I haven’t had any complaints yet!” She explains that the library is all about customer service and providing free resources to the public, and it seems it is doing just that, despite the major obstacles it has faced.