Operating on the Bleeding Edge

How a library benefits from forward-thinking
Pittsburg, PA
Eric Wolfe

In this case study, we discuss Edge Benchmark #9: Libraries have sufficient devices and bandwidth to accommodate user demand.

Eric Wolfe is the IT Manager of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (CLP) in Pennsylvania. CLP is a large urban library that services all of the city of Pittsburgh and is part of a larger consortium that encompasses the entire county of Allegheny. As the IT Manager, Eric manages four full-time employees who include assistant administrators, Sequel database administrators, and website administrators. The site has its own internal virtual LAN environment using VMware and approximately 30 virtual servers, all of which are managed in-house.

CLP is also a member of the eiNetwork, which is the global consortium of all libraries within Allegheny County. Eric serves on the eiNetwork’s Board of Directors; as a board member, he oversees the technology within the county and works closely with the eiNetwork technology folks to ensure that Carnegie Library’s needs are met.

CLP achieves all of Benchmark 9’s indicators. First, the library has a sufficient number of device hours available on a per capita basis. According to Eric, CLP has more public machines available for use than it does staff machines. And staff are continuing to increase the number of public use machines by supplementing the current desktop PCs with laptops. In about three or four of CLP’s branches, staff have begun offering these laptops to patrons for check out and use within the library.

Second, the library has sufficient bandwidth capacity to support user demand. All of the branch libraries have a bandwidth connection back to the central server that is least 100MB per second. The eiNetwork manages the network infrastructure for the entire county. They also have a brand new fiber network; they hired an external company to build fiber for a number of their sites. The sites on that new fiber network are guaranteed a minimum of 1GB of bandwidth back to the site. They have about eight hub sites that are connected through a 10GB connection, and the various sites that are currently connected come into one of those hub sites at a minimum of 1GB. Eric shares, "So far it’s working out very well."

Eric explained that CLP’s situation is a little different than most libraries because they had a preexisting contract with Comcast, which provided 100MB of dedicated connection back to the eiNetwork cell. Any of the Carnegie Library sites that were not part of that Comcast agreement have already been converted to the new fiber network. For those sites that are still under the Comcast contract until the middle of 2013, Eric is conducting site surveys with the vendor to move them over to the fiber. Therefore, by the middle of 2013, all of the Carnegie Library sites, and everyone within the county, will have a minimum of a 1GB connection to the eiNetwork’s core. Eric added, "I actually think that’s pretty unique to where we are. There are a lot of rural areas in Pennsylvania that probably are lucky if they can get a T1 line, and we’re kind of the opposite. We have as much bandwidth as we can pay for and we can get."

Third, the library assures adequate time for patrons to complete domain-related tasks in several ways. For example, Eric explains that the staff is "definitely able to extend sessions as needed for patrons" using EnvisionWare. CLP also lends devices with extended loan periods within the library through its pilot laptop-lending program. In addition, it designates certain public access terminals with extended session periods in various locations. Although the site has some machines that are used on a consistent basis and do not allow extended sessions if other patrons are waiting, there are branches with terminals that can be extended as needed.

Fourth, the library offers a variety of peripheral equipment to enable patron tasks. For example, it provides both wired and wireless printers, so patrons who connect to their public Wi-Fi have the ability to send documents to various printers within the network. Patrons also have access to scanners, most of which are part of a copier/scanner device that patrons pay to use. CLP also lends and sells headphones for personal use. Finally, CLP offers private areas to conduct meetings, interviews, telemedicine, or other activities for which privacy would enable the patron to find information or conduct business or personal tasks. Each of the branches has a separate private meeting room that can be used by a patron (unless it is currently in use for other library business), and patrons can check out various presentation equipment, such as projectors and microphones. CLP does not currently offer video conferencing equipment for its patrons and although staff may look into it in the future, they have no plans to do so at this time.

What was the key to your success?

Eric attributes the bulk of CLP’s success to the approach and mindset of its senior management. He explains, "Frankly, senior management is very forward-thinking. They recognize that technology is continuing to evolve and they are willing to invest not only the dollars, but also the internal resources to do the training. I think that’s where we really excel." Another key to the site’s success is its staff. Eric notes, "Obviously, the staff has to be able to use the technology and convey it and be able to explain it to patrons as they come in and ask questions."

What did you learn during this process?

In terms of lessons learned, Eric shared that CLP is "not cutting edge but bleeding edge." In other words, they often adopt technology that is so new that staff assume a greater risk of unreliability. He adds, "I think that we’ve learned that we are serving our customer base and continuing to make strides to make sure that their needs are being appreciated and met. That’s probably the biggest thing." He shared that although it can sometimes be frustrating to be on the bleeding edge, it’s ultimately a good thing for their site. He explains, "In our environment, especially within the city of Pittsburgh, there is an expectation for all of the organizations to be on target with technology. They must understand where it’s going and make sure that they are taking strides to continue moving forward within the technology realm. I think we do a really good job of that."

Where did you run into trouble?

CLP has faced some challenges along the way. For example, because they are part of both a larger consortium and the EI Network, they have to ensure that any technology they implement is within the consortium’s parameters and compatible with the eiNetwork’s current systems. They don’t often have the flexibility of a smaller site, rather, there are "sometimes multiple steps and layers to go through in order to implement a new technology." He adds, "We don’t necessarily have the ability to say, 'We’re going to implement this technology and that’s all there is to it.' Sometimes it takes us a little longer to implement something than I think it should."

What advice would you give to a colleague?

Open-mindedness is critical. As Eric advises,

I know this sounds cliché, but you really need to look outside of the box."

Second, library staff need to understand their customers’ needs. He added that any new technology"needs to be something that your customers are going to use or your customers are going to want. If your customers have no interest in using self-check machines, there’s no reason to put those self-check machines out there. You really need to understand your customer and recognize the needs of the community."

What 3 steps should a colleague take to get started?

First and foremost, Eric advised that senior management must be on board. According to Eric, "that’s a really big thing because you can have the greatest ideas in the world, but if senior management is not on board, it’s not going to happen." Another step is to determine whether a site’s resources match the technological needs of its patrons. Step number three is to research available technology – and to learn from and collaborate with others. He adds that CLP learns not only from different libraries, but also from nearby universities. He adds, "We work directly with a number of universities around here to help us implement new technologies that they’re already using and ask them, 'How can we use your technology to benefit us?'"

by Jennifer Anthony