An IT Person in the House

How one library system turned accidental techies into in-house experts
Bemidji, MN
Paul Ericcson

The Bemidji Public Library, located only a few blocks away from scenic Lake Bemidji in Northern Minnesota (and near the statue of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox), is the kind of library that checks out puzzles, fishing rods, and life jackets in addition to lending books and hosting lectures. While not all of the library's offerings may be high-tech, the Kitchigami Region’s grassroots approach to tech support has helped ensure that the library's public and staff computers stay up-to-date and running smoothly.

The Best Kind of "Brat"

The Bemidji Public Library is one of the nine branches and a mobile library (bookmobile) serving five counties in Minnesota's Kitchigami Regional Library System. Before Branch Manager Paul Ericsson joined the library in 2007, the system had addressed the problem of trying to support public computers in 10 service points spread over five counties with only one central IT department to support them all.

The Kitchi Region’s solution was to identify a Branch Area Tech person (or "BRAT") at every location. This is frequently a branch manager or a senior staff who serves as a technology liaison between the overworked, central IT department and the rest of the branch libraries. BRATs are classic accidental techies, in that, as Ericsson explains, “they’re regular library staff [who] just kind of bubbled up to the top of the group as a person that's most interested and most adept at technology.”

The BRATs communicate regularly with the central IT department, in addition to attending several IT trainings a year. As a result, BRATs take on many tasks that would otherwise have to be done by IT staff, like resetting network devices or scheduled software updates.

“You wouldn't necessarily want to have all the branch staff getting their hands on those pieces of equipment, so it puts a healthy formality around who is going to be working physically with network equipment," Ericsson said, explaining that this system also allows updates to be done in a more timely fashion. "Some of it makes sense for it to all be done at the same time on the same day for coordination. So in that regard, they [central IT staff] need assistance out at the branch level.”

Yet this system has the added benefit of increasing the computer literacy of others at the library as well. “It's also, I think, more of a 'train the trainer' kind of model," Ericsson said. "The [BRAT] takes on some responsibility and feels empowered to train staff at their local branch. We've got tech people in the building that are taking responsibility and there truly is collaboration, [and] we end up with a good balance.”

Clear Communication

Having the BRATs on site gives the staff and users the added comfort of knowing they have a physical point of contact when problems arise. One way the library helps maximize this in-house resource is by encouraging clear communication when describing technology issues, a critical point when many users are new to technology.

“How many times [have I] heard ‘the system is down!’ when what happened was the on/off switch on the monitor got pressed?" asked Ericsson. He believes that asking staff or users to describe the symptoms of their computer problems –- rather than drawing their own conclusions --allows the BRATS to better determine the issue at hand. Because communication can break down when techies and users use different terms to describe events, Ericsson encourages the BRATS try to be as consistent as possible when using technical terminology.

BRATS also strive to avoid finger-pointing when diagnosing and resolving problems. “I think there's nothing that will more quickly shut down an end user than if they start feeling that they're being held accountable for something [because] they picked up the phone and called somebody for help," Ericsson said. “And then for the technology person to start saying, ‘This was done wrong and that was done wrong,’ well, boy, forget it, all communication is gone at that point.”

An Everyday Asset

As a liaison between the IT department and the branches, BRATs serve an important role in streamlining the support process, one that proves useful on a daily basis. Ericsson described a recent “daily printer headache,” for example, that demonstrated the utility of having a local technology person, rather than relying on someone from the IT department to come out to the branch. “A printer wasn't quite behaving properly and [the] technology person was able to work through it, Ericsson said. “[Having the BRAT on site] makes most efficient use of the central site because [the IT department] are higher-level network-trained people.”

Ericsson clearly appreciates the spirit of cooperation that exists between the BRATs and the IT department, describing it as a win-win situation for all involved. “We've got tech people in the building that are taking responsibility and there truly is collaboration," he said.