Public Access through Planning

Up-to-date technology, a dedicated staff, and community support help one library offer quality public access technology to its patrons
Lamar County, Mississippi
Jeanne Williams

Careful technology planning, committed supporters, and a dedicated staff are all key to the Lamar County Library System’s success in achieving Edge Benchmark 7. TechSoup for Libraries talks to one librarian about strategies for encouraging public access technology. 

As Library Director of Lamar County Library System, Jeanne Williams’ duties include administering policy and procedures: working with human resources, handling budgetary and financial issues, analyzing the library system’s statistics, and meeting with the site’s head of tech services on technology issues. But Williams also spends time in the branches as a “floater” at a public desk, pitching in when one of the library’s 18 staff members calls in sick or when things are especially busy. "I don’t just work in an office and never see what happens on the front line,” she said. “I work Saturdays. I rotate at the four branches. Some directorships never work the front line, and I’ve worked for directors who didn’t even know how to check out books. That’s not how it works here.”

Edge Benchmark 7 states, "Libraries integrate public access technology into planning and policies." Her library does this through a mixture of up-to-date technology, strong support, and staff training. This includes:

1. A hardware replacement plan with a three- to five-year refresh cycle. In order to be eligible for the federal E-Rate telecommunications discount program, the library had to have a technology plan in place. Up until a few years ago, the Lamar County Library couldn’t afford this replacement schedule, but now, if a computer is three years old, staff will continue to use the machine only if it is still operating reasonably well. (Some older, functioning computers, for example, are used in the back room for such tasks as completing timesheets.) However, public use computers are replaced after five years. “At that point, they usually need to be pulled out anyway,” said Williams, adding that older computers may present various issues, like hard drive and power supply malfunctions, or lack sufficient memory to handle software upgrades.

Whenever the library pulls a piece of public equipment out of circulation, it always replaces it — a library priority, Williams notes. “We’re lucky that our primary funder, the Lamar County Board of Supervisors, understands that we have to have the money to do these types of upgrades,” she said. About three years ago, the County hired a consulting agency to completely revamp Lamar County's technology and network. Due to Williams' relationship with the County, they understood the importance of keeping the library's network and technology at an optimal level of performance,  like they do for the County network.

2. A software upgrade plan with a three- to five-year refresh cycle and network security policies for timely application of updates and patches. Williams says that the library upgrades its ILS whenever new releases become available. For example, its public access and staff computers are set up with Deep Freeze on a rotating schedule. Every night, a different set of computers “thaw” and run their updates, including virus protection. Patches are done on a continuous basis; however, because of the site’s slow connectivity, the library cannot thaw all of its 30 of their computers at once.

The library updates the public computers centrally. Once Deep Freeze is completed, the server program pushes the updates. Lamar County Library generally upgrades Microsoft Office when patrons and staff face compatibility issues that prevent them from opening and using documents. For example, the library upgraded from Microsoft 2003 to 2007 several years after it was released when students using the public access computers were unable to open and use their files. “Now we’re looking at the next Microsoft Office upgrade to Office 2010, but that move is dependent on compatibility issues.”

3. Patron privacy policies for retention of online information and handling of sensitive information. Deep Freeze resets each public access computer so that personal information and passwords are deleted from the hard drives. The Library also uses Comprise Technologies’ Smart Access Manager, which manages how patrons log in and out and deletes personal information. “Together, Deep Freeze and SAM basically keep our computers wiped free of any previous information entered by a patron, such as passwords,” said Williams. If a patron needs to step away from the computer for a few moments, he or she can “lock” a terminal so that other patrons cannot log in. If patrons leave the computer without logging out, they will be timed out once the terminal is idle for five minutes or more.

What was the key to your success?

"Skilled staff," says Williams. While the official title of the library's head of Tech Services is Cataloguer, Williams says, in terms of actual work, he is “very close to being an IT professional.” While the library relies on a network engineer consultant for more complicated issues, Williams says that having someone on staff who understands the technology issues and functionality is critical.

The library’s small size is another key to its success, she adds. “As a small library system with pretty adequate funding, we were able to try different things,” said Williams. “And if they didn’t work, we were able to not to do them anymore. Sometimes with big library systems, you have to have 15 people sign off on something before you do it. And if it doesn’t work, you’re stuck with it.”  While most of the technology the staff has chosen has worked, Williams says, when they have tried something that didn’t work or meet expectations, they weren’t afraid to admit that and try something else.

The library also has a very supportive board, composed mainly of retired women. “They don’t use computers the way some of us still in the workforce use them, but they do understand how much the world does run on computers,” said Williams. “They understand how important digital literacy is in the job force. Even if they don’t always understand the technology, they understand how important keeping technology up-to-date and functional is to the library’s operations.”

What did you learn during this process?

Library staff have learned the importance of investing in key resources and technology, says Williams, naming Deep Freeze as an example. While the initial investment can be substantial, especially for a smaller library system, the software enables computers to function for a longer time, which in turn, saves a considerable amount of money and staff time.

The library has also set up a policy for computers that experience problems before they are officially scheduled for replacement, Williams says. Staff use reimaging software for these computers, allowing machines to be wiped clean and reformatted, which takes a lot less time than rebuilding the terminals. “We learned really quickly that we want to buy all of the same model computers to the extent possible, because that image is specific to the model,” said Williams. “We try to have all the computers on the same platform.”

What would you have done differently?

Although Williams stresses that she has been very satisfied with her staff, the library has had mixed results with consultants. A few consultants the library has hired didn’t fit its needs. “I think I put up with more than I should have,” she said. “Then we finally got to a point where I was not afraid to call and say, ‘This guy’s not working out. We need somebody else.’” In retrospect, Williams says she would have been more vocal earlier on in the process when a consulting firm wasn’t doing what was needed in a timely manner or was failing to share the details and status of their work. “We don’t have to always just be nice to everybody,” she said. “If we’re ‘spending a lot of money, it should be done the way that we need it to be done, if that way is possible.”

What advice would you give to a colleague?

1. Develop a good relationship with the county administrator, county manager, or the person who serves as the liaison between your county departments and the board of supervisors. “Having a good relationship with our county administrators has really helped us,” said Williams. “If you don’t have a good relationship with the person who has to speak for you about the importance of technology, you’re not going to get very far.” In the Lamar County Library’s case, the county administrator was instrumental in helping upgrade the library’s networks and get its technology up to speed. "It is critical to develop solid relationships with your funding authority so you feel confident stressing the importance of technology funding with them."

2. Install management tools such as Deep Freeze or Smart Access Manager (SAM) (or a combination) onto computers. Such software will ultimately save time and money and protect terminals from viruses.

What steps should a colleague take to get started?

1. If your library has the resources, install management tools on library computers to enable them to operate longer. “These are tools you could order tomorrow and get installed very quickly,” Williams said.

2. Create a technology plan. Begin by reading other libraries’ technology plans, suggests Williams. “I know we all have to have a technology plan for E-Rate, but some of them are really just words on paper that no one ever refers to again until they have to write the next one in three years,” she said, underscoring the importance of  spending time to plan to make it a workable document. “It’s kind of like a strategic plan that nobody ever looks at [once it’s completed]. Sit down and actually pare it down to something that really is attainable.”

3. Assess each staff member’s strengths and weaknesses in regards to technology. “Work on moving your staff into the direction where they’re all tech-savvy enough to handle basic issues,” she said. Your individual staff evaluations can inform what workshops and trainings you select to increase their comfort levels and improve their skills. The process will also ensure that your library will have at least one staff member with a high level of IT experience and knowledge.