That Darned Fax Machine

How a can-do attitude and perseverance helped Calhoun County Public Library take full advantage of the opportunities presented to implement technology
Blountsville, FL
Rita Maupin

Calhoun County, located in northwestern Florida in one of the state’s five poorest counties, isn't home to any IT companies, nor does the county government have a system in place to help its agencies with their technology needs. Yet armed with a determined attitude, a willingness to experiment, and a few knowledgeable volunteers, the Calhoun County Public Library (CCPL) staff has been able to successfully set up and maintain computer labs at all five of its branches, and help other rural county libraries solve some of their staffing and technology problems as well.

Library Director Rita Maupin recalls that one of the library's first experiences in dealing with technology concerned a fax machine, which the library received as a donation in 1991. Since the library's staff had virtually no technology education or experience, the fax machine sat unused for about a year. At last, the staff decided to give the unfamiliar machine a try, marking the beginning of a new era.

We finally decided we’d use that darned fax machine," remembers Maupin. "From there, we just said, 'Oh what the heck!' and forward we went." This experience prepared CCPL for the technology challenges ahead.

A grant of 15 workstations, one server, five network printers, five 24-port hubs, software, and manuals from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in March 2000 pushed CCPL into the 21st century.

With the help of Gates Foundation staff, CCPL approached the task of setting up a computer lab with the same tenacity it used when getting its first fax machine up and running. "We just jumped in," said Maupin, "all [of us] completely computer illiterate. We just determined to do it."

According to Maupin, volunteers played a key role in getting CCPL's computer lab off the ground. Though the library had a grant from Volunteers In Service To America (VISTA) that helped it locate volunteers, the grant didn't contain provisions for finding volunteers with technology experience. After Maupin rewrote the VISTA grant to include a section about computer literacy development in rural communities, she was able to recruit volunteers who had the necessary technology skills.

Though the two volunteers CCPL hired were from different generations —one was a recently retired medical doctor named Dr. Elga White, while the other was a 14-year-old high school student named Adam Harpool who was working towards a Bright Futures scholarship — both shared a keen interest in working with technology. Maupin recalls that this two-person volunteer team participated in trainings provided by the Gates Foundation, set up the computer network infrastructure, and developed training materials to help patrons learn how to use the machines.

Dr. White, who couldn’t get down on the floor, would tell Adam, who could, how to do the wiring, and they wired five library buildings with CAT5 [cables] and networked the computers," said Maupin. "Then Dr. White developed courses on teaching the public using a lot of the Gates manuals, and Adam took them and adapted them for use by teenagers."

CCPL found yet another tech-savvy volunteer when Karen Bryant walked through the door in January, 2000. A newcomer to the area, Bryant not only had a two-year degree in computer programming, but also an enthusiastic can-do attitude.

"She was a real live wire," said Maupin, "and she came in and she said, 'I’m here to help you all.' CCPL found Bryant's services so invaluable it hired her full-time as soon as possible; Bryant now handles all technical services at the county's five branches.

Despite having a degree in computer programming, Bryant was forced to learn quite a bit on the job — just like Maupin and the rest of CCPL's staffers. "[The work] is nothing like what I had in school," Bryant said. "I've learned it as I went."

According to Bryant, discussion boards such as Google Groups and WebJunction have played a crucial role in helping her solve problems. "People just come up on the forums, talking about the same things you’re going through," Bryant said, "and you’ll see how they solved it, and then you’ll try it. And if you’ve had an error, somebody else has had [that same] error, and it’s really convenient." Maupin added, “One of the great eye-openers for me is how willing tech people are to share their expertise— it is like a great network of cyber-missionaries out to change the world.”

With Bryant's help, CCLP has been able to switch from Deep Freeze — a program that can immediately restore a computer to a previous state by undoing any changes — to Centurion Guard, a similar application, but one that better suits the library's needs. Bryant points out that while she had to manage Deep Freeze on each individual computer in the library, Centurion Guard has helped her streamline the process of maintaining the public computers.

"I can run [Centurion Guard] straight from the server," Bryant said. "It’s got a console on it that brings up every computer in the whole library."

CCLP has come a long way since the days when it was intimidated by a fax machine; the library now has a total of 53 public computers in its five branches' labs. Maupin believes that, in addition to help from savvy volunteers like Bryant, the library staff's tenacity and willingness to experiment with unfamiliar technologies have helped it get to where it is today.

"We looked at [the fax machine] and we thought we couldn’t use it, and you can see what we’re doing now," Maupin said.