Serving up Better Service using Technology

Ogdensburg, NY
Wayne Miller

As a young cook working in kitchens and resorts throughout the East Coast, Wayne Miller made it a point to satisfy his customers. Miller eventually left the food industry to embark on what would become a 30-plus-year career in libraries, but he still aims to deliver a satisfying experience to patrons as Executive Director of the Ogdensburg Public Library in Ogdensburg, New York.

I have a very strong the customer service ethic, and so that's why I'm in librarianship," said Miller, who joined Ogdensburg three years ago. "I like cooking because putting a plate of food in front of someone who enjoys eating it is the same kind of satisfaction."

Ogdensburg is the central library in a 4-county, 65-library system. The municipal library serves a city of 11,000 and the surrounding area. In 2011 it received 45,000 visits and loaned 62,000 items. Miller recently completed a few initiatives to both improve the library and increase library visits by expanding library services to include more technology-related activities of interest to patrons.

Sorting Through the Stacks

This year, Miller started a real-time inventory weeding project in the library's stacks to ensure that patrons can find the items they're looking for. According to Miller, it had been more than 20 years since the last inventory of the collection. "When I was in school libraries we did a complete inventory every year," Miller said. "That's been a much more challenging standard for public libraries in general."

The library initially tried using a handheld wireless device for the project. But the device's cumbersome interface, less than useful reports, and spotty WiFi in the stacks due to the building's design led him to find another solution. After requesting a notebook computer running Windows 7 through TechSoup, Miller installed SirsiDynix Symphony ILS software on the machine. The library then enlisted the aid of two volunteers to start on the project.

The volunteers remove each book from the shelf, pull up the record on the laptop – making corrections to the record if needed – and check whether the each item has circulated in the past five years. If it hasn't, it goes onto a book truck for a librarian to make a decision about retaining or discarding. Materials that are damaged or in need of repair or replacement are also set aside.

Each item is checked as inventoried after the process, which is already well under way at Ogdensburg – Miller said they recently finished the mysteries and are moving on to science fiction. The library wired the stacks with several Ethernet jacks so the volunteers wouldn't have to worry about maintaining WiFi or the ILS connection timing out during the cataloging process.

For Miller, having up-to-date records is crucial to serving library patrons and ensuring they'll return to the library. "There's nothing worse than a customer looking up, identifying an item in a catalog that they desire, going to the shelf, and it's not there," said Miller.

Not Just "Smelly Old Books"

Maintaining interest in reading among teens has been one of Miller's chief concerns at the library. To that end, Miller recently started a video game night, after learning about the success of these initiatives in sparking interest for other library services as well as the ALA's support of them.

We want them to become comfortable with the library -- identify with the library as their library, as an agency that is here to serve them," said Miller.

At his request, Ogdensburg's Friends of the library organization raised money to purchase a television and an Xbox 360 video game console for the library's game night. To promote the event, the library created a dedicated Teen Programming Facebook page.

The library has been holding weekly video game nights in the evenings for an hour -- and, of course, serving food to participants as well. The events have been well-received, creating interest in the library among younger visitors who might not have given it much thought otherwise. "Get them to know that the library isn't just a bunch of smelly old books," Miller told us. "There are people here who are not going to constantly tell them to be quiet. It's about having fun."

Keeping Up with Upgrades

With software as ubiquitous as Microsoft's Office suite, Miller knows it's important to keep that software up-to-date for members of the public. For job-seekers in particular, having access to the most recent version of the software is key. "They may just come in to type up a letter or a resume, but if they're doing that on Word 2010, they're developing a marketable job skill," Miller says.

The library has acquired both Office 2007 and Office 2010 through TechSoup. Offering both allows patrons to choose which version they're more familiar with, but also allows them to learn the new version if they wish.

The world out there is not converting all at once, Miller said. "If somebody uses Word 2007 this time and 2010 next time, they will get some facility with both and some understanding of the differences."

Bringing the Library to Them

Every year, the Ogdensburg Boys & Girls Club holds a popular expo--Miller describes it as the equivalent of a county fair--with exhibits, concessions, games, and entertainment. For the past three years the Ogdensburg Public Library has set up at the expo to promote its services. But this year, Miller used some newly-acquired technology to drive library participation even further.

With a refurbished WiFi-enabled laptop and SirsiDynix Symphony ILS software, Miller set up a mobile branch library for sign-ups at the expo. A utility installed on the laptop allowed staffers at the event to remotely access the ILS and register new members.

"All ages/classes are there," Miller said. "So it was a really good opportunity for us to register new library cardholders, and give people a good idea what the library does in a remote situation."

Miller got several new sign-ups at the event, and drummed up interest in the library and literacy with a free raffle where winners received a book of their choice. Nearly 400 expo attendees came by the library's booth to sign up. The library also gave away more than 350 books that they had left over from their most recent annual book sale. "It was all-in-all a very positive experience for library staff and our volunteers who were running the booth, and I think for the hundreds and hundreds of people who stopped at our booth," Miller told us.

Tracking the Past

Ogdensburg is a unique library in that its vault serves as the community's museum and archive. The library has archival materials – both manuscripts and objects like cannonballs from the War of 1812 – date as far back as the 1750s.

It's obvious that history is one of Miller's passions. He shared a story about the historical mission La Gallette, which existed where Ogdensburg now stands and was possibly the largest community of Native Americans on the continent at one time.

Miller wanted to inventory the collection to maintain its integrity and make it more accessible to the public. To start the project, the library acquired a desktop computer running Windows XP through TechSoup. Miller installed PastPerfect collection management software, which is designed for museums, on the machine to perform the task. The new machine replaces an aging laptop that was only deployed in the vault periodically. "Now having the XP box that we got from TechSoup gives us more computing power enough to handle PastPerfect and do other tasks, and it creates a more permanent presence, a more substantial infrastructure to support our archives and archival users," Miller told us.

The software allows the user to add museum-type descriptions and photos of archival materials. Miller hopes to make the items available for viewing online, which is part of the software's functionality.

"This is allowing us to make the next big step in organizing, protecting, and making available those unique materials that are of importance to our community and beyond," Miller told us.

Shifting with the Times

Miller knows that keeping up with developing technologies and services is crucial for libraries to stay relevant. Though Miller said his staff isn't necessarily tech-savvy – he described them as "digital immigrants" – he knows that getting the librarians comfortable enough with new technologies to provide them to patrons will be worth the challenge.

Ogdensburg's success using mobile technologies at the Boys & Girls Club expo has raised Miller's interest in other mobile applications. SirsiDynix offers a mobile app called PocketCirc for staff to use circulation and inventory functions as well an iPhone app called BookMyne that allows patrons to access the catalog, place holds, and perform other functions.

Miller is also considering incorporating tablets and eBooks into the library's public computing resources instead of more desktops, since those devices are becoming increasingly popular and useful.

Those kinds of nontraditional, non-book related services are obviously key to maintain the relevance of libraries and literacy for a generation that will be our taxpayers in another 10 years," Miler told us.

As technology evolves, libraries like Miller's have a great opportunity to both educate and draw in new patrons by embracing new technology and providing programs that support it.