Decentralizing the Knowledge Base

How Suwannee Library System’s decision to share technical know-how resulted in more than just less time behind the wheel
Live Oak, FL
Sherry Millington

(Sherry Millington and Sarah Washburn)

When you're one of two staff members in charge of fulfilling the technical needs of eight libraries spread across three rural counties, you can lose a lot of time simply driving between branches—unless you've got a plan like Sherry Millington's.

Millington is the technical services coordinator for the Suwannee Library System, a regional collaborative near North Florida's scenic Suwannee River. The system's main library and seven corresponding branches are responsible for serving 70,000 people, spread over 1927 square miles, in Suwannee, Hamilton, and Madison counties.

Though the libraries offer 80 public access computers, with different configurations for adults and children, many of the branches are small and have a limited number of staff members who can maintain the systems. With the exception of the main library, none have full-time technical staff.

A lot of these libraries that are very small may only have a few staff members and so they’re pretty much jack-of-all-trades in a library," explains Millington.

Initially, when Millington received a call from one of the branches requesting assistance with connecting to the Internet, repairing a faulty CD drive, or working with the library automation system, she and her colleague Amber Waters found themselves hopping in the car and heading out to the library. With some libraries as far as 40 miles away from the main branch, the two often felt like they were wasting valuable time on the road—time better spent supporting the libraries.

Millington set about implementing a plan that would empower each of the libraries to resolve more of their own technical issues. The plan would not only increase the amount of time the two were available in the office, but would also free up the time they spent on small tasks, allowing them to focus on the more difficult technology issues.

To get started, Millington identified a staff member at a library in each of the three counties who seemed to have a particular aptitude for technology. "And we made part of their duties as being what we called a 'county techie,'" she explained. The selected staff members attended trainings offered by the larger library collective in which the Suwannee Library System participates. The trainings focused on software and hardware troubleshooting skills, stopping just short of major hardware upgrades.

Next, Millington found a staff member in each individual library who showed an inclination toward working with technology. In some cases, this was even the branch manager. This person became the first point of contact when his or her library ran into a technical issue.

In this way, the libraries had a tiered triage system in place that allowed the libraries to administer their own systems but also provided them support when needed.

"The way the system is set up is: when they encounter a problem in a library, they immediately contact their own person who’s usually a circulation person anyway; and they look at the problem," said Millington. "If it’s something they can deal with, they do. If not... unless it’s a down system, they call their county person as their next point of contact, and then that person works with them. And if (that person has) an issue, then they call us."

Millington also looks for ways to automate as many functions as possible in order to ease the workload of staff at each branch. For instance, to protect the computers in the library system, she uses McAfee VirusScan ASaP antivirus software, which can be installed and updated over the Internet.

For Millington, the result of having the plan in place is clear: fewer hours spent behind the wheel, and a more smoothly functioning library system overall.

"Over the years, as people have become more familiar with the machines and just the use of computers and software; we’ve been called on less and less to have to do things," she said. "Just having that in place has really saved a lot of time driving, and if somebody’s CD player or floppy drive goes bad, we don’t have to make a trip 20 or 30 miles away to replace it. We know that the county person can do that and sometimes even the person in the library can do that if they’ve been doing it for quite awhile. And we’ll just ship one off to them and let them take care of it."