Two years ago TechSoup spoke with Michelle Foster, IT manager of Boone County Public Library system in northern Kentucky. Foster, who's worked in Boone County's libraries since 1997 and in the IT department since 2000, kindly shared some advice on crafting a technology plan and maintaining library computers.
Boone County, ranked 67 on the Census Bureau's list of the fastest-growing counties in the U.S., now has a population of about 118,000, and the county's public libraries have seen increased circulation each year. We followed up with Foster, whose department now oversees a total of 259 computers (149 public), to find out what she'd been up to since we last spoke, and to learn how she'd been dealing with problems that can accompany increased circulation.
With Foster at the helm, Boone County Public Library's IT department has implemented a myriad of new technologies during the past two years. Like any new tech, most of these systems required a bit of cash, though Foster — who describes herself as big on ROI, or return-on-investment — says these purchases will prevent problems down the road. But some issues, such as bandwidth management, are a constant battle.
I hate bandwidth'
Some librarians will identify with Foster's palpable frustration with her library system's data resources. "I hate bandwidth. I just hate it," she told us. "It doesn't matter how much you buy — people always could use more." Foster said bandwidth management remains her biggest challenge as an IT manager. She said that most of her branches have 1.5 to 3 Mbps connections to the main branch, which worked well for some time, but is no longer enough to support the library's growing data demands.
While she couldn't offer a definite solution to the bandwidth problem ("It doesn't matter how much you have. It's never enough."), Foster told us she'd taken measures to plan for this restricted bandwidth. When it came time to invest in a wireless access system, her department chose to implement one that throttles bandwidth while providing reliable wireless access features for patrons. Boone County uses the Wireless Access Manager product from Polaris Library Systems, and Foster says the company will sell and install the device for libraries whether or not they use Polaris's ILS.
The installation included a Wireless Access Manager for each branch (specifically, a ValuePoint Network Controller 3500), and several access points throughout the branches. Boone County offers wireless access at all but one of its branches, as its oldest branch didn't have room for any new wiring. Foster says the wireless access is fairly popular, with the main branch getting between 700 and 900 wireless logins per month.
Other measures Foster's IT department took in preparing for increased bandwidth needs involved buying networking equipment that could be expanded in the future, such as switches and routers that are compatible with Gigabit Ethernet. But even libraries that can afford to purchase more bandwidth outright need to take care in maintaining a healthy network, Foster says.
If we could all have Gigabit Ethernet everywhere, we'd be happy with that for about 10 minutes, and then we'd want more," she told us. "It's how you leverage what you have to the greatest effect."
Locking down media
Greater circulation and library traffic both increase the risk of library materials being stolen, and AV materials remain an especially popular target for theft. At one point, the Boone County library's main branch was losing so many anime DVDs that it moved them all behind an employee-accessible counter to thwart would-be thieves, Foster told us. Patrons then had to request the anime discs in person from library employees, which took up valuable staff time. To prevent further losses, Foster and her IT department implemented a new Integrated Disc Media Unlocker system from 3M.
The media unlockers sit on the library's self-check units and allow patrons to remove locks from the specially cased media themselves, freeing library staff to perform other duties. Foster said the hardest part in implementing the new system involved transferring all the library's media to new 3M DiscMate cases, as well as replacing the media's RFID tags. The library's tech services department did the bulk of the work, which took several months.
Foster estimated the cost of this new system to be around $100,000, but she expects it to pay off — both short- and long-term. "In this economic situation that we're in currently, I think people appreciate that we're trying to secure what we've bought with their money," Foster told us.
Writing history in triplicate
Digitizing materials can be a good way to make a limited collection available to a wider audience. Foster's department recently decided to digitize Boone County Public Library's extensive collection of local history materials. For this task, Foster purchased the Polaris Fusion software product from Polaris, along with a server.
Polaris Fusion allows patrons to search for and access digitized materials directly within the Boone County Public Library catalog. But Foster wanted these materials to be available to an even broader audience, so in addition to digitizing materials for its own catalog, the library is also adding the materials to the State of Kentucky's OverDrive consortium, Kentucky Libraries Unbound. This makes the materials available to patrons of any participating Kentucky libraries.
The Boone County Public Library staff member who's digitizing most of the local history materials just happens to works for Kentucky Libraries Unbound, making the dual digitization process even easier for them. Most of the materials are scanned by library staff, but some of the library's large format, rare, or fragile items are sent out to be scanned for the library using special equipment, a service provided by the State of Kentucky.
At the same time, the library is also adding relevant Boone County local history information from the materials to a dedicated Wiki page, which anyone can browse. "We wanted to offer as many access points as we could to the information," Foster said. Adding digital versions of materials to multiple systems simultaneously saves the library valuable time, effort, and money, since it won't have to revisit the digitized materials later.
The total cost for the Polaris Fusion software and server hardware was about $20,000, Foster said, with a nominal monthly maintenance fee. Combined with the effort her library has taken to make its digitized materials accessible, she expects the investment will be well worth its cost. "In my mind, it's like you get three things for one deal," Foster said.
Training, Petting Zoos, and Servant Genies
Foster has other plans underway that should also pay off in the long run. She wants to offer more Office training classes for the public on a regular basis; the library currently offers Internet and computing basics classes fairly regularly. She also wants to do more staff training so they can better understand their systems and address the increased amount of requests they get from a larger group of patrons. "We still have a disparity between staff that are fairly savvy and know what's going on, and staff that will do something technological only if you make them," Foster says.
Foster's library is also having a "technology petting zoo" starting in November, giving patrons hands-on time with eReaders like the Nook and Kindle, iPods, and other devices. The library actually purchased these devices for staff use ("It sounds crazy until you understand the idea," Foster says), and library staff have been checking them out to use at home, so they'll be better prepared to answer questions from patrons about them.
In lieu of some parting words of wisdom, Foster offered a book recommendation for IT folks who feel underappreciated and overworked (surely all of them, at one point or another): "8 Things That We Hate About IT," by Susan Cramm. The book includes comments from various IT people across the county. Foster said she identified with one of the people profiled who felt like management viewed him as an "untrustworthy servant genie," as it seems people outside IT don't care to have an understanding how IT people gets something done, they just want a solution, and are miffed when a certain course of action doesn't work.
With Foster's intelligent IT planning, it's doubtful her hard work will go unappreciated at Boone County Public Library. The choices she's made have already allowed the library to capably support its ever-rising circulation by ensuring its services and materials remain accessible to all.