Different and the Same:

A library IT manager shares insights after a transition
Jim Haprian

When we last spoke with Jim Haprian, he'd been working for nearly a decade as technology manager at Medina County District Library, a library system in north-central Ohio serving a community of about 200,000 people. His eclectic career in libraries — which has included roles as janitor, page, and bookmobile assistant — has now taken him to the significantly larger Cuyahoga County Public Library, where he's earned the title of IT director.

Apart from a markedly increased service population — more than 500,000 — Cuyahoga's 1,500 computer stations across nearly 30 branches quintuple the 300 Haprian dealt with at Medina, but he's now got the help of 21 IT staff as opposed to 5. "We're doing computers and training and web services and media services and some media production. We also have an actual helpdesk staff here, too," Haprian told us. "The scale of it is big enough that you have to have that level of specialization." Cuyahoga has been ranked first in Hennen's American Public Library Ratings for libraries serving 500,000 or more for the past two years. (Haprian's last library system, Medina County, is also a top-scorer on the report, currently ranked fourth in the 100,000 or more population category.)

Though Haprian had only been at his new position for a short time when we spoke, he revealed that much of what he learned about IT and implemented at Medina applies quite readily to a much larger library. The larger system also equips him with additional resources to explore innovative service offerings.

Wireless Access for All

Both Medina and Cuyahoga libraries have unsecured wireless networks (with Cuyahoga's running on a separate Virtual Local Area Network or VLAN), allowing any patrons who can connect to the network with their computers or other devices to hop online without any hassle. It's not uncommon for libraries to restrict access to wireless networks — using a temporary password system or having different accessibility rules for patrons than for guests — but Haprian feels this is over-management.

Do we mind if somebody comes in and sits here all day with their wireless laptop?" Haprian asked us. "I don't. I think that's a great thing if they want to spend all day in the library. That's awesome."

Haprian said restrictions on wireless access probably result from concerned librarians who want to prevent unsavory situations, but that this doesn't serve the average patron well. Haprian's thinking on this issue reflects his belief that libraries can serve (quite well) a variety of roles and meet the needs of a community, whether the individuals in that community have a library card or not.

"In public computing it's easy to go down the road of, 'What if somebody does this?' And then make a bunch of policies and decisions based on a scenario that a very small percentage of the users would try to do," Haprian told us.

--> For more information on wireless networks and setting wireless access policies in libraries, check out the Tools section of our Joy of Computing – Planning for Success cookbook.

Considering the Cost of Open Source

Libraries whose budgets have been slashed may be looking to cut IT costs, and the current buzz around open source technologies can make them seem like an ideal solution. But Haprian says keeping total cost of ownership (TCO) in mind in regard to open source would be wise for any librarian considering this type of implementation.

"As far as total cost of ownership, there are a lot of studies out there that support the idea that open source software's not always cheaper," Haprian said."For most places, it's not really cheaper when you actually factor in staff time and developing and maintaining and learning the software."

When we spoke to Haprian at his previous position, he said that always keeping TCO in mind informed decisions such as buying longer-range warranties for mission-critical machines like servers, and spending more on workstations so they could evade obsolescence longer. Haprian said this thinking has caused him to hold off on implementing open source technologies in either of his recent library systems, despite the seemingly increased prevalence of open source success stories.

You always hear about the success stories but you don't really hear about the failures," Haprian told us. "Who wants to toot their horn about saying look at how much money we spent trying to do this open source software, and it didn't work so good. Nobody wants to say that."

Haprian concedes that if a library has someone with open source experience on staff, an open source solution can work quite well. But the customizable nature of an open source solution means that person could end up being the only one with complete knowledge of the library's open source software unless it is comprehensively documented.

--> For more information on open source solutions and whether they make sense for your library, check out Free and Open-Source Software in Libraries, a section from our Joy of Computing – Planning for Success cookbook.

Bigger Means More Resources

Cuyahoga's larger size allows it to support a wider diversity of programs for its varied population. The library system has a full-fledged Career Center that offers vocational counseling, and multiple Homework Centers provide a place for students to get help with their studies. Relative to Medina, Cuyahoga has a higher unemployment rate (9 percent, compared to 7.5, as of November 2010), so the Career Center's resources play a vital role.

Dedicated licensed career councilors at the Career Center give career assessment tests, guide job-seekers to applicable industries, review resumes and cover letters, run workshops, and host a job club for job-seekers. The center is staffed six days a week.

Supporting library services and technology services that really reach out to a broad population is a little bit more at the forefront," Haprian told us. "There's more of a social service aspect to Cuyahoga County's system."

Haprian says that finding ways for a library to provide social services in a community is especially important when budgets are being cut for government entities and nonprofits alike. "I think libraries are positioned really well to fill in some of those spaces that aren't being met by other agencies," he told us.

--> Read more about libraries providing career services on the TechSoup for Libraries blog.

Learning Mode

Haprian said he was still in "learning mode" at Cuyahoga, having only been there a few months. But he's already trying to think of ways the library system can give patrons the best service and support they can provide. "Cuyahoga County has a pretty good history of doing innovative things," Haprian told us. "It was one of the first libraries in the nation to offer text message notification and renewal service free of charge. So I'm thinking of things that will be new and innovative and really useful."