Top Tech Challenges for Small Libraries
by Jennifer Bruneau
The key to running a successful small library is adaptability. Boards, directors, and staffers must all be creative and flexible in finding ways to meet the varying needs of residents, particularly in places where access to city amenities is difficult. Staff members in small libraries such as ours must become adept at balancing multiple job duties and taking on various roles to make up for a lack of funding for contractors. They must become masters at stretching budgets and ruthlessly selecting materials to develop a small, but well-rounded, collection that will last. We have learned how to expertly create flexible spaces to accommodate storytime, lectures, quiet study, and group work—often simultaneously. It would not be unusual for the director of a small library to address a leaking roof, teach a patron how to use an online resource, help a parent find picture books for his or her children, and troubleshoot a malfunctioning printer—all before lunch.
|Small libraries must continue to find ways to provide and manage IT services so that their communities donít fall behind larger towns and cities.
The need for flexible, DIY ingenuity is perhaps the clearest when considering IT management. Without funding for full-time, dedicated IT professionals, small libraries must find other solutions in order to ensure that all equipment remains functional and up-to-date. As the types of equipment become more complex and diverse, managing various devices, networks, and accessory equipment becomes more labor-intensive and presents a number of new challenges for directors and staff at a small library.
Who Manages IT? How?
In small libraries, the question of who will be responsible for managing IT needs is frequently the biggest challenge. With limited professional staffers, few full-time employees, and rarely any trained IT professionals on the payroll, staff members must frequently turn to volunteers to assist in equipment management. Assistance can include help with training patrons on the use of devices and troubleshooting problems, installing updates or new software, making purchasing decisions, taking inventory, and managing the website.
While volunteers can alleviate some of the time burden placed on staff members, reliance on unpaid assistance creates several other challenges. Volunteers are typically local residents whose knowledge and availability can vary greatly. Many are limited in their knowledge and cannot assist with more complex problems. Since volunteer availability changes based on their individual schedules, work sometimes must wait days or weeks before someone is able to address it; this creates service interruptions. If a volunteer becomes unwilling or unable to assist the library, it can be difficult or impossible to find a replacement. Even with the best of volunteers, privacy policies often prevent them from having full access to staff computers or networks, making it impossible for them to cover 100% of the library’s IT needs.
Many libraries have developed complex IT management solutions that blend volunteer assistance, staff knowledge, town or library network technicians, and vendor technical support to cover all of their needs. For example, the Boylston Public Library has two separate entities managing our two wireless networks. The library’s AV system is managed by a different third-party vendor, and the wired network is maintained by the library consortium. Hardware purchasing and maintenance are managed by the director and assistant director, who occasionally rely on a private company for tech support. This can be cost-effective, but it can also lead to fractured services, complex troubleshooting, finger-pointing, and lengthy downtime when something goes wrong. If the library’s iPads don’t connect to the AV system correctly, it can often take several days or even weeks to identify where the problem is and who should fix it. Since no one has a full and complete understanding of how everything is set up, the library frequently needs to place several service calls before the issue is resolved. In the meantime, the equipment is out of service, which is disruptive to patrons.
Some library networks have seen the issues their small-library members are facing and have begun to address them by offering to provide IT services at an affordable hourly rate to member libraries. Most library consortia have long delivered support for the equipment needed to run the network’s ILS and other services that are specifically part of consortium membership, such as email or internet connections. However, many are now expanding that offering to include assistance with special projects and provide technology training, installation of antivirus software, and equipment troubleshooting. The cost of the IT staff is included in membership assessments and is shared among all member libraries. This allows small libraries to have access to trained library IT professionals at a fraction of what it would cost to hire them independently.
Consistency in IT Management
Another frequently reported issue that small libraries face is a lack of consistency resulting from a fractured approach to IT management. Passwords may vary depending on the person in charge of the account or equipment. Many people have their own list of preferred passwords that are easy for them to remember, and they have a tendency to revert to using these instead of an institutional password. Oftentimes, passwords are not changed regularly unless the specific program requires it. Record-keeping for accounts may or may not be accurate, depending on whether or not a volunteer or staff member remembered to update a spreadsheet. Written instructions for setting up profiles may or may not exist. Email addresses linked to accounts tend to be the staff member or volunteer’s personal account, and they may not get changed whenever that person turns over, sending important account information or password reset links to nonexistent accounts or to volunteers who are no longer in contact with the library.
Developing clear policies and written instructions can help mitigate some of the disorganization, but these can be difficult to enforce. Institutional emails and passwords may make life easier in the event of turnover, but they can increase the number of account lockouts whenever passwords are forgotten or changed. Many small libraries report some level of hesitation in making volunteers’ lives more difficult and generally defer to their preferences in order to keep them from becoming frustrated. Many staffers report that they often feel guilty calling on a volunteer for IT assistance in the first place, so they do not wish to further dictate how the job should be done. Others report that while they do ask staff members to follow procedures on changing passwords, managing accounts, completing inventories, and writing up troubleshooting solutions, they are frequently lax in following up due to full workloads.
IT Skills Management
It is fairly standard nowadays to include requirements for some level of technology expertise in job descriptions for library staff. Librarians have become the first stop for many patrons who need to learn to use new smartphones, tablets, laptops, and notebooks. Since the market is constantly changing, with new apps, interfaces, features, and capabilities being added all the time, librarians must remain current in their knowledge of the technology market. Even libraries that do not have the manpower to instruct patrons on the use of their devices must be familiar with various devices in order to assist them with the library’s electronic resources and online library catalog. For small libraries, it is vital that all staff members have at least a basic understanding of how to use and troubleshoot equipment, as there isn’t always a manager in the building. Keeping staffers up-to-date and properly trained can often be either cost-prohibitive or time-prohibitive—or both.
A lack of continuing education can lead to cases in which library staffers are unaware of technology solutions that may significantly improve customer service. While there are many resources available that were expressly designed to educate and instruct librarians, when attempting to balance job duties, many staffers find that keeping current with library issues is something that must be done during off hours or not at all. This eventually leads to a gap in knowledge of the products and services available. Product innovations that can make small-library management easier or faster or solve a community need may not be adopted simply because no one knows they exist.
Even if a library has knowledge of a product, the inability to properly train and educate staffers on new technologies can cause directors to hesitate to upgrade or add new services. Directors often stick to equipment they know their staff members are already comfortable with rather than upgrade to a new device, because they worry about the time it will take for staffers to learn to use and troubleshoot the new equipment. Small libraries report a reluctance to purchase new technology, knowing that they will have to manage something that they may not have the time to fully understand. This has led many small libraries to pass up offers of donated or reduced-cost equipment, such as 3D printers, robots, or virtual reality technology, despite the desire to provide these services to patrons.
Patron demand for makerspaces, technology instruction, and access to equipment makes it a tough balancing act for small libraries. Patrons need technological skills in order to thrive in today’s world. To develop these skills, they must have access to technology. Small-town libraries are increasingly seen as a hub for technological learning for patrons of all ages. Those small libraries that are able to provide access to the newest technologies are making their communities stronger, more competitive, and more vibrant places to live. Small libraries must continue to find ways to provide and manage IT services so that their communities don’t fall behind larger towns and cities.
Creative Solutions and Resources
Perhaps ironically, the rapidly developing technological landscape that makes IT management in libraries more complex also seems to be helping to create solutions. Social media platforms are connecting small-library staffers in ways that were previously impossible. Facebook groups (such as the Library Management Group, Tiny Library Think Tank, and Libraries & Information Technology) allow members to ask questions and share ideas, articles, and research. This makes it easier to stay connected to innovations in library science. Industry periodicals are making articles available online, allowing interested staff members to share them among their online communities so that professionals who may not be able to afford subscriptions are able to benefit from the knowledge. Library associations at the state and national level are taking advantage of online platforms to provide training and share information among members. Nonprofits such as TechSoup—as well as free resources such as WebJunction—offer invaluable assistance for libraries in both cost reduction and providing educational tools.
There is not, and likely never will be, a one-size-fits-all solution for IT management in small libraries. It is unlikely that budgets will increase to the point at which small towns are able to afford library-specific technology specialists nor is it likely that technology will become less complex in the future. However, small-library staffers have always been innovative problem solvers and eager to share their knowledge with others. As technology continues to connect librarians around the world, innovative solutions will continue to make it easier for small libraries to provide technology that patrons need to help them succeed.