A rural library trustee confronts technology,
by Denise A. Garofalo
Rural libraries are a core information provider in their communities, and today technology is intrinsic to delivering information. Yet residents of rural areas often perceive that they must drive to a city or larger metropolitan area to shop, visit bookstores, and find information. They are unaware of the contributions their library makes to their community, outside of perhaps storyhours and housing the bestsellers.
If the library doesn’t present itself as an information resource, what can be expected? Rural communities are fiercely independent, and this characteristic is reflected in their local government and their libraries. A fear of losing autonomy can result in libraries passing up opportunities to participate in collective, cooperative efforts. Yet sharing information and resources, networking and easing the fear technology can generate, can provide answers and reduce the anxiety among rural libraries. And when it comes to technology, the anxiety level just seems to rise up and go through the roof, for staff and trustees alike.
But today the reality that trustees must deal with is that libraries are much more than just books. Technology is now a main part of the public library. For rural libraries in particular, public Internet access is a community service that reaches across age or gender. A few ways patrons in rural libraries use public Internet access include:
• To search for a new job
• To view journal articles
• To file a bid or to make a quote for a business deal
• To research a medical problem
• To do family genealogy
• To register for the draft
• To file income tax forms
• To find information for a school paper or homework
• To complete a college scholarship application
• To keep in contact with family & friends with e-mail
• To take an online class or test
• To order or to sell items on the web
• To plan a trip
• To send family photos
• To look at real estate
• To make greeting cards or party invitations
• To design or maintain a web site
• To make posters or fliers for local events
• To design a newsletter
To provide these and other technology-based services, rural and small libraries face special challenges--limited staff, distant (or nonexistent) support resources, and patrons who need their library even more than their urban and suburban counterparts. Staff members are often reluctant to embrace technology and may even feel resentful about its intrusion into what they see as their traditional library role. Even if you overcome the technology resistance, how do you handle technical support and the need for technical training?
With support of technology and its inevitable problems, the money issue comes front and center. If you’re a larger rural library and can afford to hire someone with tech support skills, the nature of rural libraries means that that person will have many other more traditional responsibilities, such as manning the circulation desk. If you don’t have a tech support staff person and you have a technology problem, how can you afford to hire a tech person who charges $75 an hour or more? There are no easy answers, but I believe my public library found a workable solution set.
My library is the Marlboro Free Library, a public library chartered to serve the 11,000 residents of the Marlboro School District. Marlboro is located halfway between New York City and Albany on the banks of the scenic Hudson River, and nestled between historic sites such as West Point and Hyde Park. The Library is a member of the Mid-Hudson Library System, an entity chartered by the State of New York to provide resource sharing and other cooperative services to public libraries. As a school district public library, we are fortunate in that we have a solid funding base through the residents of the school district. This solid funding base has allowed us to have two professional librarians on staff as well as a bona fide and experienced tech support person.
The Marlboro Library has staff resources in place to deal with those ongoing decisions related to technological change that come up—such as “Should we go wireless?” or, “Do we want to switch to all laser printers rather than having some inkjet printers?” One of the best technology decisions Marlboro made was to lease computers rather than purchasing. By leasing, we have a definitive budget figure for 3-4 years, when we do upgrade the PCs we don’t have to deal with disposing of the out-of-date machines—the lease company takes care of that. A minimum amount of staff time is allotted to this process, and repairs are the responsibility of the lease company. We’ve also been fortunate that each time the Library has renegotiated the lease for an upgrade, our lease payments have decreased.
With technology, the fiduciary responsibilities of library trustees are as complex as they are important. Trustees may view the budgeted staff time costs for dealing with technology issues as a less expensive alternative over the years to an annual line item for technology equipment leasing. And since equipment doesn’t need to be replaced every year, the budget can be kept smaller in those years PCs and such aren’t purchased. But when you factor in staff time, increasing a budget item from $0 to $5000 every three or four years, the cost for unexpected maintenance issues and the disposal and hassle factor, leasing technology equipment such as PCs is more fiscally responsible.
Another decision that has helped has been the hiring of a tech support person. This staff member also has regular library duties—manning the circ desk, dealing with broken front doors, and so on. But when a technology issue crops up—from telecom to networking to software—this staff person is the interface between the problem and the trustees. The trustees are provided with details on the issue, such as the background and why and how the problem occurred, and we receive possible solutions along with a recommendation. Our technology decisions are made in comfort rather than in chaos, allowing us the ability to make good technology choices for the future.
The impact of public access computing is the latest concern of the trustees. We see the library staff becoming the “PC police,” in charge of sign-ups, time limits, printer paper, and verifying that the public is in compliance with the Library’s Internet policy. The proportion of staff time that has become devoted to the care and feeding of the public PCs is excessive. Fortunately we have a technology solution to this technology-created problem—software that will control signing in, time limits, free printer paper allocation and payment for overages, and allow staff to discretely send messages to users who are in violation of the Library’s Internet use policy. The public library system has been instrumental in working with the vendor and the libraries to negotiate a reasonable price for this public access control software. Although the cost may seem high--$2000 initially, with a $500 annual maintenance fee—when seen in light of freeing up the library staff to do library work while also having all those “PC police” benefits plus detailed usage statistics, the return will be well worth the investment.
Rural libraries have a lot to overcome when it comes to dealing with technology. Limited resources, staff issues, and training are just a few. Trustees have to look to hiring staff that will help them and their library move forward and deal with the ever-changing complexities of technology. Being able to have a stable line item in our budget through leasing has been one way Marlboro has dealt with the fiscal issues, and having a tech support person on staff has been a way to deal with the technology support issue.
Technology may be one library area that generates more than its fair share of anxiety. Library trustees have to be willing to work in cooperative arenas in order to pool knowledge and purchasing power, such as we are doing with our library system in the purchase of the public access control software. Trustees also need to help present the library as an information resource to the community, one the residents don’t need to head to the City to use.
Population 11,634 (2000 census, school district)
# Registered borrowers 8,382
Annual circulation (2003) 43,291
Annual visits 226,341
Holdings (2003) 48,128 (print and nonprint)
Program attendance 4,925 (adult and children’s)
2004 Budget $589,967
Center for the Study of
Rural Librarianship http://jupiter.clarion.edu/~csrl/csrlhom.htm
Marlboro Free Library http://www.marlborolibrary.org
Mid-Hudson Library System http://midhudson.org
New York State Library
DLD Types of Public Libraries http://www.nysl.nysed.gov/libdev/libs/pltypes.htm
Barron, D. D. (1995). Staffing rural public libraries: the need to invest in intellectual capital. Library Trends, 44, 77-87.
Casey, D. W. (1983). Quality and quantity of public library service depend on trustees. Public Libraries, 24, 3-4.
Flatley, Robert (2000). Characterizing the role of the rural librarian: a survey. Rural Libraries, 20, no. 2, 8-28
Flatley, Robert (2001). Rural librarians and the Internet: a survey of usage, attitudes and impact. Rural Libraries, 21, no. 1, 7-24.
Holt, Glen E. (1995). Pathways to tomorrow’s service: the future of rural libraries—rural libraries and information services. Library Trends, 44.
Kirks, J. (2001). When does the staff find time to learn things? Bookmobiles and Outreach Services, 4, 33-46.
Kniffel, L. (1996). Rural does not equal underserved. American Libraries, 27, 26.
A revolution is underway at your local library. Connections: progress in libraries, 2003, v1,2. http://www.gatesfoundation.org/Libraries/RelatedInfo/Connections/ConnectionsVol12.htm Accessed December 31, 2004.
Thomas, Kackie (2000). Rural librarians must lead and promote. Today’s Librarian, January 2000. http://poplarbluff.org/library/rural.html Accessed December 31, 2004.
December 31, 2004
Denise A. Garofalo
Trustee, Marlboro (NY) Free Library
Library Director, Astor Home for Children Library (Rhinebeck, NY)
Adjunct Professor, SUNY Albany SISP