In order to have some of my technical questions answered I arranged to meet with Shaun Pall, the IT Manager for the Bucks County Free Library (BCFL). When I arrived I was fortunate enough to meet two other members of the IT team as well: Sean Loughlin, Technical Support Specialist and Jason Palmer, Network Support Specialist. They were more than happy to show me around and answer my questions before I met with Shaun.
Sean and Jason very kindly allowed me to take photos and explained a lot of cool IT features the department is working on, which at the time I totally understood but now find really actually went over my head. Nonetheless they were enthusiastic about what they were doing and excited about how they’ve built up the department, services and support they are able to offer. Three years ago the Executive Director and Facilities Director decided to make a clean sweep of the IT Department and brought in a consultant to conduct a transfer of knowledge to Shaun Pall. He then worked to put together a new team and work towards cleaning up and stabilizing the network and computers to build a foundation upon which they would be able to offer some of the cool new technology Sean and Jason were showing me.
They explained a project the team has been working on recently and are about ready to launch. They’ve been calling it the Start from Scratch program in which staff will replace the software on a ‘dead’ computer with a free open source alternative. By offering this on a trial basis they were able to develop the program into a now regularly offered IT Help Desk. This is expected to be available at most of the branch libraries starting next week. Currently they have one full-time and four part-time staff for this and hope to be able to roll it out to all nine branch libraries soon.
My meeting with Shaun Pall was thoroughly gratifying with lots of great information about the IT Department of which he is rightfully proud. They had recently held their annual Staff Day for all nine branch libraries and Community Public Libraries (CPL) of which there are eleven. This is an opportunity for the IT Department to provide training to staff and where new technology is presented, explained, and explored by all BCFL staff.
I asked Shaun to explain for me exactly how the IT Department interacts with both the member libraries and the CPLs.
All Branch libraries report to the Executive Director and a single Board of Trustees. All the CPLs have their own Library Director and their own board. Some services are shared by everyone but the CPLs have more input about what goes on in their libraries. The CPLs use computers on the BCFL network which all share the same servers, it’s all one network. As for speed at the CPLs, some opted for a fiber connection and like the Branches have the full one gigabyte connection. For some of the CPLs it doesn’t make sense to have the full gigabyte connection because they don’t have that many computers, they’re just too small. Those libraries have broadband with their own internet such as Verizon or Comcast and those communicate to BCFL over the VPN (Virtual Private Network). That goes through a Fortigate box which is secure, faster and easier to manage and maintain. Other services BCFL provides to all libraries are email, the OPAC, and some databases.
Filtering is provided through Watchguard network security which also provides the firewall and content filtering, all in one piece of equipment. “This keeps bandwidth just that much better across the board”, Shaun explained. It also works to help trim the IT budget, “why pay for two when you can pay for one and add the extra subscription”, he said.
On the libraries several public access computers (I forgot to count but you can see from the photo there are many PCs and a table of four Macs) after 30 seconds of no activity the screen saver comes on and the computer will log off. Every patron logs in as a temporary profile so when they log off it’s cleaned. For the catalog computers, when the screen saver comes on it clears the history and is set up so that after every session it’s wiped clean. When a session ends it logs out and then logs back in a completely new profile all over again.
I asked about ergonomics and assistive technology and once again learned that there’s never really been much need for it. Shaun mentioned that there’s some built in with Adobe Reader, Microsoft and Apple and currently they’re looking into easy read keyboards with a big black and yellow keyboard. He said he’s worked with Dragon at other libraries but it was very rarely used, maybe by only one person. It’s really not worth the investment to purchase and have on hand with the hope that it’s not on a computer in use when someone else needs the program. It’s also not reasonable to just keep that computer open because it has an accessibility program on in or to ask a patron to end their session because another needs to access the program. Accessibility is really something that can be handled right away as needed, just not something to invest in to have on hand
As for staff nobody ever asks for it, though one staff member uses a standing desk and the circulation desk has padded mats to stand on. It’s really just handled on a case-by-case basis, there’s nothing available across the board for staff.
As you can imagine the budget for the IT Department is quite large and though Shaun wasn’t sure what percentage of the entire BCFL budget was specifically dedicated for IT, he did say it was adequate for their needs. Their main focus over these last three years has been to streamline and trim the IT budget in order to provide current technology for patrons. To this end he has found open source alternatives when possible along with ways to combine services such as the Watchguard fire wall and filter. Also they switched to Office 365 which is free to libraries and schools so now they’re not paying for Microsoft licensing or Exchange email. Nothing is outsourced because there is such a good support team in the IT Department. It also helps that they are able to get a non-profit discount!
Shaun has been working in IT for libraries for nine years so when I asked him about changes he’s observed over recent years he was able to provide a very thoughtful and astute answer. “Hardware wise it’s about what you would expect” he said. “things are faster, bigger, better, and have more storage. It’s really a constant more or less. The real change I think is more on the staff side the demand and need for staff to be technologically competent and to answer technical questions that are coming through the door. It’s not just for the staff to know where the books are, how to find where the books are; they need to know general knowledge. It’s more the expectation that they are equivalent to Google and if they don’t know it they should know how to find it”.
Wireless has been the biggest change in these last nine years, he explained, adding wireless connectivity in response to all the mobile devices people use. “You can see the shift now from what used to be lap tops, now that’s dropping off and now it’s tablets and phones”. Now they’re providing fewer tables and more tables with stands, as well as space to hold a business meeting or for Skyping. The demand for space is driven by the technology in a way that’s different than it used to be and it’s amazing to watch that shift.
Shaun took me out into the IT main office to show me the Meraki system (see photo) . They don’t collect any personal data but they can tell what devices are connecting into their network in a general sense. They can actually see in a pie chart how many phones, how many lap tops, how many tablets are on their wireless network at any time or over a one month period. Each marker represents one of their system libraries, if the marker turns yellow from green – they know the connection is down and they can attend to it right away.
Towards the end of our conversation Shaun took me upstairs to a conference room to show me one of their latest technology acquisitions. It’s currently in use at the Yardley Branch and they’re looking into expanding it into others. What he showed me is like a smart screen, a touch screen projector, but there’s nothing for people to break or mark up, it’s just right on the wall and completely interactive. Right now they have a kid’s game on it and it’s been immensely popular.
In all our conversation one of the most amazing new technologies the IT Department is looking into is One Button Studio. Designed by Penn State University this program is basically, “A room with a camera, projector, microphones, and lights. You come in with a flash drive, you plug it into a USB port, and push a button. The lights turn on, the camera starts recording, you stand in front of the wall and you start doing whatever you want to do. There’s a computer where you can set up a slide show to run behind you over your shoulder. When you’re done you push the button, it stops recording, you take your flash drive over to a Mac and you can edit it right there in the library. So you can come in and by yourself and you can do a full video recording”. How cool is that?!
Shaun is proud about what the library is doing. The IT Department has worked hard these last three years and now have the foundation in place to do the fun stuff. These guys clearly are excited about what there is to offer and about making sure it all runs smoothly. Though Shaun, Sean and Jason are all IT guys they are truly invested in the library environment and helping shape the future for BCFL.
Thanks guys – for sharing your time with me and helping me understand a little bit more on what the future of libraries has to offer.
Bucks County Free Library, District Library
150 S. Pine Street
Doylestown, PA 18901-4932