Monday, January 12, 2009

GoLibrary Slowly Gaining Speed

Finally it looks as if we have a product that is working. For months we have been running back and forth to the machine, every day or every other day or sometimes more than once a day, to troubleshoot technical problems. Our patrons in Wheatland have more or less given up on the thing and we are now starting from scratch in terms of generating public interest. But hey, that's why they call it beta testing.

To outline the project briefly, Yuba County Library was invited to participate as the rural beta test in an LSTA project put forward by Contra Costa County Library. The California State Library was aware of Yuba's lack of remote area access for patrons and knew that we were looking at technological solutions in order to address our growing needs for services. In fact, given our ongoing budget constraints, our strategic plan continues to place a heavy emphasis on technology due to the need to keep overhead costs to a minimum. The cybrary concept continues to be the template we use when considering appropriate use for our local impact fees.

With over 600 square miles of service area and a population of just over 70,000, Yuba County Library's one facility in Marysville along with a 32 foot bookmobile are grossly inadequate to meet the needs of our residents. So, when we were asked to be involved in testing a book dispenser that was purported to require a minimum amount of staff time to maintain and very little overhead costs, we enthusiastically agreed.

According to the vendor of the book dispenser, Distec from Sweden, all we needed was a location, a dedicated high-speed internet connection, SIP2 integrated ILS and RFID on books to be circulated from the machine. Sounds simple, right? From my recent experience I might concede that it would sound simple to those who are already knowledgeable about SIP2 and RFID technology or to those who did not have a clue about either, into which we fit firmly in the latter category. Eventually, we were to cobble together a crash course for ourselves with CCCL's gracious tech support.

Because of our determination and commitment to the project, we folded in a system migration and upgrade to our already ambitious planning. Actually, this was an essential piece of the puzzle, as our library had been piggybacking on our local community college's outdated ILS since automating in 2000. In order to minimize the costs, we stayed with the college's vendor, SIRSI, and were one of the first libraries in California to take advantage of their new SaaS, being hosted on a SIRSI server and running the enhanced version of The enhanced version was essential as without it we would have had neither the visual reinforcement of book covers, nor the added summaries/blurbs for patrons making their selections from the machine's simple touch screen interface.

In our innocence, which is always a good excuse for not knowing, we didn't realize how long it would take to complete the requirements for the SIP2 agreement. Our SIP2 was straightforward and was added onto our migration contract, but because Distec did not yet have a third party SIP2 agreement with SIRSI, or any vendors in the country for that matter, we were placed in the role of facilitating theirs as well as our own. Distec was quite dependent on us for contact information as their experience with U.S. ILS vendors was in its infancy. How much help we were able to offer them was limited, unfortunately, as we were in our own infancy in relation to having our own, independent ILS. This dual novice status was later to cost us, as we were unable to come up with alternatives to a customized report from SIRSI to allow books to be downloaded into the Bokomaten. Our County IT department suspected that we could probably create the report ourselves, but there just wasn't time.

Here I should briefly mention that, going into the project, we had pitched the grant as requiring minimal County resources. What we were faced with in relation to getting the machine to work was quite a different matter. So, anything requiring time from our County IT department was monitored very closely in order to be kept to a minimum. In fact, most of the players agree, the reason CCCL was able to have a functional, hassle-free machine months before us was due to their access to in-house tech support.

One non-technical challenge that came as a bit of a shock to both libraries was the box size limitations. The Bokomaten, having been designed for a European market, was designed for boxes and slots--into which the boxes would fit--according to standard European publishing sizes. For anyone familiar with U.S. publishing, you will know that there is quite a wide range of sizes for books in this country. Doing collection development according to size of book was certainly not something our professors would have recommended or taught us in library school.

After eliminating according to size and thickness, there was an added delimiter regarding inclusion of cover pictures associated with the record. For the remote access patron, title and author would not be enough to compel browsing by GoLibrary users. We determined that having the book cover, or graphic plus a blurb, would be critical for successful presentation of the books available in the machine. Small independent press titles or titles with older publication dates are examples of the kinds of materials that might not have enhanced content available. We learned the hard way to check for the enhanced content before selecting a book to add. We were forced to de-select many items, initially prepared for the machine, because we did not want anything in the book dispenser to be limited to just text. In some instances we resorted to showing a picture of an edition of the book other than the one that was actually in the machine for this reason.

Communication in a world was definitely the key to the success of this project. Communication between techies and non-techies has become a pet area of research for me, as a result of this project. I found fascinating that, in many ways, it was no easier communicating with our IT department down the street than it was Distec's IT staff on the other side of the world. Though our own IT staff were charmed with the whole idea of an automated book dispenser, and were ready and willing to put it on the fast track for us, time zones and other demands on their time made it difficult to get the two groups of tech specialists to communicate directly. Communication problems on both ends were likely a result of a bottleneck caused by my lack of technical expertise, since I had to play intermediary, sharing information between techies with only a very simplistic understanding of the concepts behind the data I was passing between the two groups.

Since completing the grant project, I've learned that this is a common problem for tech and nontech staff and techs admit that explaining the whys and wherefores or teaching someone to use the product they've created is the least-liked aspect of their jobs. I am learning more everyday about the growing need for specially trained individuals to function as go-betweens across the two worlds. Government is reported to lose millions of dollars annually due to this "communication disconnect.

"Fortunately, we had good mediators in CALIFA, a membership based California library service consortium, who was assigned by the State Library to negotiate the contract and deal with shipping the machine from Europe, both huge undertakings in their own right. And, as I've mentioned already, Contra Costa Library's knowledgeable IT staff were very gracious in taking time to explain many of the fundamentals to their less sophisticated grant partner.

Library tech staff or librarians with strong tech backgrounds will be the knowledge management experts of the 21st century and along with this expertise will come a universal mechanism for crossing the tech/nontech language barrier, but in the meantime, please be sure to add learning tech-speak to your list of things to do in your spare time, if it’s not what you’re already doing the major portion of your time.

The project was all engulfing for over a year and timing for everything had to be at warp speed. I've heard that this is known in techie land as "a death march project." If you deal with tech projects often then you're probably familiar with the insane expectations and deadlines that define your mission goals and objectives. I've certainly gained a great deal of respect for those working on the tech side of things and now have an inkling of the pressure they endure as a part of their day-to-day responsibilities. We, as librarians, are in a unique position to appreciate the multiple levels of tech-speak literacy and fulfill our role as one of the more likely mediums between the literate and "illiterate," or "still learning" masses.