Saturday, August 05, 2006

Successful Saturdays: Library Public Access Computers Should be Public or Everything is Online

Computer access is one of the most important services libraries provide today. As I touched on in a previous post, people need computers in order to apply for jobs, file their taxes, or just to search for information. In Falling Through the Net (1995), it stated that less than 5% of rural households owned a computer and only 23% of them had Internet access. In 2000, a new Falling Through the Net documenting a rise to 45% in rural areas. In a report created by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Toward Equity of Access, states that 60% of Americans have Internet access. Suffice to say, access has always been a problem, but technology marches forward.

In the last Fix-it Fridays, I talked about our attempts to create more access using thin clients, wireless Internet, and an open source time management software that all created problems. The following fiscal year, I requested funds for a Capital Improvement Project to replace all the existing computers and for additional computers. It was funded, with the budget I requested for the project halved and a caveat that I needed to filter the library's computers. The same problem existed before, a funded project with not enough funds for time management, filtering, and additional computers. After our problems with the last project, I was determined to plan ahead for all contingencies. I spoke with several vendors to get a ballpark price on the product. I worked with IT to set up a time line for all of the pieces of the project. Due to the fact that last project did not go well, this project was placed at the very end of the priority list. Even though library staff members were excited that we were to have more computers and a better way to manage them, they were disappointed that it would take so long to implement. After careful consideration, I knew I would not have enough to replace the Gates and add a significant number of computers. I was able to talk IT into replacing the existing computers out of their budget, but I was not sure what I was going to get.

Then a letter came from the state library announcing another round of Gates grants to replace all of the existing computers. YAY! Instead of using the funds to replace computers, I could use them for additional computers. However, when all the pieces of the budget were planned for, there still would not be a great amount of additional computers. Also, when I saw the time line, I could see that everything was scheduled for the same time period, June and July. We would have to move 11 computers, install time management and filtering, and purchase additional computers and install them in a six week window.

Everyone was very skeptical of the project and doubted it severely. After providing a Request for Proposal, we received three respondents. In the end, we chose one that on paper was the most expensive, but in reality, provided what we wanted more cheaply. Many vendors will respond to an RFP with a low-ball figure that does not really meet the needs stated on the RFP. It is important to look over all of their documents and think about what you are going to need before making a decision. Also, having it in the RFP that the lowest bidder will not necessarily get the bid, but the vendor that provides what the library needs at a reasonable cost. The two other vendors had extremely low bids and after reviewing what they provided (no technical support?) we decided on one that had everything we needed.

The big news for the project came in May right before the big install was to take place. We were shopping for new computers and I had budgeted for $1500 for each computer. It turned out that I could get the same computers for only $960. Another yay, I could replace all of my existing computers out of the city's capital improvement project and use the Gates money to buy additional computers.

The day came for the big install, we had just replaced all of the old gates computer with the new sleek (and even small) black ones. Flat screens, half gig memory, lots of programs and they were zippy. The funny thing was that before we replaced these computers, we had to reboot computers that used MySpace because of the memory issue. Once the new computers were installed, no patron had to ever bother us with a crashed computer, it was wonderful.

A big storm hit the day of the install, which was a good thing because we had to shut down all of our computers for the day. We had planned on two days for the install, but it was completed before the end of the day. All the library staff were impressed that it worked and worked so well. We still need to work out bugs, but it is such an ironclad system. A patron cannot get around it or manipulate it in any way. No more kicking patrons off of computers with complaints or anger, the computer takes care and make sure everyone gets an equal amount of time.

Lastly, with the new computers so cheap, I was able to buy 13 new computers as opposed to 5. When I became Manager, we had 11 old clunky public access computers that crashed and was managed by a clipboard and stressed out library staff. Two years later, we now have 30 brand new computers, with the exact same interoperability, thanks to Recommendations for Multipurpose Public Access Computer Configuration Using Windows Prepared by Lori Bowen Ayre, 10/3/2005, wireless Internet access, and space to bring our computer access to over 40 computers.

When I first began at the library and taught technology classes, we had to close the computer lab. This brought on arguments from patrons about how public is the library if the library's public can't access the computers. A patron came up to me yesterday and asked, where did you get all these computers? You only had a few the last time, and these are all new and zippy. As a Manager it is rare to get a compliment about good service provided, but it was nice to hear that patrons appreciated the new improved access so much, they had to mention it. That's good customer service and it was all do to proper planning, a little luck, and persistence.


Michael Casey said...

Very interesting and informative post. I especially like the tip about putting into the RFP that you don't necessarily take the lowest bid. Do you use Windows or are you running some open source OS?

Jeff Scott said...


We use Windows. We tried Open source and it blew up in our face. It seems like library vendors like to low-ball the bid, provide insufficient services, then argue semantics when you are unhappy. It is nice to get a vendor who understands what you want, provides an honest bid, and delivers.