Like many librarians constrained by shrinking budgets in recent years, Jerry Carbone had to figure out a way to do more with less to maintain the technology resources at his library in Brattleboro, Vermont. Carbone is the director and de facto IT guy at Brooks Memorial Library, the largest public library in southern Vermont, with a collection spanning about 75,000 volumes. Built in 1967, the library serves 12,000 people in Brattleboro and the surrounding area, and receives about 12,000 to 15,000 visitors per month.
Brooks Memorial has developed a strong focus on programming under Carbone's leadership, with lifelong learning programs and other events held several times a week. It also has a prominent online presence, with a regularly updated website, multiple blogs, and Flickr, Facebook, and Twitter accounts.
A few years ago, Carbone's library was struggling to keep its dozen or so Windows-based public access computers up to date. He decided to explore low-cost open-source options for public access computing, and after a successful implementation, he drew on the library's web presence and organizing expertise to maintain those systems affordably.
Saving money with open source
In 2008, Carbone's library had about eight aging public access PCs in dire need of replacement. Most of them were about seven years old, running obsolete operating systems and software. Carbone couldn't afford to replace the computers with new machines, so he decided to go with an open-source solution instead,
Maintaining our public access PCs using Windows-based operating systems was a challenge because of all the various types of software you needed to load on it to keep it from having viruses and having systems being changed by patrons.
Carbone contracted with Userful, a Canadian firm that builds custom Linux multi-user PCs, to replace the library's public computers. Userful's custom multi-user software allows up to 10 workstations to run off of one computer. This provided the library with current hardware at an affordable annual cost — Carbone says the library pays Userful roughly what it would cost to buy one new machine every year to keep the machines current and running.
The library added 11 Userful stations, converted an older Windows machine to Linux, and kept about six of its newer Windows machines running, allowing it to offer more than twice the amount of public access computers than was previously available. Even better, the Userful software includes time management and disk protection capabilities, among other features, so the computers reset to their original state after each use.
Patrons quickly acclimated to the new Linux-based computers and demand for the stations rose, due in no small part to the library offering a broadband Internet connection in a town where such access is not readily available, not to mention free. Carbone knew he'd soon have to find a way to augment the library's computers, and without money in the budget for such expenses, it seemed like a good time to apply for a grant.
Carbone applied for a Bill & Melinda Gates Opportunity Online Grant in 2009 to maintain and add to its public computers. The grant required that eligible libraries match grant funds with local dollars, so Brooks Memorial needed to raise $5,850 over the next two years to receive funding in 2010 and 2011.
Carbone worked with his local Friends of Brooks Memorial Library, which organizes a library book sale three times a year, to put together a benefit concert in fall of 2009. Featuring local jazz musicians, it was the first time the library had hosted an event of this type, but proved to be a success.
"The concert was spectacular," Carbone said. "We did a little talk about supporting public access computers to the community. People were surprised that we were the only public access point in Brattleboro."
The following spring, Carbone organized a trivia contest, with 15 teams each pledging $100 for a chance to win a prize, as well as a $5 trivia raffle for the other patrons. With the combined proceeds from the concert and trivia contest, the library had raised enough in 2010 to cover the full two years of the Gates grant, Carbone said.
To promote both events, Carbone and his staff leveraged the library's growing web presence to publicize them on the library's blog, website, and email newsletter, and through Carbone's Twitter account. Carbone said this multipronged approach to promoting the events paid off, and he was happy to see his Twitter announcements retweeted by others in the community.
Organizing for future savings
After experiencing the cost-benefit of open source with public access computers, Carbone began investigating the possibility of migrating to an open-source ILS. Carbone got in touch with other Vermont librarians and decided it might be prudent to work together to avoid duplicative efforts and spending. Soon after, the group created the Catamount Library Network, named after a type of mountain lion in Vermont that became extinct in the early 1900s (though sightings are still reported, Carbone said).
The pilot project is still in the early stages of planning, but it would create a shared database for making each library's resources accessible to all member libraries. He said the network is considering Koha or Evergreen as their open-source ILS, and the group plans to have the network ready to go live by 2013. He wants Brooks Memorial to be one of the first libraries to migrate to this database, and if successful, hopes to expand the program to all Vermont libraries statewide.
Even in the midst of budget cuts, including cuts to personnel that forced the library to slightly reduce its staff hours last year, Carbone's resourceful thinking has provided Brooks Memorial with the technology to fully support its community.
Check out the Patron Computer Software Comparison Chart from our Planning for Success Cookbook for more examples of patron management software, including open-source software, used in small libraries.