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Better Connectivity

How One Award-Winning Library is Meeting the Demands of the Modern Patron
Orlando, FL
Debbie Moss

In today’s libraries, providing enough computers is only part of the public-access equation. After all, no amount of computers is enough if your library can’t offer an adequate internet connection.

Edge Benchmark 9 specifies that libraries have sufficient devices and bandwidth to accommodate user demand. In this case study, we meet up with Debbie Moss, Assistant Director and Head of Technical Support at the Orange County Public Libraries in Orlando, Florida. A shining example of Benchmark 9, the Orange County Library System carefully manages its internet connections, computer stations, and wireless hotspots in order to meet the needs of one million Orlando residents.

Faced with the ever-increasing demands of its community, many of whom lack residential internet service and rely on library computers to search for and apply to jobs, the Orange County Library System must work to efficiently accommodate as many patrons as possible while still allowing each user the time and bandwidth he or she needs to work effectively.

One way the library has worked to meet this need is to increase wireless access points throughout its system, offering fast connections for patrons using personal computers and gadgets on site. Another way is through its unique Right Service at the Right Time program, winner of the 2011 Urban Libraries Council Innovation Award. Under this program, dedicated, grant-funded computers help patrons discover specific community resources to match their needs without time limits, so that individuals can navigate options at their own pace.

Moss and her team manage computer and connection assets for the library, a task that includes moving computers between locations, monitoring bandwidth demands, and regulating the daily computer time allotted to each patron. To accomplish all this, Moss says, it’s important to keep in mind the big picture.

What made your library successful?

Moss credits the Orange County Library System’s success to efficient  management of its computer and bandwidth assets, along with a regular evaluation process to identify supply and demand throughout the system — a process that has allowed the library to move underutilized computers at one location to those experiencing higher demand.

By looking at both computer use and average times at its various branches, the library was able to rebalance its distribution of existing computers, rather than simply purchasing new ones.

While Moss said that the library "went through a growth period like everyone did trying to figure out how much would be enough," the library now has about 300 public computers, with one-hour time limits. "Up until this summer, it was two one-hour sessions per day per user," she added.  "We really measured our success there by watching our wait time. We try to keep [the wait] below five minutes."

Another factor that has helped the library accommodate all of its patrons is the increasing trend of personal wireless access.

Computer use is going down pretty dramatically because of wireless access," Moss said. "Wireless [use] has grown maybe in the 20 percent range over the same period in the previous year. We’ve got a lot of people with laptops and other kinds of devices coming in and accessing wireless. They are not getting on our computers [but are] still using us for public computing access."

While this has freed up public computers, the Orange County Library System has had to address the growing need for wireless access points and bandwidth. The main branch offers a 600 Mbps connection, with individual branches offering a bandwidth of 75 Mbps per computer. Moss said the team monitors network bandwidth and plans bandwidth increases according to utilization.

The Orange County Library System is not alone:  between laptops, tablets, e-readers, and mobile devices, providing sufficient bandwidth has become an important component of libraries’ public access plans — a point stressed by Benchmark 9 as well.


What did you learn during this process?

Moss stressed the importance of constant vigilance when it comes to meeting connectivity needs as outlined in Benchmark 9, citing data as a vital part of this equation. Her team carefully monitors computer use times, number of sessions, length of sessions, wait times, and bandwidth use at the branches. This process allows the library to respond quickly to fluctuating demands — whether relocating computers, purchasing more bandwidth, or adding more access points — and maintain a high level of service.

Moss said experience has taught her "the importance of measuring, of metrics, of having some objective data rather than anecdotal," which she notes can be misleading.

When we look at wait times and you ask the staff how they’re doing [you may hear], 'The other day I had a guy and he waited 45 minutes!' But you realize it was that one guy … [It’s important to] make sure that you’re using your data to measure your needs, [rather than just relying on casual] feedback."

Where did you run into trouble?

Moss admits that her team didn't plan for mobile devices, "the whole BYOD (bring your own device) phenomenon." She continued,

We didn't adequately anticipate growth, which directly impacts service. The challenge is how do you know what the next big thing will be and the demand it will place on your infrastructure."

When service is impacted, a library's relevance suffers. "Not being prepared technologically stunts your own ability to develop internally and meet the needs of the public." Moss shared that the library risks the public looking for alternatives to the library.

How did you overcome those challenges?

Moss shared, "we focus on agility." As an example, the team makes sure when signing agreements that "there is flexiblity to do upgrades without a re-bid." She continued, "also, we overbuild. Pver step what's absolutely required to get the job done expecting that you'll need it sooner or later whether you see a purpose at the time." As an example, the library installed Cat 5e rather than Cat 5 cable.

"Being prepared has always been a priority for us." Debbie’s team works hard to anticipate, plan, and prepare for what comes ahead, even if the use case isn’t clearly defined at the point of the planning process. She admits that because their IT is not controlled by the county, their ability to be agile is a different scenario from libraries that have to make the case to county stakeholders for new projects.

What was the key to your success?

Moss credits the federal E-Rate discount program as a major factor in the Orange County Library System’s success in maintaining a high level of connectivity. E-Rate’s deep discounts have allowed the library to offer phenomenal connection speeds without using up its entire technology budget.

"Since year one we’ve been taking advantage of E-Rate," Moss said. "If we add it all up, we’re talking about an advantage getting into a couple million dollars here, probably, over time. It’s a lot of work. It’s an onerous process, but the value that it brings us in terms of being able to always be ahead of the curve with our network, it’s dramatic. We’re up to an 80 percent discount."

What advice would you give to a colleague?

Moss stresses that setting up and maintaining a high level of service means making it a library priority — something she said happened at the Orange County Library System as a result of new leadership and a resulting shift in managing philosophy that affected everything from budget allocations and staff training to performance expectations. This nearly decade-long transformation, she said, has led to staff across the library working together to make computer access and bandwidth speeds an integral component of the library’s services.

"[About] eight years ago, we developed a position called the Technology and Customer Support Specialist," Moss said, adding that the library increased its training from there. "[Our] staff were out there to interact with the public with those computers when it was so very new to most people. We instituted a training program [and] started offering computer classes. We have curricula for nearly 200 different classes. It’s all been developed in-house, and we offer about 1,200 classes system-wide per month." Moss added that the position title has since been changed to Technology Trainer to reflect the greater focus on technology and training over customer support [job description (pdf)].

Moss is quick to draw the connection between philosophy and funding:

The two things that we do most effectively here are having enough computers and the bandwidth," she said. "I think computers and network are about money. You have to have the resources to support them and you have to decide what your priorities are. If access to public computing is a priority need in your community for you, that’s what you have to decide because you’re probably going to have to rearrange your resources. If children’s programming is priority, then that’s where the resources are going to go. You have to decide where it all fits in your overall program of service."

What three steps would you tell a colleague to start doing now?

Moss suggests that libraries wanting to learn from her experience take the following steps.

  1. Learn about E-Rates. The E-Rate discount program offers libraries top-notch internet bandwidth at a fraction of the price. While the application process entails a lot of paperwork and hoops to jump through, the end result is better connection speeds at better prices that won’t break your library’s budget.
  2. Take an in-depth look at your data. Carefully examine your community. Evaluate computer usage, wireless access, and bandwidth loads over a period of time to see what trends emerge. Look at usage patterns over the course of months and years; these trends will allow your library to make changes to respond to and eventually anticipate fluctuations in use.

    An example in this case might be mobile technologies, Moss said.

    Your computing resources are probably going to need to be distributed across platforms, and you need to try to evaluate where your community is on that. What’s the mobile penetration in your community? What’s the wireless access? Is it good for your community? Is that something you need to be doing? Is that need already being met broadly? There are more choices now."

  3. Be flexible. Expect that some changes may provoke unintended consequences, and be prepared to respond to these. At her library for instance, Moss said, an increase in computer time allowances led to new disagreements among users, including complaints about headphones — issues the library staff has worked to address.

OCLS knows Benchmark 9

Through her efforts as Assistant Director of the Orange County Library System in Orlando, Florida, Debbie Moss and her team keep the computer wait times down, the wireless access points available, and the bandwidth steady. Her team's focus on planning for the future and understanding community needs helped them pitch their dreams to a local donor interested in supporting the library with a $1 million donation.

Based on a "strong suspicion the library could sell this," they facilitated a series of focus groups and other activities to support their plans. With the donor's generosity, the library is building the Dorothy Lumley Melrose Center for Technology Innovation and Creativity, a 20,000 square foot space dedicated to making, creating, and teaching technology in hands-on and collaborative ways. Their plans include to offer video, audio, fabrication, and technology exploration, including digital printing (the library already has a MakerBot Replicator 2 and offers public classes to support it), a fab lab, simulation scenarios like flight simulator, traditional crafts, and activities supporting STEM learning. This exciting new endeavor will be equipped for community use, such as space and resources for small business development and marketing capabilities. Moss shared they plan to include an auditorium setting in the Center: "We want to have TED talks, just be a community center for bringing people together to talk about new ideas and experiences." The library is also exploring partnerships with local schools to staff and provide internships to support this program. The Center will open in Spring 2014.

Lots of excitement happening at the Orange County Library System! All in all, Debbie Moss and her team have what it takes to meet their community's current needs and build for the future, a shining example of Benchmark 9.

by Andy Woodworth

Agnostic Maybe


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