Forward Thinking

A Librarian Plans Ahead While Maintaining Existing Systems
Location: 
Bossier City, Louisiana
Librarian: 
Jaketha Farmer

As the first systems administrator for Bossier Parish Library System's seven branches (and one historical center), Jaketha Farmer has maintained her enthusiasm for technology despite grappling with a daunting workload.

In 2007, when she joined the northern Louisiana parish library system that serves nearly 100,000 people, Farmer immediately began a complete system overhaul. This meant setting up a client-server network for the library system's nearly 200 computers, which were formerly connected through a peer-to-peer network (typically suitable for less than a dozen or so PCs), implementing an IT help desk, and establishing technology training for both staff and patrons.

This isn't the first time TechSoup has reached out to Farmer. We covered her system overhaul in a previous article, and she had such exciting tech plans for her library system that we wanted to follow up and see what other insights we could glean from her experiences.

After establishing a solid foundation for her library system's infrastructure, Farmer continues to implement new technologies, and she spends even more time maintaining the library's existing systems.

When we spoke this time, Farmer told us it was her first chance to take a break in nearly two weeks, and she spoke frankly about how she thinks others view IT employees:

People love you when things work, they hate you when it doesn't work, and then the rest of the time, they just forget about you."

But her love of technology (she maintains a Digital Lovers Blog focusing exclusively on tech topics) and her work was readily apparent when speaking to her. It is this combination of pragmatism and an earnest desire to empower others through technology that has allowed Farmer's library system to best allocate its limited resources.

Keeping Printers in Line

One of Farmer's biggest projects after the system overhaul was getting a print management system in place for Bossier Parish Library's computers. Despite being handled largely by an outside vendor, this proved more difficult than expected. Her library had signed a contract with a vendor to set up their print management system, Farmer told us, without realizing that the company had never really worked with libraries of Bossier Parish's size, and in fact had mainly worked with hotels or other large networks. "Everything about our network, they had a problem with," Farmer said. "It just turned into a big nightmare for about a year and a half."

Eventually, the library approached another vendor, Envisionware, which had already been handling the library's PC access with its PC Reservation service. Envisionware works exclusively with libraries, and Farmer already knew the software would be compatible with their library's system since they had an existing relationship. Farmer says it took less than four months to set up Envisionware's LPT: One print management system, which has worked beautifully since.

Battling Network Bottlenecks

Another problem Farmer identified early on was the library system's firewall. The firewall appliance had a maximum throughput of 10Mbps, but was handling content filtering and many other processes that were bottlenecking the library system's network performance.

Farmer addressed the problem by getting a new 20Mbps-throughput firewall and installing a Cymphonix appliance to handle content filtering and remove some of the network strain from the firewall. The Cymphonix Network Composer EX Series web gateway Farmer deployed allowed a maximum throughput of 30Mbps. When combined with the higher throughput of the new firewall, installing these two devices significantly improved available network bandwidth.

Farmer says having an all-in-one security appliance can be convenient (assuming it supports the required throughput), but splitting up services between appliances can act as a safeguard. "If that one device goes down, then all those features with it goes down," she told us.

Rewiring for Wireless

All the Bossier Parish library branches now have wireless Internet access, thanks to Farmer. She hired a professional to set up the wireless network, which is managed at the main branch through an HP ProCurve device. The setup went well, and patrons have been enjoying the ability to bring their own computers to branches and have Internet access, which frees up patron desktop computers for others to use.

Card-carrying library patrons as well as library guests can request wireless Internet passes from designated employees in each of the Bossier Parish library branches. Patrons can access the wireless network for five days before renewing their passes, while guests must renew their passes each day they need wireless access. And passes requested at one branch allow wireless access at any branch in the Bossier Parish Library System.

Training Technology Users

Almost as soon as Farmer arrived at the Bossier Parish Libraries, she initiated free monthly computer classes for patrons, held from May through October. These two-hour classes focus on basic computer skills, such as using Microsoft Office products, browsing the Internet, or setting up an email account.

Since our original interview, Farmer has started offering these free classes year-round, and she says this has been well-received. Some patrons even attend classes more than once.

 

They feel like, 'I may learn something this time that you didn't say before,'" she says of her returning alumni.

Farmer thinks attendance would be higher if they could have classes in the evening hours, but her library doesn't have the staff to offer them (yet).

Bossier Parish's main branch has also been selected by the State Library of Louisiana as a host site for free technology training, funded by a three-year BroadbandUSA grant as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Farmer said these all-day classes were extremely popular with attendees, which led her to pitch her own one-time class for Bossier Parish Library staff, many of whom wished to sign up for the grant-funded classes. In less than a day, Farmer's beginning-to-intermediate level Excel class for library staff was fully booked (with a waitlist).

Better, Faster, More Uniform

While it sounds like Jaketha would be busy enough implementing new technologies across the Bossier Parish Library System, much of Farmer's duties (and stresses) involve maintaining the library's existing systems. Each year, Farmer has to make budgeting decisions regarding which computers should be replaced: support staff computers, manager and supervisor computers, public computers, or library servers. Last year, Farmer chose to replace 17 out of the 20 computers used by managers and supervisors and just a few of the library's many public computers. Having uniform computers among managers and supervisors simplifies IT troubles within that group, so will be freer to carry out their duties.

Farmer said she'll probably get new public computers this coming year, though she can't replace them all. Her focus is on replacing the library's oldest public computers, which she says might be used for backup catalogs or as circulation computers. Farmer prefers to order computers with the necessary software preloaded, which reduces the amount of time she has to spend installing or upgrading Bossier Public LibrartBossier Public Librarysoftware on the library's computers.

Autopilot Engaged

In our first article, Farmer talked about empowering library employees to learn how to solve their own technology problems. To this end, she's maintained documentation for library staff to refer to regarding the various systems and software at the libraries. But she's also automated several processes, such as software updates and virus scans, using Windows Server Update Services (WSUS) and other methods such as specialized scripts.

"All the way down to the computer turning itself on in the morning, to logging itself in, to shutting itself down at night – if we can automate it, we do it," Jaketha says.

Automating as many processes as possible and thus relieving staff members of those responsibilities has reduced the amount of phone calls and complaints Farmer receives.

Providing Expert Guidance

Possibly the biggest struggle for Farmer is making sure she's consulted when her library system makes technology decisions – which doesn't always happen. In several instances where she was not consulted prior to purchasing software or hardware, she says, problems have come up that could have been avoided. Other departments at the library have purchased software without consulting her, and on more than one occasion the library's computers did not meet the software's minimum system requirements. That's when it became Farmer's problem.

"When you work in technology, usually you're going be the last person to know what's going on," she says. "You just deal with it." Farmer acknowledges that it may be difficult to adjust to having an in-house IT person when there wasn't a dedicated IT employee previously. But this is a pattern she says she's noticed at every library where she's worked, and she hopes it will change with time. "It's not this library system. It's just the way public libraries operate when it comes to technology," says Farmer.

It would be prudent for libraries to include IT employees in high-level meetings where technology plans are discussed, Farmer told us. Doing so can prevent wasteful spending on incompatible or unneeded software or hardware. With technology playing a larger role in libraries, it makes sense for those most knowledgeable about it to have a similarly expanded influence.

Planning for the Library of Tomorrow

Farmer has even more plans in the works for the Bossier Parish Library System, including upgrading the main branch's network with a Metro Ethernet connection. Metro Ethernet is available in certain metropolitan areas and allows network throughput of up to 1,000 Mbps, though Farmer's library will most likely utilize a lower bandwidth option. Both the library system's firewall and Cymphonix device will be bottlenecks for a Metro Ethernet connection service unless they are upgraded as well during implementation of the new connection.

Farmer said she's also looking into acquiring a Windows Server installation, possibly through TechSoup.org, to install on an older machine that can serve as a backup domain for the library. She shared that the money she saves by requesting software through TechSoup could give her more flexibility in her budget.

But Farmer's biggest hope for her library is a dedicated training room for library staff. She told us about a recent visit to The Library Corporation's headquarters, where she saw just such a room, complete with training stations that featured circulation, patron, staff, and other configurations for library staff to learn.

It was evident when speaking with Farmer that training is her passion (she holds a master's degree in training and development).

There are some things that they could do to empower themselves, if they just knew how to do this," she says of library staffers. "So my heart is always going to be with training."

She hopes to get a training room included in the main library's upcoming renovation plan – the staff-only Excel class she'll be teaching in a few weeks will be held in the library's computer lab.

Not every library system can have a Jaketha Farmer. She clearly loves her work ("I wouldn't exchange my job for anything in the world," she told us), and the Bossier Parish Library System is reaping the benefits. But other libraries that have the luxury of a dedicated IT employee would do well to heed her advice: "Don't take your IT department for granted. They go through so much."

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