Uncovering the Secret Ingredient for Successful Libraries

(Originally published December 1, 2006 at www.nsls.info)

One of my fondest childhood memories is of my grandma’s sugar cookies. I wondered where she kept the secret huge cookie cutter that made perfectly round 6-inch cookies. Each flawless, the same size, arrived neatly packaged in a homemade cookie jar. All this coming from my “fancy grandma” – the one with the evening gowns and gold-lamé shoes – made it even more spectacular. I asked about the special cookie cutter on more than one occasion, but no one ever seemed to know what I was talking about. Then, one day my grandma invited me to help with the baking. Imagine my wonder when she pulled out an empty Folgers coffee can and cut each plump cookie. This time, I got to decorate the “cookie jar” and load the freshly-baked cookies back into the coffee can.

This moment in history reminds me that the easiest solutions can have tremendous effect. We often don’t realize the wisdom of our ingenuity until the secrets are revealed to others. This same level of creativity is demonstrated in Illinois libraries daily – finding the right tool to bring resources and services to patrons.

Through an LSTA grant, Libraries as 21st Century Technology Leaders: Developing a Statewide Toolkit, a statewide research study will identify and share the best practices of academic, public, and school libraries which have embraced and integrated new technologies into their library services. The project focuses on how technology is used and supported to enhance programs and services. By capturing the secret recipe for success, these best practices will be used to initiate similar programs and services throughout the state. The goal is to develop prescriptive, as well as descriptive, project outlines of successful technology ventures which can serve as cookie cutters to replicate successful projects on a statewide scale.

Examples of services provided by successful networked libraries abound. Three in particular, position libraries as technology leaders: 1) remote authentication, 2) wireless access, and 3) electronic communication. These examples stress the importance of the virtual library, the library as a place, and the library as a face (personalization).

Remote Authentication

Through remote authentication to subscription databases, the value of a library card or student ID increases dramatically, as does the effective reach of the library. How has your library or LLSAP implemented remote authentication? What did it cost? How is it maintained? Do you promote this service to patrons? How do you negotiate with vendors of database services to guarantee their products will work with your remote authentication solution? Answers to these questions accompanied by detailed budget, project plans, hardware/software implementation and configuration files, and marketing tips can help other libraries implement a successful solution.

Wireless Access

Should we compete with coffee shops and bookstores? When it comes to wireless computing access, absolutely! Don’t forget the impact of a good cup of coffee too. What hardware and software does a library need to support wireless networking? Does it increase operating costs to offer wireless access? How do you handle questions from patrons about connecting to the library? How do you protect your bandwidth? Did you see an increase in library visitors once you installed wireless access? Was a wireless access policy implemented; can you share it?

Electronic Communication

The third recipe for a successful networked library is electronic communication and outreach. A web presence is absolutely critical and should reflect current programs and services, keeping visitors constantly updated. This web presence is the face of the library to patrons – those who may rarely step foot in the library, as well as those who visit on a regular basis. Weblogs offer an effective solution for currency of information and staff involvement. The days of needing an HTML programmer are long gone; free tools enable anyone to be a web publisher. As diverse as the collection, patrons too have differing opinions on how they want to receive information from their library. The tug of war between push (sending electronic newsletters or email notices) and pull technology (allowing patrons to subscribe to an RSS feed) can be left to the patron. Providing information in a format that can be used for both purposes leaves the patron in control, much like the decision to check out an item in paper or audio format. Has you library implemented a successful electronic newsletter? Do you maintain a blog? What software do you use? How much does it cost? Who writes the articles and how much time does it take the staff to contribute? Have you implemented any services for personalization of information such as subject-based RSS feed of new items in the library?

Libraries in Illinois have experienced success in these example technologies and far more. And, it usually does not require expensive hardware, software, and consulting budgets. Sometimes a coffee can and some inspiration through example is all that is needed.

It is valuable to have an understanding of emerging technologies; it is essential to implement and use available technology effectively to better serve of patrons. The implementation strategies, to be gathered through the Libraries as 21 st Century Technology Leaders project, represent the secret ingredient – secrets we want you to share.

©2010 BellCow Inc.