MaintainIT and sustainability in libraries

I got an email this morning from a student who was investigating sustainability in rural libraries. I sent him to the usual places like the The Center for the Study of Rural Librarianship and ALA’s resources for rural libraries but it got me thinking about sustainability generally. The whole tech boom and the “everything is on the internet” idea, really doesn’t affect most rural libraries that much. Sure, there are some communities that are thinking of ditching their libraries as a cost-cutting measure, but libraries still have a strong place in rural communities, often as the only access point to the internet and reading material for adults, young adults and children. They aren’t going anywhere.

They are, however, having a very hard time keeping up technologically and that’s where groups like MaintainIT come in. I have mentioned them before, I am on their steering committee. They’re a project of TechSoup, funded by the Gates Foundation. There are people from WebJunction on the committee. It’s a little bit of the usual suspects. I came to San Francisco for our once a year meeting where we talked about what the next year of the project is going to be like and what has happened so far. MaintainIT, if you don’t know, created “cookbooks” for libraries that gives them assistance with teachnical issues. You can go download them or look at them, they’re free. They’re even Creative Commons licensed so you can repurpose them and use them however you want to. They’re very well done and very informative.

It’s a neat project and yet has a few immediate problems. One, the idea of repurposing doesn’t really go far when what you have to work with is a PDF and you’re dealing with libraries who have never heard of the Creative Commons. Two, the cute language sometimes gets in the way of the really sound and solid technical advice these cookbooks have. Three, each year of the grant program that created this project focuses on different-sized libraries meaning the project doesn’t cohere around a specific userbase. It also serves 18 states, not fifty. Vermont is not one of the states it serves. Neither is Maine. California is one. So, while I really like the project, it’s gotten me very contemplative about sustainability. You see, the grant ends next year. And, like every single grant-funded project that happens in libraries, the big question at this point is “How do we continue to make an impact when we no longer have any staff or funding for it?” And that’s when you hit the idea of community. And that’s where libraries have something sustainable and grant-funded projects, even the best-meaning ones, don’t.

WebJunction was created to be the community that existed after the Gates Foundation library project was no longer providing support. WebJunction, however, still has staff and funding. WebJunction does not so much provide support as it offers an online community of librarians and others who sort of help each other. WebJunction is free but state libraries often pay to have a “branded” version of it. The amounts they pay are in the tens of thousands of dollars. You can see the VT WebJunction here. You can see the regular WebJunction here. I’ve already talked about WebJunction here before so I don’t need to guide you through the differences here (there are few) or point out the OCLC search box on the VT site that tells me that my nearest copy of Jane Eyre is in New Hampshire. I just want to mention that this “solution” has been less than optimal for my particular library region. I hope it has been better for others.

A community has not coalesced around WebJunction in Vermont. However there are communities in the small Vermont towns I work with that center around the library. The librarians I work with, while they’re cognizant of Google and the Internet generally, aren’t aware that there’s anything not sustainable about their libraries. The libraries are packed with people every day. They’re often the only place to even get high speed internet in the town. It’s definitely a pain that it’s hard for them to keep their computers running. However, it’s a bit of a stretch, to me, that they need to join a new community to do that. As much as I like and enjoy the Tech Soup, WebJunction and MaintainIT communities and the people involved in them specifically, I wonder about the best game plan for getting and keeping libraries tech savvy about their own IT needs and environment. Paying a local tech geek to fix some problem (say, like me) certainly doesn’t scale into something that you can replicate nationwide without replicating the cash that pays them. On the other hand, my job isn’t dependent on grant money and I’ve been doing this for almost three years which is coincidentally the life of this particular grant. The difference is, I’ll be doing this job next year and the grant won’t. Unless we can come up with something….

One Response to “MaintainIT and sustainability in libraries”

  1. Leslie McDonough Says:

    I’m a director of a small library, and I can tell you that the biggest problem we have is LACK OF TIME. We are very busy doing “traditional” library services as well as the newer online services, computer support, local databases, etc., etc. RI is lucky in that we have a public library consortium which provides a lot of tech support, and a wonderful foundation which provides funds for almost every computer in RI libraries.

    So I really don’t have time for Web Junction etc., None of those sites help when you are trouble shooting the server at 3:30 PM and the joint is jumping, while someone is waiting for you to explain how to send an email. And there is no level of hell too low for the person who freezes the print queue! It’s all part of the day – even here in RI where I can pick up the phone and yell for help from my local tech support – I’m still on the other end of the phone, doing what needs to be done.

    Solutions? They all cost money. Perhaps small libraries could band together to hire someone to do support and to create a coordinated tech plan. It would be ideal if each state library could have a person on staff to do it – but that’s probably not fiscally possible at the moment.

    In the meantime, I make sure I take every opportunity of learning basic support skills, because I’m the front line tech person. I carve out time to think about how to apply new technologies to traditional services, or to add services that people are looking for. It’s hard, there’s never enough time, but it’s part of being a small library director in the 21st century. Who wants to be bored???