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….

ALA-APA Rural Library Staff Salary Survey

The ALA-APA has put their rural library salary survey (pdf) online. This comes from the ALA Committee on rural, native and tribal libraries of all kinds. Here are some highlights.

  • The libraries themselves define what rural means. This can be tiny towns or larger towns that are very remote or just outside the city limits. The responding libraries were in Alaska, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, Kansas Montana, Pennsylvania and Soth Carolina. Oh, there’s also one rural librarian in Wyoming, hi Laura!
  • As far as technology, yes some of these libraries are still on dial-up. They also have populations with lower incomes and educations than in bigger libraries, according to some librarians.
  • One librarian describes the isolation “You really notice the isolation when you get an overdue e-mail or fax for an Interlibrary Loan book that has not even arrived yet. The bar and the library are the only source of entertainment in a tiny, isolated town.”
  • Resident and non-resident differentiation is something important to think about when your population doubles during tourist or fishing season.
  • On page 16 “What are the feelings about rural library staff salaries? Should they be higher?” I feel that this is a weird question. Who doesn’t want a higher salary? Most librarians responded that of course they should be higher but where is the money going to come from? The word “pathetic” came up more than once. One respondent “The salaries in rural areas definitely lagged behind others in my experience. We used to joke that it was worth $4,000 to have the clean air and clear skies.”

And then something weird happens and many of the comments in the “Have you heard about rural libraries that have raised their salaries?” (itself a really weird question, in my opinion) are copied from the previous question which makes for weird reading and pads out the survey in an odd fashion. So, upshot, some interesting things to consider, but I really wish there had been more representation from other states. I’m not entirely sure that what works for Alaska will play in Iowa and I am sure that some of the issues we have in Vermont are not at all the same as the ones they have in Kansas. That said it’s good to remember that there are many libraries in which getting a raise to $10 an hour (by cutting their education expenses) is a truly big deal. I’m hoping that someone in ALA comes out with some analysis and/or conclusions or projects from this. As it is it’s an informative but not very surpising data dump. [libact]