A well-thought-out technology plan can help libraries stay on course
We may know that technology is not an end in itself but a tool to help us meet our libraries’ service goals, but that’s easy to forget. After all, technology often sucks up huge amounts of attention, money, and staff resources. Our users, also technology consumers, have evolving expectations of what the library should provide. Yet new technologies can be disruptive to both staff and public. Added to all this, some of us remain technophobes while others are consumed by technolust – an irrational love for new technology combined with unrealistic expectations for the solutions it brings.
How do we find our way through this confusing technological terrain? We need only one thing: a plan. The overall goal of such a plan is to ensure that technology meets the mission of an organization. It should clarify who is to be involved in the process and the plan’s intended audience and life span. Staff must buy into the plan. Promote it to all stakeholders so they know what’s ahead – the goals – and what it takes to get there – the work. While it’s not discussed here, every initiative also needs solid cost analysis, from hardware to software, from staff training to ongoing hours. And, keep that technolust under control.
Meet the mission
“A successful technology plan should be based on the institution’s overall mission,” says Jim Gingery, acting director of the Milwaukee County Federated Library System (MCFLS). “The plan should be robust enough to stretch staff without overwhelming them.” As part of its overall mission, MCFLS aims to assist “member libraries in the utilization of current and evolving technologies to provide the highest possible level of library service to all residents of Milwaukee County.” Its plan builds on that, setting as its vision “the maintenance and improvement of end user public service.” The plan includes four goals relating to infrastructure, the shared OPAC, documentation and training, and resource sharing. Objectives expand further, each with specific activities (establish Help Desk services to troubleshoot equipment problems; offer users the ability to place holds.)
The mission of the Portage County Public Library, WI, is to “provide information, support lifelong learning, and promote reading and literacy.” Its vision for technology is to guide library customers in their use of electronic information and provide access to information with the necessary hardware, affordable products, and services. This includes creating and maintaining a state-of-the-art infrastructure incorporating objectives such as implementing wireless telecommunications and the Z39.50 protocol to connect to other library holdings.
Depending on the size of your library, a planning team might be made up of administrators, IT personnel, reference librarians, and others, including those who interact with patrons and understand what they want. Planning teams might also bring on board stakeholders from outside the library, such as IT leaders in local schools, colleges, and museums – this could also lead to new partnerships.
Staff participation works best “if there is good communication already going on between supervisors/managers and front-line staff,” says David King, IT/web project manager at Kansas City Public Library (KCPL), MO. New services, of course, must have folks to run them or know how they work. “IT will sometimes plan something with new technology, and no one else knows about it until it impacts the front-line public services staff.”
A living document
Many library technology plans, like MCFLS’s, span two or three years. At KCPL “planning is done formally every year,” King says. “The whole library system submits projects, ideas, and possible initiatives to IT, and we put them on a list with projected completion dates and go from there.” Those ideas are evaluated for impact on budget, staffing, and the library system.
Jessamyn West, outreach librarian at Rutland Free Library, VT, believes a “good plan should last a while because it should anticipate at least some technologies, but it should be flexible enough to incorporate others. A three-year plan gets you some solid tech with no huge surprises, while the ‘vision thing’ can last five to ten years in terms of what role the library wants.”
No matter what the duration, a technology plan must be a “living document,” says Chris Jowaissas, network deployment manager for the Gates Foundation. Oversight again must include all stakeholders. Gingery reports that MCFLS uses biennial reviews that include MCFLS staff, a technology advisory committee, the board, and multitype library representation. Sandra Nelson, author of Wired for the Future: Developing Your Library Technology Plan (ALA Editions, 1999) is more demanding: “Once a plan is developed, it should be reviewed monthly and updated as new products and services that support the library’s services priorities become available.”
Buy in, not out
Communication is important for staff buy in. One Midwestern library implemented a virtual reference project with little staff input. “All the librarians just kept forgetting to log in to manage chat,” one of the librarians reports.
In addition to involving staff from the beginning, buy in can come from staging informational meetings for all stakeholders and providing good training up front and regular updates on how and when the plan is being implemented. Surprising a team of library workers with a new technology is a recipe for front-line, and customer service, disaster.
Obviously, not every staffer will agree with every technology initiative. But, says West, “they should at the very least feel consulted and not be hostile toward it.”
Who are we planning for?
Everett Rogers’s Innovation Adoption Curve is a useful model for library planners. It includes Innovators, who jump on the latest, greatest thing; Early Adopters, who are on the cutting edge but proceed carefully with implementation; Early Majority, the folks just behind the early adopters who proceed even more carefully; Late Majority, who only implement when everyone is doing it; and Laggards, who drag their feet until the new thing is old hat.
When beginning a technology plan, think about who you are planning for. Are you trying to satisfy the innovators in your IT department? Are you planning just enough so those laggards on your staff won’t have to deal with too much, too fast? All are important, but users are the real focus of our planning.
A planning librarian will seek to understand where on the Rogers curve her community more or less fits. She understands that her users may not care about metasearching of database content but may care very much about placing holds on materials from home via the library’s web site.
Every few months a new technology, or at least buzzword, makes its way through the conferences and blogs. Yes, we need to follow developing technologies in our industry and the consumer world as well. But it’s not so important which technologies exist as it is when – and if – they hit the tipping point and “everyone” in your community starts using them. In your library’s neighborhood, for example, when do you need to use a DVD player to view a rental movie? Or when is every other young adult in your library carrying an iPod? How does this portable storage device relate to library content?
Lusting in our hearts
The flip side of such mindfulness is technolust. We have all seen it. A librarian returns from a conference, high on the possibilities of that oh so hot technology. Twelve months later, that expensive new technology sits on a dusty virtual shelf. Or a trustee hears of a technology that has changed the workflow of well-known retail establishments and decides the library must have it as well.
“Some directors who succumb to technolust want the latest, greatest tech toy because they themselves are techies,” says author Nelson. “Others who get caught up in technolust…have little interest in technology…[but are] pushed into unwise decisions by technology staff.”
Technolust can send a library spinning in too many directions. Often technolust ignores the library’s technology plan in favor of speedy implementation. Meanwhile, service initiatives are put aside to kowtow to the next big thing.
Good planning can deflect technolust. King reports that KCPL was interested in staff using PDAs in its renovated library. New technology at KCPL is always part of the technology plan, with “some sort of planning group working on the impact on staff, impact on the budget, and what the outcomes might be.” With PDAs, “we set up a committee, let them try out PDAs, and had them report back,” comments King. The result? PDAs wouldn’t work for staff.
Do we need a fax machine?
“Technomust” may be more prevalent than technolust, according to Gates Foundation’s Jowaissas.”Many libraries experience technomust and follow the crowd, albeit later rather than earlier…. They buy technology because others do, not because they have a plan about how they are going to use it to provide better service,” Jowaissas says.
Technophobia can cause problems as well. Nelson says, “There are still directors who resist every technology advance almost to the point that the technology has been superseded by a newer technology…. One common excuse is ‘No one has asked for it.'”
Technology and libraries in the 21st century are wedded, and this marriage is a long-lasting one. A library that recognizes how technology can improve services for its community is destined for success. No matter what technologies or services you go with, remember to plan with your users in mind.
Michael Stephens is Special Projects Librarian, St. Joseph County Public Library, IN, and author of The Library Internet Trainer’s Toolkit (Neal-Schuman, 2001). His Technology and Libraries blog is at www.tametheweb.com
King, David, “Planning for Wireless in Kansas City,” netConnect, Spring 2003, LJ 4/15/03, p. 12ff. Milwaukee County Federated Library System Technology Plan 2003 – 2004
Portage County Public Library Technology Plan 2003 – 2006 library.uwsp.edu/pcl/techplan_backup.html