In this issue, we launch a new regular feature where Marshall Breeding, the editor and primary contributor of Smart Libraries Newsletter, addresses a topic posed by a reader. Those wanting to submit questions or topics for future issues can send them to Samantha Imburgia, Associate Editor for ALA Tech- Source at email@example.com.
What suggestions do you have for small libraries with limited staff and budgets that are trying to adopt new tech and migrate from existing platforms?
Small libraries face incredible challenges in keeping up with technology. I have long been concerned that libraries serving small communities and rural areas often lack the funding and personnel they need to be able to offer technology-based services similar to larger public libraries. Small libraries in many other settings likewise lack adequate resources. Regardless of the resources available to the library, the communities they serve require and deserve the same level of services provided by larger libraries.
The library technology industry has not favored small libraries. Vendors scale the cost of technology products and services according to the cost and complexity of the library. It's reasonable that larger organizations pay more for the same software since they will use it with much more complexity to manage and provide access to larger collections. The pricing models, however, do not necessarily scale down to levels accessible by the smallest tiers of libraries.
In light of these realities, there are still many strategies available to small libraries that may help in their adoption of effective technologies.
- Don't face the problem alone. Implementing technology for a single library results in the least efficiency possible in terms of cost and effort and results in the least effective impact for patrons. Small libraries can seek opportunities to join in with other systems or consortia, buying in to share a system at a lower cost than their own standalone implementation. The systems operated by larger libraries may also provide more features and sophistication and, more importantly, would enable a small library to provide access to a larger collection representing the combined holdings of the partnership. Joining a consortium may also come with access to technical personnel, who can help with other aspects of the library's website and related services.
- Seek appropriate technology solutions. For those small libraries that must go at it alone, it is important to identify technology products that are well suited for the context of a small library. The functionality should be designed for your type of library. Going with a lower-cost product not necessarily oriented to your needs can be a point of frustration. Many small public libraries, for example, have implemented systems designed for K-12 schools mostly because of low cost. It's more beneficial to seek a better fit, even if it costs a bit more. Small libraries also will find fully web-based hosted products to be much easier to implement and operate than those that require software to be installed on library computers.
- Some small libraries may be interested in open source automation components. Given that open source software does not come with licensing costs, it can be an attractive option financially, but may be challenging for small libraries lacking personnel with strong technical expertise. A number of commercial firms specialize in services to implement, host, and support open source ILSs. The service fees involved may be a good value for many small libraries.
The core library automation system is just one component of the technology that libraries depend on to support their work and serve their patrons. The library's website represents another critical area of concern. In the course of my work, I visit the websites of many libraries. It's not surprising that smaller libraries tend to have a less than stellar web presence. Fortunately, it's getting easier to build great looking websites with popular content management platforms, such as WordPress. Rather than struggling with raw HTML, most small libraries will get better results using a content management system. They may want to seek an external expert— hopefully someone with a library perspective—to get it set up. Afterward, keeping the site up to date will be a routine, nontechnical activity.
Small public libraries should not have to settle for mediocre technology. These libraries need great technology to support their work even more than larger ones. I continue to hope that the disparities in technology available across the library spectrum will narrow. It's hard to be hopeful that the funding to small libraries will improve substantially. The trend toward hosted web-based technology services should help small libraries considerably since they have a much lower level of difficulty to implement and maintain. But I see the main path forward for small libraries in collaboration with peers and partners with mutual interests in efficient and affordable models to gain access to appropriate technology solutions.