Library Issues

Editor: Richard M. Dougherty,University of Michigan.
Contributing Editors: Mignon Adams, Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science; Eileen Fenton, University of Michigan;Steve Marquardt, South Dakota State University; William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Maureen Pastine, Temple University; Sarah Pritchard, Smith College;
Vol. 18, No. 5May 1998

The Challenge of Technology Support in Libraries: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

by Mark Cain

An all-too-realistic scenario: The library has switched its periodical index databases from a CD-ROM network to the World Wide Web. The new service is very popular; it's intuitive and easily accessed from home or office, or the public stations in the library.

Then one day, for no apparent reason, half of the databases begin to freeze in the middle of searches. Faculty are calling, angry that their home computers keep locking up and wondering if the modem connection is at fault or if it's something else. A frustrated graduate student, on a deadline with his dissertation research, storms into the library director's office to protest. Three hundred students in Freshmen Composition cannot complete their library research assignment, which is due tomorrow.

The problem could be anything: a subtle modification in software on the server end that is causing a conflict with workstations, a change in campus network configuration, an issue with the university's Internet Service Provider or with the remote site at which the database is mounted. Compounding the problem is that no other institution is reporting a similar difficulty.

Library technical staff members are being hounded to correct the problem quickly; but they are not in control of all the pieces. To fix things, they must diagnose the problem by remote control, they must rely on the cooperation of others who have better things to do with their time, then they must fix the problem themselves if appropriate, or beg, wheedle, and threaten others into doing it.

This is typical of the challenges facing library systems technical support workers. Theirs is a demanding profession, and a critical one as libraries come to rely heavily on automated systems.

This dependence on technical support staff is a change of recent vintage. A mere 50 years ago, computing was a rare and mysterious enterprise, the purview of a few skilled individuals. We have come a long way since the days of vacuum tubes and punch cards, of transistors and integrated circuits. The personal computer emerged in the 1980s, and networks became ubiquitous in the 1990s. Now everyone uses computers, from a variety of locations, on a vast network that—thanks to wired and wireless technologies—spans the globe, stretching even into outer space.

Endless Possibilities. . .Limiting Factors

The possibilities seem endless, but two factors give pause to our enthusiasm.

These technologies cost a great deal to obtain enterprise-wide. Higher education institutions have seen a rapid multiplying of workstations on the desktop and in student labs. Even when there is a computer on every desktop, the demand for new equipment never ends because the life cycle of these technologies is so short. There is never enough money to replace obsolescent equipment rapidly enough, and a college or university does well to average a four or five year cycle on machines that should be replaced every two to three years.

The other limiting factor is that computers and the network infrastructure do not run themselves. Because these technologies are less mature than they appear, they require a great deal of care and feeding. Computers need to be installed, then they break and need to be fixed. The number of new software packages is burgeoning, and both these and new versions of current applications must be installed. Occasionally these packages conflict with each other, and a technically skilled individual must identify the cause and solve the problem. Hardware and software must be added to each workstation so it can talk across the network. Servers and hubs need to be installed, maintained, upgraded. New functionality is demanded constantly, and the technical staff must rapidly climb a steep learning curve in order to program or install these new features to workstations, servers, and networks.

"The other limiting factor is that computers
and the network infrastructure do not run themselves.
Because these technologies are less mature than they appear, they require a great deal of care and feeding."

The real cost of technology is not in the purchase price but in the cost of ongoing maintenance. The Gartner Group estimates the annual cost of owning a Windows 95 PC to range from $7,000 to $13,000.1 While most IT managers in higher education keep things running for substantially less, there is no doubt that labor costs add significantly to the bottom line.

Yet user expectations are very high, and demand has grown to such a degree that a constant refrain on college and university campuses is there is a crisis in technical support services. In this dynamic environment, with the number of workstations growing, the character of needed equipment constantly changing, the number of applications multiplying, and the demands for bandwidth and universal connectivity exponentially increasing, higher education technical support services are hard pressed to keep their collective heads above water.

A Campus Crisis Spreads to the Library

Many academic libraries, frustrated with inadequate technical support from the computer center and faced with their own unique technical issues, have assumed responsibility for some or all of their support needs. Predictably, in a short time period the library has encountered its own version of a technical support crisis.

It is natural that many libraries have felt the need for their own support service. Libraries employ a disparate set of technical tools, microcomputers, desktop applications, legacy systems running on mid-range or mainframe systems, stand-alone and networked CD-ROMs, telnet-and Web-accessible resources, modem pools, etc., in an attempt to build a virtual library that is at once expansive in scope and seamless in use.

How much of their own technical support libraries perform is likely to be dependent on their size. A small college library may have a single automation or electronic services librarian who serves as system administrator for the library catalog, designs Web pages and other user interfaces, selects and oversees the implementation of databases, etc., but then relies on the campus automation staff for PC and network support. Larger libraries have a sizable infrastructure to maintain, and are likely to need an entire systems department. Systems staff may take care of a mid-range computer, PCs, the library network, even wiring issues within the building.

A library may establish its own technical support operation to support its special automation needs, but it still must operate within the larger institution. Few libraries have a dedicated Internet connection; they use the campus' connection. If the library wants to extend information services to the broader academic community, systems staff members must work with their counterparts in the computer center. The library is still reliant on and subject to campus-wide decisions made by administrative and academic computing, even while at times having little to say in some of those decisions.

A case in point: at one university with which I am familiar, the computer center made the decision to outsource Internet dial-in services. The third-party ISP assigned IP (Internet Protocol) addresses at random to customers, but in order to access certain databases, the library needed university users to be assigned addresses from a set range of numbers. Though the computer center was aware of the need, they made no provisions for addressing it. The result: these databases, among the most important pieces of information content provided by the university, were not accessible to the dial-in user.

This lack of control over key decisions creates a frustration for the library systems staff. They have responsibility for extending library resources to the campus community, but do not have control over all the elements necessary to accomplish their objective.

Types of Library Technical Staff
Where does the library find automation staff? There are two distinct skill sets necessary, resulting in two different types of professional positions: the systems librarian and the technical support staff member.

The systems librarian typically has a degree from an institution accredited by the American Library Association. Systems librarians may be technically-oriented, but they must start with an understanding of the purposes of libraries, employing automation not for its own sake, but as a means of extending access to information resources. Knowledge of the technical aspects of PCs or networks or servers or the Internet is insufficient; they must understand what libraries are trying to accomplish and how automation can aid in that purpose. Systems librarians are the planners and the integrators, seeing how all the pieces fit together to form a cohesive whole.

These days, library schools—or information schools—seem to be doing a pretty good job of educating about the role of technology in delivering services to customers. Graduates appear to understand automation at a macro level; they may even, through some hands-on coursework, have developed technical skills, but they may have to learn still more of these on the job. Through experience, trial and error, sometimes being blindsided by an unexpected technical issue, systems librarians develop their knowledge of local area networks, Internetworking, the intricacies of TCP/IP, IP address validation, network security, firewalls, etc.

Systems librarians set the broad directions for a library's automation program, but they typically do not write programs, repair PCs, or administer local area networks. These tasks require a second set of skills, usually found in another type of employee. For these positions, traditional academic credentials hold less caché. Technical support staff members will likely not possess the MLS; they may have a bachelor's or a two-year technical degree. NOVELL or Microsoft or Apple certification is of greater value than a degree, though network certification, for example, may place a prospective employee out of the financial reach of a library.

The 3 Rs: Recruitment, Retraining, Retention
Recruiting practices for systems librarians are fairly well established. A national search is the rule rather than the exception, using the Chronicle of Higher Education and various library periodicals as the communication vehicles. Competition for these professionals is with academic and other libraries, and compensation must be in line with those at peer institutions. Comparative salary data is available from the Association of College and Research Libraries, the Association of Research Libraries, and the College and University Personnel Association.

Recruiting for a technical support professional is another matter. Library skills serve a specialized community: a librarian works in a library. But a technical person can work anywhere. The competition for these people is therefore fierce.

These individuals are not found through a national search. A Chronicle ad would yield few responses; the local paper is a much more effective recruiting tool. The key point here is that colleges, universities, and their libraries are not competing with their higher education peers but with local businesses for technical support staff. This has a direct effect on the salaries necessary to attract a candidate.

Local businesses are not the library's only competition for technical staff; the university computer center is often pursuing the same applicant pool or recruiting away existing library staff. University IT divisions may be able to pay better salaries or offer more technical challenges than can the library. As one library systems director commented to me recently, "We train them, and the computer center hires them away from us."

Libraries cannot compete with the salaries of local businesses, or sometimes even those of computer centers, for technicians. Many times, the solution is to hire workers without a great deal of previous work history. A valuable source for these workers is the student labor pool. Student technicians already know the campus computing environment, as well as the culture of the institution. There maybe ethical issues involved with hiring talented students before they graduate, but after they graduate, they become fair game. If you can afford them.

Certain technical skills are in especially high demand, i.e., network, UNIX, programming. To hire an experienced network administrator, for example, is a budget-buster. What often happens is the library takes a talented individual already on staff and provides training either in-house or out-of-house. This may be costly. Two or three day seminars can instill the basic skills necessary to maintain a PC, but training for network administrators is a matter of weeks and thousands of dollars.

Once you have trained staff members, you have just made them more valuable. They may look for a job on their own or be recruited away from you for more money.

This pattern of train and be raided breeds a certain cynicism among managers of technical staff, making them disinclined to offer training. However, as one chief information officer said at a recent CAUSE CIO Constituent Group meeting, "The only thing worse than training people and having them leave is not training them and having them stay."

Once an organization manages to recruit or train talented individuals, it may find it difficult to hang onto them. How can we pay enough to retain them? Ultimately, we can't. Higher education can never compete with the salaries in the private sector, but as long as they are not too much lower than the market rate, other factors may help retain technical staff. The IT manager may find himself selling the unique aspects of working in higher education, the physical plant (a campus is more pleasant than an office building), a flexible working environment, tuition benefits, and the opportunity to explore myriad technologies. Flex-time and tele-commuting are other benefits to offer the technical staff member. "I let him bring his dog to work," one CIO told me recently. Anything to keep them happy.

Staff sizes are growing, but not at the pace of the demands, so IT managers are getting creative, hiring temporary technical help for special projects, outsourcing network administration or PC and printer repair services. This external agency may be a for-profit company, but it need not be. Campus computing services may serve in this capacity. After all, the computer center understands the campus computing environment better than an outside firm ever would.

Why would a library contract with and pay the computing staff of its own campus to provide technical support in the library? Isn't it the computing department's responsibility to provide that support for "free"? One benefit of a contractual relationship is that it changes the terms of engagement: a customer that pays for services has a right to expect a rapid turn-around and quality effort. A computer center that does not deliver can be "fired" and replaced by an outside firm.

Whether it be an outside company or the college's own computer center providing the service, the library would want to negotiate a service contract. This would include what the outsourced agency will and won't work on; the hourly rate or cost of service; the response time for lost functionality; the response time for new, updated, or enhanced features (a new FAX server, a new e-mail system, an upgrade to the network operating system, etc.); the response time for emergencies.

Technical Solutions
Technology is offering the promise of at least a partial solution to the support crisis. Systems Management Server (SMS), part of the Windows NT BackOffice suite, is an important element in Microsoft's Zero Administration Initiative. SMS allows for remote installation of software on the desktop, a way to easily maintain inventory records, and the ability to "take over" a user's machine for diagnostic purposes. The NC (network computer) is the low-maintenance solution proffered by Sun Microsystems. Predicated on cheap workstation hardware and the JAVA programming language, the NC may provide an inexpensive and easily maintained alternative to the desktop PC. While the NC may not serve all faculty and staff equally well, it might provide a very good platform for use in student labs or the public areas of a library. Both the NC and the Zero Administration Initiative offer alternatives to the traditional support model and could result in a lower maintenance burden. However, they involve substantial investments in hardware and software, as well as staff time for their initial implementation.

Libraries can choose automated information resources that require minimal maintenance. For example, databases that used to run on CD-ROM towers now can function over the Internet. Web clients can be substituted for software that requires installation on each desktop. This kind of strategic change removes the need for the library technical staff to maintain the towers, swap out discs, install new versions of search software. It also finesses the whole dial-in dilemma, as providing remote access to Web databases is much easier than to CD-ROM versions.

Two steps forward, one step back, may best describe progress to date in the implementation of technology on college and university campuses and in their libraries. This will not change until computers and the networks over which they run operate as transparently and trouble-free as electrical appliances and the wiring of house. As these technologies mature, we will approach—if never quite reach—this ideal.

It may be that the library's technical infrastructure is less like the wiring of a house than it is like its plumbing. But even plumbing is more dependable, less mutable than technology. Leaks occur only periodically, and the fix is usually straightforward. Most IT managers would settle for that.—Mark Cain is Executive Director of Information Services and Support, College of Mount St. Joseph, Cincinnati, Ohio


1 Murray,"Bundling makes three PC brands lowest-cost," Government Computer News, 16 (October 20, 1997):3


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