Technology Solutions for Rural and Small Libraries
Small and rural libraries face challenges that their larger and more urban library counterparts do not. From budget issues to the fact that the pool of talent in IT is smaller in rural areas, they have to get creative to solve their technological problems.
There are ways, however, for a small or rural library to get around these challenges without breaking the bank — many free and open source options found on the web and in "the Cloud" can give these libraries the same kind of technological advantages that bigger libraries have without major staff involvement.
Taking advantage of services that are offered as Cloud computing resources are just one way smaller libraries can keep up. Cloud computing is just using computer resources — both software and hardware — that are physically distant, but brought into the libraries network through the Internet.
While many of the resources we will be giving you in this article and mentioned in the seminar are Cloud services in some way, there are resources that are completely within the Cloud that small libraries can use.
Amazon provides fully provisioned servers that can be outfitted and used by libraries that don't have the staff or space to host their own servers. With Amazon's Cloud servers and product, libraries can purchase and use only the server parts that they need, whether that is storage for shared files, off-site backup facilities or space to serve web pages. Amazon's services can also qualify for E-rate discounts, making an already affordable solution even more affordable.
Another very affordable (even free, if your needs are small enough) solution to shared files that does not require setting up and maintaining a file server is the Dropbox (www.Dropbox.com) service. Dropbox gives you 2GB of storage space that can be shared among library staff to create a file server for the staff. More is available at pretty reasonable rates. Dropbox also gives your staff desktop synching software that makes storing shared files a snap. Just save the file to a certain folder on the computer (you choose the folder when installing the desktop client) and that file will be automatically synced up to the Dropbox service to be shared with the rest of your staff.
There are a number of free and Open Source technology solutions for libraries as well. There are Open Source Office software packages like Open Office (www.OpenOffice.org) that work on Mac OS X, Linux (which is a free operating system that libraries can use as well) and Windows operating systems.
There are free Project Management systems like those listed at http://tomuse.com/top-10-best-free-online-project-management-application-services/ and Open Source versions of just about any software you might need to run a library (including library automation systems like Koha and Evergreen). Those Open Source software applications may require a bit more technical knowledge to set up, but many of them have extensive support systems on the web for libraries with the time to invest in learning them.
Replacing servers isn't the only thing you can do with online services, however. Your library’s Marketing and Public Relations functions can be done easily and for free with many different Web 2.0 products. Using social networking tools like Facebook (www.Facebook.com) or Twitter (www.Twitter.com) let you send out information about your library for free to others who are using those services. Traditional marketing — flyers, program guides and the like — should be used to advertise those social network accounts, too.
Once you have friends or fans on those accounts, remember to use them not only to publicize what you are doing, but also to answer questions, point out what other people and organizations are doing and to join in on the conversation. Doing those things will help convince others to spread your messages, too!
Web 2.0 isn't the only way to network, though. Many regional and state organizations offer lots of ways to get ideas and information for free. Conferences, while not free, can be great sources of technical help and inspiration, and grants can help pay for attendance at some of them. Even if you can't make it to a conference, most organizations have mailing lists where library issues are discussed frequently. Those lists can be excellent ways to get resources and information for free. Many national and more and more state conferences have a formal or informal online component that you can use to get conference content delivered to your desk in almost real-time.
Organizations and networks, like ALA (American Library Association) or the LSW (Library Society of the World) offer many ways to communicate and share. WebJunction is another regional network that is dedicated to the principle of sharing technical knowledge and ideas - take advantage of the good folks there and join the discussion boards and mailing lists to find freely available templates, training materials and more. State networks such as your state’s Library association are also excellent ways to find nearby libraries and librarians with which you can collaborate and share expenses.
Communication using free technology is very much available, too. You can use either Google's Talk IM program to chat or the Google Voice service to manage voicemails and text messages to your organization or you can use the brand new Google Calling features to make free long-distance calls on your computer. Those are just the options available from one company. If you don't want to get tied into a single provider, you have options as well. Trillian, a downloadable, free IM client, is available at (www.Trillian.com) and can connect to many IM services — Google Talk, AIM, Yahoo! and more. Meebo (www.Meebo.com) is an online option that is similar to Trillian. It also offers embeddable chat rooms that can be added to your web site, making it a full-featured client for your library — for free.
Other options to communicate between far-flung rural branches of a library system, or between collaborating small systems, include free VPN (Virtual Private Network) clients. VPNs let you remotely log into a computer and control it - doing fixes, providing training or adding software - from a remote computer. VNC, a free VPN client and server option (www.realvnc.com) or (www.tightvnc.com) is reasonably easy to set up and easy to use. Just remember to install the server portion on the computer(s) you want to control and the client on the computer(s) you will be controlling them from. For libraries who have widely dispersed branches, this can save time and money on technical support and training by providing instant access and assistance.
Also helpful for far-flung library districts are online collaboration tools. Using Google's applications (such as Google Docs to collaborate on documents or Google Sites to collaboratively create online information repositories) or even Facebook (IM, communication and file/photo sharing) to collaborate means that you will not need as much training on a new platform, since many people are familiar with Facebook and Google's Apps.
Full-featured collaborative platforms like Group.ly (www.Group.ly) are also freely available, as are a number of Wiki-based sites like WetPaint (www.WetPaint.com) and PBWiki (www.PBWiki.com). Those sites give you collaborative content creation tools that can make working on library projects much easier when your co-workers are many miles away.
Lastly (for this article, anyway — there are many more resources that space constraints keep us from mentioning) continuing education is easily and freely done online these days. By joining mailing lists such as the ones mentioned above that are associated with regional and state networks to general mailing lists that are available on the 'net on just about any topic imaginable, staff can use a familiar interface (email) to improve their skills and get answers to questions for free.
RSS feeds from blogs and other news sources are also excellent ways to keep up with tech and learn new skills as well. Populating a feed reader with blogs that contain posts that cover the topics you and your staff are interested in is a great way to keep current and learn new things with a minimal investment in time.
Of course, reading books and magazines are a great way to stay current on topics in libraries. If you are wondering what to start reading, just pay attention to your friends on those social networks that you use. They will have suggestions and recommendations for good reading material. The best way to really learn about something is to teach it, so be willing to volunteer some time to your local organizations (state library associations, etc.) and lead some sessions on stuff you would like to know more about. Nothing motivates learning like knowing you have to talk about a subject in public!
Each of these suggestions we've given you can be adopted by any small or rural library. Some, such as the open source software and keeping up with tech suggestions can be done for free with just an investment in time. Others, like using Amazon's cloud services or paying for a sizable Dropbox account to share among staff, may require a cash outlay, but will save you time in managing and maintaining hardware in your library. Whichever constraints you have to work with, using some of our suggestions will make the technological part of running your library easier and less stressful for you and your staff.
This work is licensed under a  Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License