Talking about the Maintain IT Project

By Michelle Boule | Recently, the Maintain IT Project has been mentioned on various electronic-discussion lists and blogs. The Maintain IT Project is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and is gathering information and success stories about Public Access Computers (PACs) in public libraries. Eventually, the project team plans to compile the stories and make them available to libraries as a troubleshooting resource.

I was intrigued by the project idea and wanted to know more—this could very well be an invaluable resource for libraries in the future—so I contacted the leader of the project, Barbara Gersh.

MB: Can you tell me a little bit about what the Maintain IT Project is?

BG: We're a three-year project, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, with the overall objective of helping libraries sustain their public access computing services. Our project will shine a spotlight on libraries using creative approaches to keeping their computers available to the public, so that other libraries in similar situations can adopt these best practices.

MB: Who are the people behind the Maintain IT Project?

BG: The real people behind the project are the public-library staff members and others who share information with us and who will help shape the guides. The project team is part of TechSoup, a nonprofit devoted to helping social benefit organizations (including libraries) to use technology effectively. I'm the project manager and have a background as a librarian. Other folks working on our project have experience working with nonprofits and technology, including extensive work with community technology centers (CTCs), which share many of the same public computing challenges. We also have a talented Steering Committee representing the spectrum of public libraries.

J.A. Tarbell Library, Lyndeborough, New Hampshire. Flickr photo by Dan4th. MB: I know you're gathering information from small, rural libraries now; what is the next step?

BG: We'll produce a series of guides tailored for different kinds of public libraries that will document best practices along with information about how they can be implemented in different kinds of public libraries. The first guide will focus on the needs of small, rural libraries and will be available in spring 2007.

The next step is to take the information we've gathered, draft the first guide, and get feedback from rural libraries about whether or not the draft content addresses their needs.

MB: What format are the guides going to take? Will they be online? searchable? able to be added onto later?

BG: We plan to make the guides available online, through a variety of channels, including WebJunction. We'd like to make the content as modular as possible and have it available both as downloadable PDFs and searchable online. Our intent is that libraries will be able to take the parts of the guides most relevant to their needs, integrate with local material, and add to and update them. For rural libraries especially, we'll also have printed versions, probably in an updatable loose-leaf format.

MB: What are some of the key issues the Maintain IT Project has discovered facing libraries with PACs?

BG: So far, most of our conversations have been with smaller libraries, and the challenges they face are often different from those facing larger urban libraries. Affordable access to both tech support and training is a major issue for many rural libraries. When a library has only one or two staff members, it's difficult to take time to attend training. It can also be difficult to get help with routine maintenance and timely troubleshooting when there are problems. Training patrons to use the computers is another area of great concern.

MB: Have you encountered any memorable stories at this early stage in the project?

BG: Yes, we're finding that because they're often forced to operate with very limited resources, rural librarians are developing many clever and practical approaches. For example, an Oklahoma-based librarian has computers custom built by a relatively nearby vendor for no more than a mass-merchandised computer would cost; the difference is the vendor installs all the software for the library and comes with local tech support. In five years, she's only had one hardware problem; the vendor replaced the bad part within a day.

Another one in Texas worked with the local high school to create an internship program, where students received training from the county IT staff and then assumed responsibility for supporting the library's computers.

MB: What do you hope is the end result of this project?

BG: We hope the libraries will find the guides useful, and through the use of the guides, and our disseminating information about best practices, there will be an increased number of libraries that plan for equipment upgrades, perform regular preventative maintenance, and other activities that will keep computers available for public use for years to come.

MB: I think this is a wonderful project, and it looks like you have a lot of great people working on it. Anything else you want to add?

BG: The success of the project depends on the participation of librarians in the field who share their stories with us, give us feedback about the information they would find useful, and let us know how they use the guides (when they're available). We hope that we'll be able to reach many of them and entice them to participate in whichever way works for them. A good starting point for folks that want to learn more about it is our Web site, which has blog posts on this topic, a space to share stories, and tools to tell colleagues about our project.
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