Check It Out: Library Uses Tech to Go Self-Serve

A California county's library system is using new software and hardware to increase patronage and reduce costs. Check out our interview with Ventura County Library Director Nancy Schram.

Ventura County Library Director Nancy Schram has overseen the adoption of technology that gives patrons off-hours access to the county's new library — including the use of laptop computers and other services that normally require staff oversight.
It's a revolutionary idea — one that's in use in only two U.S. libraries — and one that garnered innovation awards from, among others. the California County Information Services Directors Association (CCISDA). Since its adoption, the library has seen increased patronage and other improved metrics. 

Techwire conducted the following email interview with Schram about the program and how it came to be. The answers were provided by Schram and Mark Lager, the county library's automation and support services manager.

Techwire: How did you become aware of Bibliotheca’s Open+ program? Did you contact the company, or did they contact you?
Schram: In the summer of 2016, one of our Ventura County Library staff members read an article about the pilot program at the Gwinnett County Public Library in Georgia, and passed along the article to me. As soon as I read about the Open+ system and how they were using it in Georgia, I knew it would be perfect for the new library branch we were planning for the Ventura County Library. I contacted Bibliotheca, and discussed options with them. Open+ was not yet available in the U.S., and had only been used in Europe, with the exception of the pilot program at Gwinnett County. We reached out to the director at Gwinnett County, Charles Pace, to get input and advice. Bibliotheca was interested in working with us as the second library in the U.S. to implement Open+ on a pilot basis. Throughout the installation process, they worked closely with us to make adjustments as needed, and correct issues and challenges that came up. We successfully launched Open+ at the new Hill Road Library in Ventura on Feb. 5, 2017.

TW: As one of only a couple of libraries in the U.S. that uses the system, you’re on the cutting edge. Have any other library systems in California contacted you for advice or a testimonial?
Schram: Many other public libraries have contacted us regarding Open+. We have given tours of the Hill Road Library where Open+ is installed to two other libraries, and Bibliotheca hosted an Open House at the Hill Road Library that was attended by representatives from over 25 libraries, mostly in California but some from out of state as well. I have also participated on presentation panels regarding our experience with Open+ at the American Library Association’s Annual Conference twice, and twice at the California Library Association Annual Conference. Open+ represents more than just a new product for libraries, it enables us to implement and entirely new service model. It really could be a sea change for libraries in allowing us to greatly expand access to our services and resources. Like the Ventura County Library, many other libraries have funding that allows them to be open for a limited number of hours when the need is greater to meet the needs of the communities we serve. Access to our resources and services remains a challenge for public libraries in light of limited resources. If we can find a way to increase access, we can have more positive impact.

TW: Where physically is the technology? Is there a server on site at the Hill Road library? Does the program reside in the cloud?
Schram: There is a controller box and a keypad for each door; we have three doors — sliding front door, patio sliding door and a hallway door. The controller boxes use Cat 7 cable to the keypad. A controller is required to activate each door. The main controller includes connections to the alarm system, to the door keypad, lights, computer lab and other systems that will be scheduled and controlled. Closing and other messages can be integrated as well. The keypad by each door allows a library user to scan the barcode and type in his/her PIN. (The data is sent via SIP [Standard Interchange Protocol] to the ILS [Integrated Library System] to verify the user. If approved, a signal is sent to unlock the door.) The administrative software is cloud-based and contains the schedules for the library.

TW: Can library staff remotely look inside the library in real time, online, during the unstaffed hours?
Schram: The video surveillance drive is housed in the library. The software (Synology QuickConnect) provides access to both real-time and historical data. Our policy for retention is five days. The video feed is available to staff inside the library. Remote access is available via the website address.

TW: Did you have to request extra money for this in advance, or is this a budget item within your discretion as director? If you had to get approval, was it a hard sell?
Schram: We were lucky in the sense that we were in the process of planning and funding a new branch library when we discovered Open+. Our Ventura County Board of Supervisors had approved some ongoing funding in support of the new library, and approved the use of some one-time funds from our library reserves. The city of Ventura also stepped up and contributed funds in support of the new library. And, the project would not have been possible without an extremely generous contribution from the Friends of the Ventura Libraries of $200,000. The new library was truly a community effort!

And even though we would open in an existing building that used to be a Chinese restaurant, we had flexibility in designing the layout and selecting the furnishings. From the beginning, we designed the library to be successful as a self-service facility during Open+ hours, which we call “Express Hours.” For example, we selected low shelving to create better sightlines across the library, and there is complete visibility into two small meeting rooms due to glass windows and doors. All of the furniture is on casters, and is completely adjustable for individual use and comfort. It is a very flexible space that allows for many diverse activities.

While we had limited funding to plan and design the new library, it was also made feasible because the property owner we lease the building from agreed to pay for the tenant improvements. We lease the building, and we lease the Open+ system on an annual subscription basis. We also received an early adopter discount from Bibliotheca. These facts helped make the project fiscally feasible for us.

TW: Does the cost (a little less than $1,000 per month) include maintenance, software updates, etc.?
Schram: Enhancements are provided as part of maintenance.

TW: What sort of maintenance or monitoring does the system require from your IT staff?
Schram: There is minimal monitoring by IT staff that is necessary. Library staff can access the administration software and has needed to restart a controller on occasion. Staff can change messages or change schedules if needed.

Dennis Noone is Managing Editor of Techwire. He is a career journalist, having worked as a reporter and editor at small-town newspapers and major metropolitan dailies in California, Nevada, Texas and Virginia, including as an editor with USA Today in Washington, D.C. He lives in the Northern California foothills.