Completion of Technology Center is just the next step in local library growth

John Paul Myrick, MLS, County Librarian

“Quiet excitement.”

That’s the term employees use to describe the mood of users flocking to the new Community Technology Center (CTC) at the Cullman Public Library, the flagship of your County’s six-unit library system.  From the quiet, one would never know that people are excited. However, usage has steadily increased since computers and new furnishings were added over the summer.

I recently asked some library employees what they thought of the new Center. “If you build it, they will come,” said one employee.  Another joked: “We never get to say ‘Shhhh’ anymore.  The computers keeps them (the patrons) too busy.”

The Cullman County Public Library System (CCPLS) installed 16 new computers, a new server, network printer and furnishings to create the center in the ancient Cullman library’s vacated Special Collections Room as part of a $35,000 federal grant project. Other computers were replaced elsewhere in the building as space allowed.  The Alabama Public Library Service, the state’s library development agency, awarded Grant funds in the fall of 2005 for the second phase of a two-year initiative, and the County Commission and local municipalities provided matching funds to make these projects possible.

These new computers were designed with the needs of our users in mind.  They are faster.  As such, people get in and out of the library faster, and often, quieter.  People in our community (as evidenced by over 100,000 visitors last year) know we’re the place to go to quickly meet information needs, and computers help meet those needs.

The completion of the Community Technology Center at the Cullman library signals the end of the Library Board’s two-year plan to upgrade all technology and fully automated all of the county’s libraries.  Over $50,000 in federal funds were obtained through grants and utilized to replace computers, printers and servers in all of the county’s public libraries, as well as create a county-wide “union catalog” with live data, showing exactly what books are on the shelves in area libraries as well as checked out. Library users can now check their own accounts and reserve materials from home or work. Over 50,000 e-books and downloadable audio materials are available online without having to come into a library facility.  Staff can electronically borrow items between libraries for users, saving time and money.  Information about library patrons is now shared among libraries countywide, eliminating abuse of library privileges, and cutting down on the theft of costly library materials.

We know you think that’s neat.  So do we.

The projects also added, then expanded “Radio Free Cullman County”, the library’s Wi-Fi wireless high-speed Internet access, available to persons with laptops and PDAs. 
Wi-Fi access allows people to access information faster, and at times when the library is closed.  It also serves as a signal to visitors that we have progressive communities which are concerned not only about the quality of life, but positive economic development.

City Middle School students, recently provided with laptops as part of the Superintendent’s dynamic 1 to 1 Computer Initiative, regularly use the Wi-Fi service at the Main Library, completing school assignments and, quietly, playing games.  (It was nice to be ahead of the game and be ready for the needs of students instead of reacting after-the-fact.)  Businessmen also use the service to stay in communication with their corporate offices.  Parents use high-speed email to communicate with their sons and daughters at war in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And, yes, people use the service after the library is closed to have high-speed service to download data and audio.  It’s not uncommon to drive by late at night and see a car parked outside the closed library with a strange blue glow (coming from a laptop) emanating from the vehicle.

We’re keeping people downtown after 5 PM, albeit quietly.

The Wi-Fi expansion and the completion of these projects are the latest steps the library has taken to retain our title as Alabama’s leader in library technology.  In 1994, your public library system was among the first in the state to provide informational resources via CD-ROM.   In 1996, CCPLS was among the first five Alabama libraries to provide a web page, providing information about the library and community and informational resources.  In 1997, CCPLS became the first public library system in the state to offer public computers and Internet access in all of its facilities; and in 2004, Cullman County was the second public library and third library of any kind in the state to provide Wi-Fi, which is available 24/7 at the Cullman, Hanceville and Fairview libraries. 

All of those efforts haven’t been without recognition. Seeing the library’s effective use of technology, the Bill and Melinda Gates Library Foundation awarded CCPLS one of the first grants for technology in the country in 1998.  The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs awarded its first technology enrichment grant given to a public library to Cullman County that same year.  The most recent (2004 & 2005) grants further recognized our excellence and allowed the library system to replace the last of the Gates computers and further grow.

So what’s next for computers in Cullman County’s libraries?  There is a chance that Bill Gates will be providing additional funding soon for support and to replace equipment in Alabama libraries.  We’re ahead on that game too.  CCPLS will use that funding, if realized, to further expand our offerings countywide as limited space allows, provide training for library staff, and restart basic computing classes for the community, which were once held and which were very popular.  We will be installing our first E-Branch kiosk library at the County Courthouse this fall.  And we also hope to help the City of Cullman and/or other municipalities in providing Wi-LAN service, providing wireless Internet access to entire communities, helping to further narrow the gap between the information “haves” and the information “have-nots”.  Whatever the next step is in providing the best in library and information technology, your library will be ready to take it. 

And, whatever it is, we guarantee we wont have to “Shhhh” you over it.