Colored dots stuck on a laminated Thomas Brothers map used to tell the Solano, Napa and Partners (SNAP) Library Consortium where patrons of their various northern California branches came from.
Along with various staff members, Lynne Williams, SNAP's administrative librarian for automation/technical services, would take the information from printed lists of circulation activities and manually place those pretty dots on the map.
In 2001, SNAP hired an architectural firm to help develop a facilities master plan, in which the geographic patron data was needed. In looking for solutions to this monotonous colored-dots dilemma, Williams saw Civic Technologies' LibraryDecision software.
"This is a seed that's been germinating for several years," she said. "We said, 'You know, this could take care of the dots problem. We can get a whole bunch of information about our population we're serving in a much faster way using their database."
The LibraryDecision solution takes many different data sets -- California Census data, California Department of Finance data and demographics -- and combines local data from SNAP's integrated library system (ILS), Williams said. The ILS is a circulation module that includes book check-in and checkout, the online catalog, and acquisitions and serial numbers.
While Marc Futterman, president and CEO of Civic Technologies, updates the LibraryDecision database with the demographic data -- and worked with SNAP's ILS vendor to anonymously transfer patron and borrower data -- Williams is uploading library-specific statistics. These include the size of collections, the size of the patron database registered at a particular branch, and how many adult and children borrowers SNAP has.
"Once that's in the system, we use this Web interface to basically customize reports," she said. "If we take one of our branches and look at all the census blocks that branch technically serves, find out what the ratio of Spanish-speaking people is, then we can use that data, potentially, to develop more programs in Spanish."
SNAP expects to be up and running on LibraryDecision in mid-April, at which point Williams said if they want to know where kids in the community are, they will overlay the census data on their local library data, showing how many kids are in a given service area. The same can be done for senior citizens and developing programs for them, as well as in underserved areas.
"It helps us justify plans to build new facilities in specific areas in the county," she said. "It's one-stop shopping, and it's customized to exactly what we want to know, so we don't have to sift through pages of different reports and compare them to pages of yet other reports, and try to do our own cross-tabulations."
Also waiting for full LibraryDecision implementation is Texas' Houston Public Library system, which has 35 branch libraries and a central library in a city of 633 square miles, said Greg Simpson, manager of planning and government relations.
"We were looking for a better way to understand our system, in both geographic and demographic terms," he said, adding that he hopes to begin LibraryDecision rollout to senior staff members in early April, and have all branch and unit managers up and running shortly thereafter.
Like Williams, Simpson said the Houston public libraries are most looking forward to the increased planning capabilities.
"LibraryDecision gives us current and projected demographic information, and will immediately re-calculate that information as we look at possible changes to our existing branch service areas," he said. "This will, in turn, give us guidance as to how we locate, staff and stock our branches."
Already up and running on LibraryDecision is the Forsyth County Public Library in Cumming, Ga.
Carla Beasley, assistant director for materials services, said reports she's generated so far are for populations in specific county areas.
"We could use a report of the number of children under 5 years old for the south library branch service area," she said, adding that such a report would give an idea of the library's preschool program audience. "I'm also working with a literacy advocacy group, and I used LibraryDecision to calculate the areas of the county where more than 25 people live who didn't finish high school."
The report is mapped over the county area, graphically showing where the highest densities of potential general equivalency diploma students live, Beasley said.
Although the SNAP Library Consortium is not yet operating, Williams said Futterman trained her once, and the Web interface appears user-friendly.
Beasley went through several "WebX" training sessions, which take place over the Internet through an intermediary vendor, she said.
"The 'trainer' signs on to the host site and displays the software -- in this case, LibraryDecision," Beasley said, adding that the trainee logs on to the site from his or her own computer. "The trainer and trainee communicate by phone, and as the trainer explains the program, the trainee sees all movement in the software program live."
As Beasley's trainer, Futterman navigated in LibraryDecision, clicking on menus and actually putting the program through its paces while Beasley watched everything live on her screen.
"Much of LibraryDecision is intuitive after some initial training on creating reports and maps," she said, adding that the help screens are also beneficial.
The library staff received a short overview of LibraryDecision, and senior management will receive training directly from either Beasley or Futterman.
"We're finding that customers are up and running after two or three Web conference training sessions," Futterman said.
The more Beasley uses LibraryDecision, the more user-friendly it becomes, she said, adding that by integrating customers' feedback into the product, it's being developed to provide ease of use.
Beasley also said that Civic Technologies' staff members respond to customer feedback on enhancing and improving screen displays and product functionality.
In the Long Run
Forsyth County Public Library is planning to build two more branches and a headquarters building in the next six to eight years, and the library's local funding agency -- the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners -- has asked for numerous demographic reports justifying such projects.
"LibraryDecision has given us great planning maps," Beasley said. "Now that it has become fully functional, I anticipate we will use it for many funding reports and strategic planning."
Like Beasley, Williams also said SNAP will take the program's reports and maps to decision-makers. "We'll be able to say, 'This is why we need a library here of this size with a collection of this makeup with this many computers,'" she said, adding that SNAP is also inputting the planning guideline data that came from the facilities master plan process. "How many computers per capita, how many books per capita, what's the most one should have to travel to get to a library, that kind of stuff," she said. "So we'll be able to get these reports and look at our planning guidelines."
Having worked with both Beasley and Williams, Futterman said the biggest benefits he's seen so far are that library staff members are substantially more knowledgeable about their communities. "[They] have the information in graphical and analytical formats to make the best possible case to elected and agency officials, such as for funding, programs, materials, etc.," he said. "Libraries save staff time and money -- they can do more with fewer people.