We are at a point now in our downtown reorganization that we need to temporarily shut down some services. The first to go were our second floor bathrooms as we replace carpet, create an Internet café and three small conference rooms, and re-label all our books for a new automation system. The second to go were Sunday hours over the summer months. Traditionally, we closed on Sundays during the summer months in order to conserve funding. We are doing it now both to save money and to redistribute staff for these major tasks. Most of the staff we freed up by consolidating departments will be fully engaged in thoroughly weeding, labeling, and consolidating collections (comprising about 400,000 volumes). When we last did this in 1996, we ended up completely closing branches for weeks at a time. We will be maintaining otherwise normal hours throughout the system, but completion of these tasks will require all the staff we have for the next few months.
Last week, I received a letter from our automation vendor telling us that there would be no attempt to repair our main computer if it has a problem. This followed a warning three years ago that parts were no longer being made for it and that we needed to replace it as soon as possible. In that a replacement computer would cost us about $300,000 and new automation systems run on computers costing about $50,000, we changed our annual request for capital funds replacing our current automation system into an emergency three years ago and every year since.
Even when our computer was new, we typically had repair issues at least once every two years. It processes millions of transactions every day. Though infrequent, power outages downtown several years ago caused the computer to overheat and shut down. Almost all the peripherals and wiring connected to it as well as the air conditioner supporting it were installed over 15 years ago. How many of our patrons are still working with a Windows 3.11 computer and software? Since we bought our automation system and software, Microsoft has added and retired Windows 95 and Windows NT, and Windows XT will soon be joining them. The company that made our computer has been sold twice, first to Compaq and then to HP. Both have little inclination to support legacy machines far beyond their service life.
Our software was designed prior to wide acceptance of the web interfaces most of us take for granted. It requires extraordinary control over all our wiring and equipment in order to function and an over-night reboot so that it can compile and integrate the changes made during the previous day. New systems incorporate changes as they occur and are completely independent of the infrastructure required to get from one point to another. As a result, they are not only much cheaper to operate and provide immediate access to new patron accounts, but they also work with almost any Internet-capable device, dramatically reducing our costs for new equipment.
I noted all this to explain why I say that we are preparing to replace our automation system in 2010, even though we do not know if it will be funded. We have no interest in being another BP by ignoring major problems until after they become a disaster. There is an extremely high probability that we will have a computer failure this year. If it happens prior to City & County funding, the library system will shut down because all our services are tied to it. Our best alternatives then will be wasting $300,000 buying a new computer for a defective system so that we can be back in operation within a month, or staying shut down for several months while we put a request for a new automation system out for bid. In both cases, this piecemeal approach will cost the Library, over 101,000 registered card-holders, and ultimately the City & County much more in lost service and money than doing the job right fixing infrastructure and software while our obsolete computer is still running.