Monday, November 11, 2013

What my allowance buys.

Most have seen some version of the story of what a US dollar (or worse, what a daily Starbuck's grande coffee) buys in an emerging economy. The story becomes more compelling when you actually experience it. 

I've been working on the Legal Resources Centre library budget. The whole process is a bit mind-boggling for a number of reasons. First, due to the exchange rate of nearly South African Rand (R) 10 to $1 US means the actual numbers I am dealing with look, at first glance, to be a bit extravagant. 

Second, the library has been without a champion for at least five years. The LRC's law librarian departed for academic life just before the office, including the library, moved to a new location. That's right, no librarian supervised the packing or unpacking of the library. I know there are lots of sucked in gasps of horror from those librarians who have managed the tedious and exhausting job of relocating a print library. Just about everything that could go wrong, did. 

The current law librarian and I are still finding boxes to be unpacked in storage and other areas. I have a undying hope that one, just one box, will reveal book ends. Even the most basic library needs have gone unmet for a number of years. As a result, the budget includes many of those items most US libraries have sitting in large quantity in their storage rooms -- book ends, a book truck, superseded labels, spine labels, shelf labels, and on. You name it, it is sadly in the LRC library budget I am constructing.

The LRC library has four offices, spread out across the country. In addition to the office in Johannesburg, there are offices in Cape Town, Durban, and Grahamstown.  Each office has a library. One of the goals of this project is to automate the collection using an ILS (for the non-library folk, it is the integrated library software that inventories the items in the collection, circulates those items, and provides the search interface for the user to find materials). You have now been given the ability to impress the librarians at your state, county, public, or academic library by asking "what ILS does the library use?" when checking out materials at your next visit. 

Since my second week in the office I've been chasing an economically feasible ILS option. High-end platforms used by US libraries such as SirsiDynix, III, or even Follett are not on the list, much less the short list of options. I got shot down by the tech person when I passionately advanced the open-source options of Evergreen and Koha. I've run trials on in-the-box software packages from Microsoft and other vendors, all without success. 

Today, the success of identifying an easy-to-use, easy-to-maintain, and economically feasible ILS seems within my grasp. OCLC confirmed that its Web Site for Small Libraries (WSSL), a cloud based product, is available for use outside the United States. The platform is indeed a thing of beauty--intuitive, html based, easy-to-modify, and able to import records from OCLC without additional cost. No server space is needed as OCLC provides the cloud storage. Even more exciting, the $625 US annual fee charged to small libraries in the United States is scaled to a whopping $125 US for libraries in South Africa. 

Each Monday I get my weekly allowance out of my piggy bank. I receive a weekly allowance of R 1400, or about $140 US to cover my groceries, liquor, dining, leisure activities, petrol, parking attendant fees, etc. So far I've lived within my means.

Weekly allowance: R 1400

Today when I gleefully inserted R 1250 into my spreadsheet on the ILS expense line I was struck by the craziness that my weekly allowance exceeds the annual cost of WSSL. Even more so, I was saddened because the $625 US (R 6250) may have not have been an affordable option.

The work of the LRC is compelling and vital and the library valiantly supports that work without the accoutrements that many libraries in the United States wouldn't propose to operate without. Perhaps I am getting acclimated to LRC's library life, but each day it becomes less important to me that the books stagger a bit on the shelves due to the lack of book ends, that the book shelves look like they were built in 9th grade shop class, and that the afternoon winds that bring in the thunder storms blow over my feet due to the crack in the wall behind my desk. Rather I remain focused on which print and electronic resources can be squeezed into the budget and how to creatively negotiate the bills from the legal information vendors. 

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