When Lesley Dieno started as executive-director for the Okanagan Regional Library system 25 years ago, computers were almost unheard-of, and the book budget had just been chopped in half.
She was just the third director since the system was created in 1936 and she came aboard just as the economic bubble burst, and money for public frills like libraries was in short supply.
“In those days there was a small computer system to print the book catalogue on tractor-fed paper, but it hadn’t been printed in two years because the ORL couldn’t afford it,” she recalls.
And, by computer, she doesn’t mean a hand-held device like today’s, but one that required an entire room of its own.
There were four computers at headquarters, one in the Kelowna branch and that was it. The remaining 30 branches didn’t have computers or information about what was available.
To hold a book required a paper hold slip and there was no information exchanged between branches. Books had to be returned to the same branch they were borrowed from.
It was at a retreat in 1989 by the executive committee of the board that it was decided an automated system was needed so that all branches would have access to the book catalogue.
Installation was completed in 1991, with the help of a provincial grant, and it was the beginning of computer use.
Dieno says when she began there she had a part-time secretary who used a typewriter, and it was 1991 or 1992 before she got a computer.
Automation actually made a much bigger difference in the rural areas than in the cities that are part of this wide-ranging library system which includes the Okanagan, Shuswap, Similkameen, west to Princeton and Hedley and east to Golden, she notes.
The library’s board has always felt it was important to provide equitable service across that vast system, even though it’s very expensive sometimes to keep services up at remote branches, she explains.
“It’s difficult and expensive. There’s been some grumbling about the concept, but it’s a principle with the ORL,” she said.
Ironically, “once you automate, the ball starts rolling and it goes faster and faster. It’s going pretty fast right now,” she comments.
While the system had an automated circulation system at the beginning of 2000, the Internet became quite a force, and in general use, and it’s still growing.
When the new Kelowna branch was built in 1996 there was no computer lab included, so one had to be added in, but now that lab is full all the time.
“It’s been a bit of a surprise to us. We thought by now everyone would have their own computer, but even though we’ve added wifi, the lab is still well used,” she says.
It’s been quite a steep learning curve for the ORL’s top executive too, Dieno admits. She’s retiring next month and says it’s time new blood was brought in to give the system a boost.
When she began with the ORL, it was as a generalist, but then she had to throw off responsibilities to specialists. The times when she would fill in for a librarian soon ended.
During her time at the helm she figures every branch’s building has either been replaced, with a move to larger facilities, or renovated. “We have to do two a year. Generally each lasts for 15 years,” she explains.
Last year it was a new facility in Vernon and an expansion in Westbank, and next year Summerland is on the list, and perhaps a renovation of the main Kelowna branch.
Over the years the population in the ORL region has grown, but more in the urban than rural areas. It’s gone from 275,000 to 370,000 people.
Each year 3.3 million items are circulated now, and it’s not just books, but e-books, audio books, CDs and DVDs.
“Customers are taking to new technology well,” she comments.
The ORL is a very cost-efficient operation, she notes. She estimates it costs taxpayers 20 per cent less than most in the province.
“Keeping costs down is an ongoing issue,” she admits.
Over the years, there have been openings and closures of branches, but one achievement she’s particularly happy about is the inclusion now of two First Nations on the board, the Westbank First Nation and the Penticton Indian Band. Both pay for library services on a similar basis to the board’s municipal members.
Overall, she says it’s been really enjoyable, with constant change over the course of her 25 years with the ORL—enough to make it interesting.