Norristown Area School District


Mr. Robert (BJ) Schmalbach
Librarian at Norristown Area High Schoool


Meet Robert Schmalbach, better known as “BJ” to friends, colleagues and just about everybody else.  BJ is the librarian at the Norristown Area High School in southeastern Pennsylvania.

A former NAHS student himself, BJ has spent a considerable amount of his life at the school.  After college, he returned to teach history for 15 years before finding his place in the library in 2003.  “I enjoy the challenge of managing the facility and contributing to the variety of instructional programming the library provides,” says BJ.


The high school is one of 11 schools administered by the Norristown Area School District in the greater Philadelphia area.  The District also manages 6 elementary schools, 3 middle schools and a smaller high school that offers alternative programming. The combined student population is about 7,500, including approximately 1,800 who attend the high school.

Nine schools currently have in-house libraries, with a 10th one scheduled to open in 2014. The entire collection of over 130,000 books across the 9 libraries is managed using Surpass Centriva, a centralized automation system for libraries with multiple branches/locations.


Before installing Surpass, the District had – in BJ’s own words – an “archaic and arcane DOS-based nightmare of a system” that was “unresponsive and crummy.”  While check-in and check-out functions worked well, it was frustrating to perform the simplest of administrative tasks, such as printing out spine labels or generating reports without “requiring Boolean programming knowledge!”

At the beginning of each year, BJ faced the administrative headache of uploading patron records.  What should have been a simple import was fraught with difficulties in a system that didn’t make sense.  It sometimes took until Thanksgiving for the mess to be sorted out.  Needless to say, the district felt compelled to provide the libraries with a better solution.


BJ and the other librarians researched and considered other library automation systems before making a final decision.  “We chose Surpass because it was easy to use and had all the features we wanted,” states BJ. “It does everything that a library system should be able to do.”

Cataloguing is made easy with tools like Quick Cataloguing and Surpass Copycat.  Librarians can easily extract the information they need to create custom reports.   Another bonus is the ability to print out customized bar codes on site rather than having to purchase generic, unassigned bar codes.

The librarians love the ability to customize their individual home pages.  They can each decide how items are displayed on a page as well as add relevant widgets, announcements and links. With a wide range of ages among the student population, this type of flexibility is a real plus in reaching different audiences.

The district chose to add Safari Selections , an inexpensive option that automatically uploads book jacket images, tables of contents, excerpts and other content. “It’s more visually appealing, especially for the students, ” says BJ.  “Everybody likes the way it looks.” Students are also invited to submit their own book reviews and provide star ratings for each item.

The process of textbook management was also vastly improved.  In addition to cataloging the more than 23,000 books housed in its collection, the high school uses Surpass to manage the distribution of over 14,000 textbooks.  During the first three or fourdays of each school year, an average of 70 classes of students pass through the library daily.   Surpass is able to handle the resulting 4,000+ transactions with ease.

In response to client requests, Surpass recently updated its system to provide features for easily integrating e-books into the collection.  “It’s extremely easy to use, and integrates seamlessly with the 270 e-books in our system,” states BJ.

Oh, and BJ’s yearly patron records nightmare is now like the subject he used to teach: ancient history.  The IT department provides BJ with a file of registered students, and Surpass automatically imports the relevant information.   A job that previously took many weeks, even months, is now accomplished in a matter of 15 minutes – and done right the first time!


When asked about the price tag, BJ replies, “There is cost involved, as there would be with any system.  But the cost is very reasonable and consistent with industry standards.  You get a lot of value for your money.”

Surpass hosts the entire district’s system online, taking care of maintenance, backups, upgrades and updates. “Our IT department is very small for the size of our organization and is responsible for 12 buildings [11 schools plus administration] scattered throughout the district,” explains BJ.  “Having our system hosted by Surpass frees up a lot of their time and resources.”  Savings like these do not necessarily show up on a balance sheet, yet they do have a definite and positive impact on operations.


It’s safe to say that Surpass has made BJ’s life a lot easier.  What he appreciates most however, is the company’s customer support.  “Nothing ever goes 100% perfectly, and it’s when things aren’t going right that a company’s true nature is shown,” he observes. “Surpass is tops in customer service.  They take ownership of a problem, and 9 times out of 10 they will fix it within a few minutes.“

With the old system, it was next to impossible to reach someone for support.  By the time they called back, the problem had been already solved or worked around.  However, BJ knows that when he calls Surpass, they will respond.  “The Surpass team are conscientious and want their products to work,” he states.  “They really listen.  It makes me want to continue working with them for a long time.”