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Can We Future-Proof Library Automation?

Computers in Libraries [March 2010] The Systems Librarian

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This issue of Computers in Libraries explores the theme of libraries "going electronic." It's an obvious observation that librarians today find themselves dealing with collections of ever larger proportions of electronic content. The degree to which that shift has already taken place varies from one type of library to another. Some organizations, especially those involved with specializations in biomedical, scientific, or business, may already handle electronic content almost exclusively. Each component of the collections of academic libraries may vary according to discipline. Public libraries today continue to manage printed materials in very high proportions. In the public library sector, the circulation of physical materials continues as a key activity, supplemented by increased involvement with the delivery of electronic information to users in most of the forms seen in academic libraries. Public libraries have long been in the business of providing access to ebooks, audiobooks, and other digital versions of long-form monographs. While I don't have precise projections for the proportions of formats that will constitute public libraries in the future, I am confident in a growing shift toward electronic content while maintaining significant holdings in print for the foreseeable future. But more than anything else, I'm sure that the wheels of change we see today will turn ever faster as the years move on.

Given this transition toward more digital collections, I give a lot of thought to the implications this trend brings to the technologies needed to support libraries. I don't necessarily have all the solutions in mind, but I do think that it's important to conceive of technology infrastructures not locked into even the most progressive views of current library roles or views of what we anticipate in the near future. I just don't think that we can always predict what will happen next, and I hope that the technologies that we develop today will be designed with the greatest amount of flexibility possible so that they can provide great support regardless of which of the current trends that we see in play actually become dominant in the next round.

More than anything else, it seems we should avoid the technologies in ways that will cast our virtual library with the mold of today's assumptions. It would be just as much of a mistake to hardwire the library's technical environment based on our current experiences with certain proportions of digital and physical formats than it was in the past to base integrated library systems solely on physical formats.

An Aging Architecture

I see a metaphor of this issue every day in the library building in which I work, and it constantly reminds me of the importance of planning for change. Built in 1942, its architects designed the spaces around the way that the libraries of that era functioned. But the very fundamentals of libraries have changed so much since that time. While many of the building's design elements were praised as progressive for the day, they all too quickly became outdated.

Books completely dominated the concept of libraries ofthat time, so it's hard to find fault with those who conceived new libraries that provided spaces optimized for the then-current practices. Only with the benefit of hindsight do we observe how quickly attitudes regarding access to library materials changed and how technologies would emerge with even more radical implications.

The building was designed around the dominant type of materials - printed books - and specific policies and procedures. Naturally, the plans allocated a very high proportion of space to the storage of books. These were also the days when many research libraries followed policies of closed stacks. Access to library materials other than the reference collection was off limits to the majority of library users. Library staff would retrieve materials needed by patrons. Many architectural features reflected this approach. Since only library staff and a few select scholars would have access to these areas, little consideration was given to making them attractive. The book stacks that consumed large proportions of the space went entirely unadorned: concrete floors, army green paint, and ceilings so low that they inflicted discomfort to anyone of above-average height.

A network of pneumatic tubes, just like the kinds that were used in department stores and banks during that era, whooshed request slips to workers in the stacks who retrieved the items and dispatched them to the circulation desk with a special elevator. This infrastructure was high-tech for the day, providing automation features to support the routine library workflows inherent in the restricted model access of library materials considered necessary at that time.

Prevailing attitudes changed by the 1960s, and the restrictive policies of closed stacks were lifted, inviting library users to access the book stacks where they could browse the books on the shelves and select the materials they wanted to borrow. The need for library personnel to retrieve materials was eliminated, as was the need for the physical infrastructure created in support of this activity. Yet, the spaces were not designed with public access in mind, and library users to this day comment on its dungeon-like atmosphere. The remnants of the pneumatic network remain in place, a memorial to the automation of an era long past.

Card catalogs represented the state of the art in that epoch of library history for finding material in library collections. Our library featured a massive card catalog that provided the means for users to identify the materials they needed. It would have been impossible at that time to imagine what has transpired in the last 3 decades: Card catalogs have become computerized into online catalogs addressing the same scope of print collections. More recently, they transformed into discovery interfaces that aim to address the cumulative components of library collections.

It would have been impossible for the designers of the building to imagine the short duration of this mode of libraries, so it's understandable that they integrated the card catalog into its very structure. Made from beautiful materials and reflecting a quality of craftsmanship rarely seen today, these built-in catalog cabinets and drawers provide a glimpse back into a model of libraries the current generation of students has never experienced. The card catalog was retired in 1985, but its drawers live on as a prominent feature of the library lobby. Over the years, some portions of the card catalog have been removed and replaced with furniture to house computer workstations, though much of the catalog remains today. Twenty-five years after card catalogs became obsolete, a renovation project under consideration may soon finally excise the remaining catalog cabinets.

The Library Will Endure

We consider library buildings as structures that should endure for many decades. Library architects today emphasize the importance of designing flexible spaces that will endure beyond the time when today's library models become just as outdated as card catalogs, pneumatic tubes, and closed book stacks. Again, as I pass through the library lobby every day, I'm reminded that we need to apply the same lessons to library automation. No matter how much we try to optimize for the libraries of the present, I'm sure that the libraries of the next phase will need something different and will bring new requirements for automation and technology.

While we can reliably project that the general landscape of libraries will shift ever more toward electronic content, many of the details are less clear, including such things as the technical formats, media types, and especially the business and legal constraints that might shape the way that libraries manage and provide access to these materials to their users. The pace of change in what constitutes library collections, the general differences in library users that seem to accelerate all the time, reinforce the need for the technologies that we adopt in libraries to be designed to be as versatile as possible. We've been struggling a long time to break free from the constraints of automation systems tied to our legacy as print-dominated organizations. Let's try to avoid similar frustrations as we pass through future cycles of change.

How do we make our technology investments not only future-proof but also more able to endure the cycles of change that will continuously transform libraries? I'm not sure of the specific answers. I hope that the architects of the technologies designed for libraries keep these questions in the forefront of their minds, as well as the inevitably of change beyond the realities of today.

View Citation
Publication Year:2010
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Computers in Libraries
Publication Info:Volume 30 Number 02
Issue:March 2010
Publisher:Information Today
Series: Systems Librarian
Place of Publication:Medford, NJ
Notes:Systems Librarian Column
Record Number:14871
Last Update:2024-05-22 02:30:21
Date Created:2010-07-08 14:28:58