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Smarter Libraries Through Technology: Engaging Technology to Support Public Libraries

Smart Libraries Newsletter [April 2015]

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Each type of library embodies distinctive characteristics and therefore a different set of demands for the technology components that support its work. Public, academic, school, and other types of libraries differ substantially in the collections they manage and the services they offer, despite sharing a lot of common ground in their core missions and values.

All types of libraries acquire, organize, and provide access to content of interest to their communities. In the past decade or two, a variety of dynamics in consumer technologies and the publishing sphere have led to growing divergence among library types. Although many libraries share a basic set of automation needs, their success also depends on technology applications designed specifically to support their distinct operational and strategic priorities.

Is it possible for the same technology products to support all types of libraries? Some automation systems currently available have been implemented by different types of libraries as others focus on a specific sector. SirsiDynix and Innovative, for example, promote their ILS products to all types of libraries. Ex Libris targets academic libraries, while Follett specializes in the K-12 school arena. It's challenging to design systems that can be implemented and configured to meet increasingly diverse requirements. My general observation is that even the systems that have historically served many types of libraries have drifted at least to a certain extent toward a specific sector.

Comparing Public and Academic Libraries

Public and academic libraries provide an interesting point of comparison, sharing a common core of basic requirements for technology support, but with new trajectories of activities that demand specialized tools. The differences shape the requirements for the systems implemented to manage their collections and in the catalogs or discovery services they offer to their patrons.

Moving Beyond Print

The transition of scholarly publishing to electronic formats has fundamentally reshaped academic libraries. These libraries devote the vast majority of their collection budgets to subscriptions for electronic content packages. Although many disciplines continue to invest in on scholarly monographs— especially in the humanities and liberal arts—tight budgets have led to drastic reductions of acquisitions in this area. Many academic libraries have discontinued approval plans where monographs in broad areas of interest are automatically received and purchased unless explicitly rejected. This just-in-case acquisitions strategy has given way to ordering only titles specifically requested by faculty or researchers. In the e-book realm, demand-driven acquisitions programs likewise reflect a just-in-time strategy.

Public libraries likewise have travelled a route from a legacy dominated by print towards the current era where print, while flourishing, is accompanied by many other formats and channels of content distribution. The content of interest to public libraries today includes not only physical books available for loan, but also downloadable e-books along with audio and video on physical media or through streaming services. Although libraries and booksellers have coexisted well throughout history, the current environment of commercial content services poses new challenges that seem much more complex than previous times. The effectiveness of technology systems have considerable impact on the success of public libraries as they seek to offer their collections and services to meet customer expectations that have been set by well-resourced commercial entities.

Public libraries offer collections that cover a broad range of topics, reading levels, and media formats, mixing recreational, educational, and scholarly interests. The ability to support lending and access models appropriate for each of these dimensions ranks as one of the key objectives for the resource management and discovery services oriented to public libraries.

Circulation Patterns

The circulation of physical materials continues to thrive in public libraries. Large public libraries report numbers of annual circulation transactions in tens of millions. In the United States, the branches of the New York Public Library rank as the busiest in the nation with 26,976,911 transactions recorded in 2012. Academic libraries typically conduct a fraction of that number of circulation transactions. ( sheets/alalibraryfactsheet13)

Managing Demand for Materials

Public and academic libraries both face scenarios where patrons compete with each other for access to materials. Academic libraries manage equitable access to materials assigned for classes through short-loans or specialized course reserves modules. These materials are taken out of the standard circulating collection and assigned temporary loan rules, often with hourly or daily terms and accelerated fines. Public libraries do not necessarily reduce the terms of loan for popular titles, but rather handle demand through efficient inventory distribution and fulfillment.

Public libraries need to handle enormous pressure on their collections. The reading public wants access to the current titles—and just as they are published. While academic libraries build efficient collections that avoid duplication, public libraries intentionally purchase many copies of popular titles. The inventory of titles may span several formats, including large-print, audiobooks, or even translations into different languages. Challenges for public libraries include acquiring and distributing an appropriate number of copies to meet potential demand of currently popular titles and building collections that cover the breadth of authors, genres, and disciplines to satisfy the interests of its community. Automation systems for public libraries must include sophisticated features to manage demand and maximize the use of both high-demand and special interest titles.

Libraries have to make decisions about how many copies of a title to acquire based on their understanding of the reading interests of their community, tempered naturally by budget limitations. In multi-branch systems, copies may be distributed uniformly, or demographic trends among the areas served may shape interests levels in specific topics and titles. The acquisition and distribution of titles among branches can be based on the insight of librarians making collection decisions, assisted by use statistics and analytics.

The inventory of copies of a popular title follow a pattern where demand spikes with the initial release and moderates over time. As interest diminishes, libraries need to make prudent choices to reduce the number of copies in circulation and make way for the next set of hot titles. Demand for a title may spike again, sparked by the release of a movies, winning of an award, or other events.

Technology Support

Automation systems must support a number of features to help manage the peaks and valleys of demand for titles in public libraries. A sampling of these features includes:

  • Sophisticated use statistics and analytics that help collection development librarians anticipate the demand for titles based on topic, genre, or other characteristics that can be mapped to demographic data to support branch-level predictive procurement and distribution of materials.
  • Provision of functionality to manage patron hold requests. During periods of peak interest, patrons compete among themselves to be able to borrow copies of a book from the library. Patrons need to be able to manage their lists of items on hold, with the ability to cancel a hold if they purchased the book or lost interest. They need to be able to see their position in the hold queue to estimate how long they may need to wait.
  • Efficient routing of materials among branch locations. Functionality includes generation of lists of requested items that may need to be pulled from library stack locations or from returns and routed to designated pick-up locations. The requesting patron needs to be notified, by e-mail, SMS text, or phone when items requested have been delivered.

Not all public libraries prefer the same inventory management strategies. Their systems must offer the flexibility to configure business rules. Basic expectations include establishing circulation policies that set the loan periods, renewals, and fines for each combination of material type and user category. Other options determine how materials flow among branches. Some libraries may prefer that material purchased for a given branch circulate only in and out of that facility. Others may allow materials to flow to other branches, but be returned to its home location when returned. The concept of floating collections reflects an inventory management strategy where materials do not necessarily revert to an original home location, but rather allow materials to drift according to demand. Managing floating collections goes beyond simply allowing an item to remain in the facility where it was returned to also ensure specified minimal levels of inventory available at each service point.

Access to Electronic Materials

Both public and academic libraries have seen dramatic changes in missions brought about through electronic publication of content. Academic libraries have seen a wholesale transition in their serial collections from print to electronic. The licensing of packages of scholarly articles has become the dominant acquisitions model for academic libraries, with diminishing resources devoted to print monographs. Public libraries likewise have an interest in electronic content packages, but at a much lower level. They may license a few multidisciplinary article-level databases but do not develop the specialized collections that are the lifeblood of academic and research libraries. The impact of electronic publishing for public libraries comes via e-books. A growing proportion of the general public expects to read books on portable electronic devices, such as the Amazon Kindle or any of the tablets or smartphones. But unlike the almost complete transformation from print to electronic formats seen in academic journal collections, e-books represent a new category of activity but have not diminished demand for the print versions.

Differences in Discovery

Any modern discovery service needs to do more than simply return lists of results in response to the queries given by the searcher. It's helpful also to make recommendations of related resources and provide other services that improve the success in finding library materials. In an academic library context, enhancing search results with suggested alternative terms, inferred from mining use data, can help the researcher identify important items that may have otherwise been missed. The bX service from Ex Libris exemplifies a recommendation engine oriented to research libraries.

Discovery for a public library takes a considerably different shape. Patrons appreciate suggestions of materials from the library's collection to read next. The factors that drive such a recommendation might include authors, topics, or genres gleaned from the patron's loan history, derived from search terms given in the session, or from items selected or requested. Recommendation services geared to public libraries are available from ChiliFresh, LibraryThing, and Zola Books (Bookish Recommends) in addition to technologies that may be directly built into online catalogs. BiblioCommons uses a variety of techniques and technologies to drive its features aimed at reader recommendations.

Virtual Branch Engagement

Public libraries often consider their website to be a virtual branch. As such, it aims to deliver the highest level of service possible relative to what is offered in its physical facilities. Discovery and delivery represent key components of the virtual branch concept, but must be supplemented by a variety of additional services that benefit users and that enhance the visibility and value of the library. While the success of an academic library discovery service can be measured in terms of objective and comprehensive content provided to the researcher, one of the prime objectives of public library interfaces can be characterized as engagement with the library. Desirable outcomes include satisfying the present need, but also fostering an ongoing interest in the library's varied collections, programs, and services.

Comparison of Academic and Public Library Requirements

Category Academic Public
Collection priorities Electronic resources of article-level scholarly content, e-books, print monographs. Print books, e-books, periodicals, multidisciplinary databases.
Inventory management Avoidance of duplication. Acquire sufficient copies to meet demand.
Demand management Course reserves, short-term loans. Hold queues, branch transfers, floating collections.
E-books strategies Specialized collections, emphasis on chapter-level access. Collections selected via demand-driven acquisitions programs. Strong interest in popular literature downloadable to consumer devices. Integration of e-book lending services provided by third-party services into the library's own catalog and discovery services.
Collection use Circulation at moderate levels, with recent declines. Vigorous circulation with high transaction loads for automation systems. Circulation statistics rising.
Discovery strategies Comprehensive results for research queries; objective relevancy, identify related resources. Satisfy queries for materials, identify related materials, recommend titles to match interests, foster engagement with library.
View Citation
Publication Year:2015
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Smart Libraries Newsletter
Publication Info:Volume 35 Number 04
Issue:April 2015
Publisher:ALA TechSource
Series: Smarter Libraries through Technology
Place of Publication:Chicago, IL
Record Number:20601
Last Update:2023-01-20 00:35:48
Date Created:2015-05-08 12:18:07