It has become an annual tradition for me to write a column for Computers in Libraries where I present a survey of what's new in the world of library automation systems. I recently returned from the AAL Annual Conference in New Orleans, LA. As usual I spent lots of time at the booths of the library automation vendors to learn about their latest developments. Here are some of my general impressions of the state of the industry.
The latest generation of library automation software is slowly beginning to take its place, gradually replacing the software of a previous era. Library automation vendors vie with one another to deliver a system that can stand as a true-client-server-multi-tiered-graphical-Web-enabled-Unicode-enhanced-object-oriented integrated library system built on an industry-standard-RDMS. The changes we observe now are but the latest in a series of generational turnovers in technologies that libraries have experienced over the last few decades.
Libraries existed for centuries without automation, but as technology emerged in the world at large, libraries embraced these tools as a means to avoid some of the menial tasks inherent to managing large collections. Why shouldn’t libraries benefit from the advances that helped other industries run more efficiently? Hand written book catalogs were replaced by typed catalog cards. When early business machines, tabulators, and early computers came on the scene, batch-oriented punch card systems were put to good use in libraries for automated circulation, catalog card production, and book acquisitions. Later on, online integrated library systems replaced the batch-oriented systems.
These early online systems evolved according to the hardware and software systems of the era. Those that ran on proprietary operating systems and hardware fell away, replaced by those that ran on operating systems though of as industry standards.
The library automation systems of the last decade relied on such environments as Pick, VMS, MPE, MVS, VSE, MS-DOS, and even OS/2. A few lucky vendors chose some variant of Unix, which is one of the few operating systems of that survived. The library automation vendors that built library automation systems on these now defunct operating systems have been forced into a major generational change.
Not that the computing platform was the only factor--major changes have also occurred in the general approach to software design. Today's overall computing environment offers remarkable resources: immense computing power is available on desktop computers; desktop computers are ubiquitous; memory is cheap; disk storage is practically free; networks are blazingly fast; rock-solid relational database management systems are widely available; standards exist for practically every aspect of computing.
Given these factors, earlier models of software designed to make parsimonious use of scarce and expensive hardware resources don’t make sense. Also, libraries have an ever expanding wish-list of features for their automation systems coupled with the need to manage an expanded universe of information resources.
And don't forget the Web. All other graphical interfaces for public access have quickly become irrelevant. Library users want to interact with library resources as they do with so many other aspects of their daily lives--on the Web.
The Current Environment
And so the standard is set for the current generation of library automation system. Its general characteristics will include: a client/server architecture; support for multiple character sets, preferably through Unicode; a Windows-based graphical user interface for library staff, a Web interface for library users; use of a standard relational database management system; a Z39.50 Version 3 compliant server; import and export of MARC records; EDI. It also goes without saying that any new system will include every feature, function, and standard that has ever been implemented in any previous library automation system.
If a library automation vendor wants to compete in today’s market, it must offer a system of this kind. There are two possible approaches--evolution or revolution.
Evolution. Under some circumstances the vendor can make a series of changes to an existing system to transform it from one generation to the next. A library automation system, for example, can be transformed from a host/terminal environment to a client/server architecture while preserving the majority of the software code at the heart of the system.
Revolution. In other cases, the vendor will need break away from its previous development efforts and start completely anew. If the operating environment of the existing system is obsolete or if the general design of the original system poses systematic obstacles to further development, then the vendor may choose to start over completely. A vendor’s experience with developing and supporting a previous generation of library automation software coupled with knowledge of the latest advances in computing architectures and development models can open the door for the development of a great library automation system.
Many of the library automation systems that are now available arise from such revolutionary efforts. The time of the revolution makes a great difference, however. The pace of change in technology is so rapid that the characteristics of a system designed even three or four years ago may seem a little dated. Some examples of thie approach include Taos from DRA, Polaris from Gaylord, and Virtua from VTLS.
One of the major trends in library automation involves the consolidation of all the client/server products toward two operating systems for the server--Windows NT and Unix. I general the larger-scale systems are designed to run under some flavor of Unix, while Windows NT is the choice for the systems designed for medium and small libraries. DRA's Taos system may be the exception, where NT is the server choice, even for very large-scale implementations.
Windows 98 and Windows NT seem to be the all-out choice for the staff client side of the client/server products. It seems that few vendors are offering Unix or Macintosh clients. Web-based clients dominate as the main way for library users to interact with these systems.
With these sweeping generalizations out of the way, let's talk a little closer look at some of the library automation vendors that were at the ALA Annual Conference. Though I continue to be quite impressed with the relative sophistication in the systems designed for smaller libraries, this time I focused on the larger-scale vendors. Apologies in advance to any that I fail to mention.