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Lowering the Threshold for Automation in Small Libraries

Computers in Libraries [April 2012] The Systems Librarian

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It's striking to me that here in the U.S. - the world's wealthiest country - so many small public libraries in rural areas and small towns either rely on outdated systems or have no automation at all. We have some of the world's most technologically advanced libraries, but we also have some for which state-of-the-art technology tools remain out of reach. As I track the automation trends in libraries, I have been concerned for a long time about how many public libraries in the U.S. lag behind in automation and that these "have nots" are skewed primarily toward those that support small communities. One of the outstanding challenges today is reducing the barriers that impede small libraries with very limited resources from having access to technologies that can help them deliver better services to their communities.

Automation Trends for Small Public Libraries

A recent pass through my lib-web-cats directory of libraries shows 728 public libraries in the U.S. with no automation, plus another thousand or so still using PC-based products that have not been developed or sold for many years (324 with Winnebago Spectrum, 446 with Circulation Plus, and 210 with Athena, for example). These figures should be taken as approximate; some portion of these libraries may have moved on to newer systems that have not yet been reported. Almost all of these underautomated libraries serve populations of less than 20,000 persons. As I monitor the automation trends of the small public library sector, I notice also that many of them implemented older PC-based systems quite some time ago and have yet to move on to new systems. Once automated, it seems that even these now unsupported products meet their basic needs and that changing to a new system would require both financial resources and new system training. In many cases these libraries are working with a PCbased system that may have been implemented more than a decade ago and has not been updated or upgraded since.

The patterns for library automation vary in the U.S. from one state to another. In some states most public libraries have access to automation through either statewide initiatives or through regional consortia. Many small libraries benefit from being able to participate in a shared library automation system at affordable cost levels, often subsidized through state grants or other opportunities. In other states, however, political and economic realities result in most small public libraries implementing automation independently rather than in large collective groupings. It seems that when small libraries face automation on their own rather than joining in shared systems, it increases the likelihood that they will be either without automation or underautomated.

International Comparison

This scenario contrasts with what I observe in other countries. As I study public libraries in other parts of the world, I am impressed that in many countries, all libraries - large and small - have access to high-quality automation systems. Especially in Europe, governmental authorities provide library services to all the communities within their jurisdictions, including full-featured automation systems. While recent years have led to often severe cutbacks in hours or numbers of service points, I have not seen erosion in the near-universal automation of European public libraries. Fve recently had the opportunity to learn firsthand about broad-based automation programs in other countries as well. In Iceland, almost all the libraries in the country, national, public, academic, and special, participate in a countrywide implementation of Aleph from Ex Libris Ltd. In Chile, the BiblioRedes project is automating all the public libraries in the country through a shared environment based on an Aleph ILS and a catalog based on the open source VuFind.

But these success stories should not be taken as the norm in other regions. In many parts of the world, small libraries struggle to have even the most basic automation systems support their work. Each country has its own challenges, and the strategies that are successful elsewhere may not apply in areas where electricity, much less internet access, may be unreliable.

Opportunities Through Cooperation

When it comes to automation, libraries benefit through strength in numbers. Cooperation among libraries creates opportunities for more sophisticated automation and resource sharing. When large numbers of libraries band together to share an automation system, they will need to implement a higher-end product that can handle a larger-scale implementation, and these systems tend to likewise offer the highest level of functionality. While the overall implementation may require a significant financial investment, when divided among a large number of participants, the cost per library can be quite affordable. Sharing a centralized system may require significant compromises since participating libraries will need to agree on many operational issues. The key to the success of these cooperative projects tends to hang just as much on the organizational, political, and administrative efficiency as on the functional or technical characteristics of the automation system. But these cooperative systems hopefully offer their participants access to a more sophisticated automation environment, with access to larger collections, at a lower cost compared to what each library might be able to accomplish in isolation.

Challenges of Implementing Independently

When small libraries implement an automation system independently, they gravitate toward a slate of products that offer a more modest set of features at affordable pricing. In the previous era of automation, these libraries would implement PC -based systems such as Winnebago Spectrum, Athena, Circulation Plus, or Mandarin. Today, small libraries needing to automate on their own have a different set of options. Modern web-based automation systems geared to smaller independent libraries include proprietary ones such as Apollo or AGent VERSO and open source alternatives Koha and OPALS. Small public libraries previously adopted products designed for K-12 schools, most of which were created or acquired by Folle tt Software Co., such as Winnebago Spectrum, InfoC entre, Athena, or Circulation Plus, mostly due to their low cost. While many of these libraries have migrated to products more oriented to public libraries, some have remained loyal to Follett and have migrated to Destiny, the company's current flagship product.

Cloud Computing for Small Library Automation

In today's technology environment where cloud computing increasingly dominates, many of the vendors of higher-end automation products have also seen some traction in smaller, independent libraries. While these libraries would not necessarily be good candidates to operate their own instance of high-end products, subscribing to a hosted service based on the same software can be a viable option. These software -as -a- service arrangements have the potential to offer libraries top-of-the-line systems at a total cost of ownership consistent with operating a PC -based ILS.

Hosted services represent one of the fastest growing areas of the library automation industry. All of the vendors of high-end systems, including SirsiDynix, Polaris Library Systems, and Innovative Interfaces, Inc. offer hosted versions of their systems that may be of interest to small libraries. Auto-Graphics, Inc. has been specializing in hosted automation for small and medium-sized libraries, with AGent VERSO seeing increased interest. Apollo from Biblionix was designed especially for small public libraries and is offered only as a webbased hosted service.

Small libraries will also be potential customers of some of the new cloudbased automation products. OCLCs recently launched WorldShare Management Services (WMS) aims to displace local automation systems by offering alternative services accessed entirely through the web. Many of the early adopters of WMS have been midsize and small libraries. Competing services based on similar cloud computing models, such as Intota from Serials Solutions and Ex Libris' Alma may also find some interest in small libraries, though these two are oriented more toward academic libraries.

A Range of Technology Perspectives

There have been a number of occasions when I have exchanged emails with librarians in small, unautomated libraries. Some have indicated that they work very happily without the use of computers to manage their collections and that their patrons appreciate their low-tech libraries. Others mention that they just don't have the funds to purchase a new system.

It's also important not to think of small public libraries in broad stereotypes. While some may be happy with low technology or no technology, many others embrace technology and seek innovative ways to serve their patrons. Small libraries have been quite involved in the adoption of open source automation, ebook lending services, and other initiatives that embrace new approaches to library service. Regardless of whether it takes a conservative or progressive approach to technology, the overarching concern for small libraries almost always lies in having very limited resources.

Satisfaction of Automation in Small Libraries

The library automation perceptions survey that I conduct each year also sheds some light on small libraries. The results for the last 3 years reflected very high levels of satisfaction from small libraries that have recently adopted some of the web-based hosted systems. Apollo, developed by a Texasbased company called Biblionix, has topped the charts in satisfaction in practically all the categories covered by the survey. Other products include the open source OPALS automation system developed and supported by Media Flex and AGent VERSO from AutoGraphics. Koha, either implemented independently or supported by By Water Solutions, was also extremely wellregarded by small public libraries. The key characteristics behind the appeal of these automation products to small libraries include top-notch support by a firm that understands small libraries and web-based hosted systems that shift much of the burden for managing the system away from the library.

Technology Strategies for Small Libraries

Thinking about the characteristics of small libraries, some strategies emerge that can help channel their resources in more effective technologies. Though not a comprehensive list, these suggestions may help libraries direct their limited resources in ways to make the strongest impact.

Invest in connectivity. A library's internet connection represents its most important strategic technology investment. Given the trend to deliver technology products through hosted services and the need to provide access to an ever-growing array of web-based resources to patrons, libraries need the best internet connection possible. Of course, fast, reliable internet connections aren't inexpensive, but spending in this area can enable some offsetting savings, especially in the area of servers and other hardware that would otherwise be required for locally implemented automation systems. It's essential to periodically increase bandwidth capabilities to keep up with the ever-growing demand placed on these connections.

Rely more on automation services delivered as a service. Running software on local servers does not necessarily work well in libraries with limited resources. In many cases, the automation system does not receive updates and upgrades, and it eventually becomes out-of-date. Small libraries are less likely to have the trained technicians needed to perform the constant litany of tasks involved in maintaining locally housed computers such as operating system updates, backups of data, ILS software upgrades, and periodic hardware replacements. And once the system becomes obsolete, there may not be funds available for replacement.

Operating automation systems as a hosted service takes the heavy load off the shoulders of the library. In this arrangement, the functionality of the system is constantly updated, and the vendor takes the responsibility for all aspects of maintaining the hardware and software. The delivery of automation systems as web-based services has become a major trend across all library sectors, but these systems are especially well -suited to small libraries.

Libraries can also take advantage of many other free or inexpensive software services across all aspects of their operations rather than maintaining local software. Routine administrative functions and communications can be accomplished using web-based email, word processing, and calendaring from Google, Microsoft, and other companies. Almost all categories of software have options available as web -based services that can be used either for free or with minimal subscription fees.

Find collaborative partners. Automating as an individual library generally causes libraries to miss out on opportunities associated with shared cooperative arrangements. Whether partnering with others in your county, joining a regional or statewide system, or partnering outlying communities with a municipality, small, independent libraries can explore opportunities to gain access to higher-quality automation as well as increased opportunities for resource sharing. Not only do these arrangements allow libraries to share the load, but it increases the universe of materials available to library patrons. Libraries that serve small communities with small collections stand to gain great benefit through making larger, shared collections available to their patrons.

Seek out vendors that understand small libraries. In all of the feedback and communication that I have had from those working in small libraries, an appreciation for the companies that offer a high quality of service and understand the needs and limitations of small libraries stands out as a common theme. Successful technology implementations most often involve a partnership between a library and an external support organization. These partnerships can involve open source or proprietary software, large companies or small ones. But the key ingrethent seems to be engaging with an organization that has an established record of working with small libraries, is able to deliver services to libraries that don't have deep technical expertise of their own, and has costs consistent with their limited budgets.

Lowering the Threshold

Over the years, many small libraries have often not been able to take full advantage of the benefits of automation and other technologies due to their complexity and cost. Today, there are wheels in motion that stand to moderate the threshold for access to technology down to levels that should play to the advantage of small libraries with limited resources. Current trends such as improved internet infrastructure, cloud computing, wider availability of electronic resources, lower-cost tablet computers, and new automation and discovery products offered through software as a service can help libraries with limited means step into a higher plane of technology-based services. In an ideal world, libraries that serve small communities and rural areas should be able to offer the same breadth of services and materials as their larger counterparts. The current technology trends in play have great potential to bring high-quality automation tools within the reach of libraries with limited means.

View Citation
Publication Year:2012
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Computers in Libraries
Publication Info:Volume 32 Number 03
Issue:April 2012
Publisher:Information Today
Series: Systems Librarian
Place of Publication:Medford, NJ
Notes:Systems Librarian Column
Record Number:16732
Last Update:2024-05-27 14:35:00
Date Created:2012-04-12 10:30:33