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Technology to Amplify the Impact of Libraries

Computers in Libraries [January / February 2017]

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Copyright (c) 2017 Information Today

Abstract: Libraries perform important work for their communities. Their collections are assembled and organized with great skill and expertise. The multitude of services and programs offered are valued by the institutions and citizens they serve. Libraries aim to provide a safe venue for their patrons to search for and receive information confidentially on any topic without judgment or harassment, whether in person or online. For all these services, technology should provide the means to amplify their impact or improve the efficiency in which they are conducted.


Libraries perform important work for their communities. Their collections are assembled and organized with great skill and expertise. The multitude of services and programs offered are valued by the institutions and citizens they serve. Libraries aim to provide a safe venue for their patrons to search for and receive information confidentially on any topic without judgment or harassment, whether in person or online. For all these services, technology should provide the means to amplify their impact or improve the efficiency in which they are conducted.

From Efficiency to Impact

When thinking about the role of technology in libraries, I'm more excited about the things that don't just use computers to perform tasks in the same ways as they have always been done, but go beyond to transform library activities in creative ways. However, in the library arena, technology has mostly bolstered efficiency and has rarely proven to be truly transformational. Of course, improving efficiency is important in helping the library make better use of its financial and personnel resources, but creative and innovative technology has the potential to improve the strategic position of libraries and extend or enhance their services in meaningful ways.

Integrated library systems (ILSs) have long been the workhorses of library automation. ILSs have been essential in automating a broad range of tasks performed in the technical services and circulation departments of libraries. It is hard to imagine any library functioning without one, although some small libraries still operate manually. The ILS has matured during its 40-year history, with most of the surviving systems offering a very high level of functionality with increasingly less differentiation among the competitors. These systems earn their keep through business efficiency. They automate complicated sets of tasks, are generally good at combining related tasks into streamlined workflows, and have evolved to include new features within the scope of the functionality they address. ILSs have gained better capabilities to manage ebooks, new business models such as demand-driven acquisitions, and fulfillment scenarios such as floating collections.

Library services platforms take on the same role for academic libraries, with collections comprising electronic and print formats and with needs for workflows designed accordingly. The ILS has not been that successful in expanding its scope, leading to the need for this new genre of library management system. The library services platforms mostly provide business process automation-which isn't necessarily transformative. However, they represent the essential machinery needed for these types of libraries to carry out their work. While the ability to address a scope of functionality that's more in alignment with the current realities of libraries certainly represents a major achievement, it does not transform the work of libraries. Instead, it gives them the tools to perform their work more efficiently than the traditional ILSs that are more oriented to mostly physical collections.

These core library management systems provide the foundation for other layers of structures or systems that help the library have a greater impact on the organization or community it serves. More opportunities for impact and innovation can be found in the interfaces and technologies that are oriented to patrons.

Increasing Impact via Collaborative Infrastructure

One of the most interesting approaches to increasing impact can be seen in the collaborative implementation of technology infrastructure, creating shared collections many times larger than what can be offered by an individual library. This approach isn't new. However, we are seeing a wave of shared implementations of library services platforms that are bringing together libraries that have previously automated individually. Library services platforms provide a stronger basis for creating larger aggregate collections, and they support more effective collaborative collection development and technical processing. The business analytics built into these platforms-at least, theoretically-support acquisition decisions based on usage and projected demand to create collections aligned with the needs of the institution. Through shared implementations, patrons have more convenient access to collections that are much larger than those of their home institution.

Enhanced Patron Privacy

The impact of library services is also improved to the extent that the provided interfaces operate in ways that protect the confidentiality of patrons' search, selection, and reading activity. I have written extensively on the benefits of configuring any library-provided interface (including the library's website, catalog or discovery service, finding aid, or other web-based tools) to encrypt its traffic using current HTTPS protocols. Without such encryption, the transmissions are subject to eavesdropping through readily available utilities. It seems increasingly important for libraries to deliver all their services through HTTPS. It is also important to note that web browser developers have stated that they will begin, in future releases, to flag sites that operate with unencrypted HTTP protocols as untrustworthy. Given that most commercial search services have switched to HTTPS, the high proportion of library sites that do not encrypt continues to be a major lapse.

I recently reconfigured my Library Technology Guides website to use HTTPS throughout instead of just on targeted pages. The process included not only reconfiguring the web service, but also updating any links that may have been previously hard-coded with the HTTP protocol. Other tasks included some programming to redirect links to the secure version when accessed via HTTP and adjusting sitemaps and the profile of the site in Google Webmasters' tools. The transition took a few hours of technical work. There has been no impact on the performance of the site. I remain resolute in my recommendation that libraries move to HTTPS as quickly as possible.

Expanding Scope of Discovery

Advancements on the discovery front can also be seen as a mix of new efficiencies and transformational services. The broadening scope of discovery can certainly be seen as a way to increase the impact of library collections. Moving from the online catalog modules of an ILS to discovery environments that include electronic resources enables patrons to more conveniently search for and access a more complete representation of the library's collection. Creating a single point of search-which includes ebooks, audiobooks, and other digital content from external providers for public libraries and article-level indexes for academic libraries-has been a major improvement over earlier fragmented search and fulfillment offerings. The impact of these new discovery environments is mitigated by the large number of users who do not necessarily rely on library-provided interfaces, but on Google, Google Scholar, or other general search tools.

A New Level of Web-Scale

This brings me to the technologies that I see as having the best chance at improving the impact of libraries on their communities. These surround linked data and encompass strategies to describe and expose library collections in ways that better align with the web. The eventual shift toward metadata structures such as BIBFRAME should result in much improved discovery of library resources on the web. Embedding coding for following linked data conventions such as schema. org on library websites and resources improves the ability for search engines to index the content. It also provides mechanisms to localize the content, funneling users to the library's site.

The genre of library discovery products based on a central index populated with the metadata and full text of the articles to which libraries subscribe- as well as records from the ILS-was introduced as web-scale discovery services. The idea was that these services addressed library content in comparable ways to the largesse of the web. I prefer the term index-based discovery services when referring to these products. It seems to me that the current goal for library web-scale involves becoming more organically connected with the web itself. Adopting technologies such as linked data seems to be a promising approach for libraries to better provide services in the environments their users inhabit.

None of these models of discovery will be exclusive. For the foreseeable future, libraries will need multiple layers of discovery. I don't necessarily see libraries wanting to exit from providing discovery environments specifically implemented to address their collections. Index-based discovery services will continue to be an important tool. Likewise, specialized catalogs and databases remain appropriate for many use scenarios. Libraries can extend their impact more as they explore many different channels in the way they deliver access to their resources and related services.

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Publication Year:2017
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Computers in Libraries
Publication Info:Volume 37 Number 01
Issue:January / February 2017
Publisher:Information Today
Series: Systems Librarian
Place of Publication:Medford, NJ
Notes:Systems Librarian Column
ISBN:1041-7915
Record Number:22626
Last Update:2017-12-08 11:59:30
Date Created:2017-05-26 12:43:15